Saturday, October 4, 2008

MEET ARIZONA

As charming as a high school operetta can be, MEETING ARIZONA (1947), by George Murray Brown and Charles Wakefield Cadman, falls at certain points in colloquialisms that... well, let's just say that time hasnt been kind.

The sudden death of Colonel Blair has left the Ride 'Em Hard dude ranch temporarily without an owner, and, despite the colonel's adopted son Larry Benson's claims that the colonel had a will, the ranch manager Jack Guldy doubts it. Enter the colonel's only living blood family, his niece Lettie, who's arrived because, if there's no will, she inherits it by being next of kin. Larry figures that Jack could profit if no will is found by buying the ranch cheap from Lettie, but Jack counters by saying that the colonel wanted Lettie to visit, at which point he'd marry her off to Larry.

Needless to say, that doesnt go over well with either Lettie or Larry (although, face it, you already know what's going to happen, right?).

Well, turns out Jack is sorta-kinda right because, unknownst to anyone, Cappy, the corral boss, has found the will, which does indeed state that Larry and Lettie inherit the whole thing *if* they fall in love and marry without any undue influence. Naturally, after a few minor complications, they do. Conveniently in the end, Jack is exposed as an escaped convict and returned to jail, followed by lots of singing and dancing and firing guns in the air. Curtain.

Okay, it's not quite as straight-forward as that. There's a whole roster of minor characters, like Tom, Larry's best friend, who impersonates an ex-sheriff named Arizona Tom (for no real reason, actually). He regales the "dudes and dudines" with wild stories of his various arrests over the many, many decades, and they just keep getting wilder and wilder. We also have Aunt Lavinia, who might be from the East but has embraced, as fully as possible, the Wild West lifestyle, as well as a supporting cast of Mexicans and Indians, all portrayed with shockingly little stereotyping -- in fact there's a gorgeous, four-part chorale about Mexico's cultural attachment to the land. Pity that the rest of the show didnt rise to that particular moment.

And what *is* sad, despite the potential here, is the quality of the lyrics, which borders ever so precariously on the golly-gosh-gee, downright awful. The opening chorus propels us atmospherically with:

This is a dude, dude, dude ranch
In the wild and wooly West
This is a dude, dude, dude ranch
And Arizona's best
This is a dude, dude, dude ranch
So, come on, men and gals
We shore are happy, happy
To be your cowboy pals

Ride 'em hard, cowboy
Yippee
Ride 'em hard, cowboy
Yippee
If you are out for play
You'll find us always gay
Welcome to our good ol ranch.

Aside from the fact that it doesnt scan very well (which results in music that's floundering around trying to make the stop-and-start lines work), I just cannot see *anyone* today getting through that with a straight face, sorry. What with the always gay cowboys riding 'em hard... well, sorry, but no, time has not been nice. But lest you think this is some innuendo-filled work, trust me that there are times when there's no innuendo about it, nossir. Consider, after Lettie has been told she's been brought out here to be married off. She goes into just fearfully high dudgeon, exclaiming:

How can you say that? A man with the cheapness to invite me out here, in order to make false love, for the sake of a will nobody can find!

She goes on and on about the whole "making love" thing quite a lot, which starts to suggest something not quite prim about Miss Lettie... but I suppose that's a discussion for another time. At any rate...

It's interesting looking at this and seeing so many echoes of OKLAHOMA: the willful and obstinate couple that wind up together, the villanous ranch foreman, the secondary romantic interest with its own comic obstacles to true love, and the late-middle-aged lady who acts more like a man than most of the men. There's also a big party scene at the top of Act Two that has a production number about the Wild West lifestyle. Obviously, things arent as fully developed as Rodgers and Hammerstein might have written, but the parallels are glaring. Were this and OKLAHOMA released today, I'm sure litigation would be flying around like crazy.

There's not much out there about Brown, save that he wrote a few other operettas, one with Cadman called HOLLYWOOD EXTRA. For himself, Cadman wrote "From the Land of Sky Blue Water" (yes, the song made famous by a beer commercial in the 50s and 60s). He studied native American music with the Omaha and Winnebago tribes in Nebraska and recorded several cylinders of indigenous music for the Smithsonian. He also founded the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and was a principal soloist with them for many years, during which he also composed several movie soundtracks -- his work was considered at one point second only to Tiomkin. Given that he died in 1946, it's very possible MEET ARIZONA was his last work.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Although I'm a nut for sniffing out this kind of stuff, too, I never ever heard of this show until visiting my parents, on my way as I moved across the country to Arizona in 2006. In this visit I learned that one of the funny coincidences my parents found when first getting to know each other was that around middle school age they'd each been involved in school productions of "Meeting Arizona". So Dad suddenly sings the title song to us all the way through, but the muscle memory means that he only has it by heart if he sings it up in the alto range he sang it in back then, a range I've *never* heard him sing in. Memorization is strange. I felt like I'd seen a ghost.

Wherever old sheet music is found, Cadman's songs are really fairly plentiful. I used to have half a dozen. And the CD era has meant that American art-music composers of his generation are not quite so totally ignored anymore; you can find his orchestral and chamber music recorded. Taken on its own terms, which some people can do, it's pretty good.

As for the colloquialisms: back then "to make love" used to mean "to woo, court" and also DIDN'T yet mean what it means today. The shift came soon after. Sometimes new meanings quickly overpower old meanings with a crash, making the old meanings even completely unguessable for most people who come after - kinda like with "gay", as you've seen in "South In Sonora" and no doubt in oceans of other old vocal music.

Thanks for posting this description of "Meeting Arizona", I was glad to find it.

Anonymous said...

I was the female lead in this operetta in 1960 in Erie, PA. It was absolutely wonderful with a cast, crew, orchestra, and support players totaling over 165 people. The male lead had one of the most beautiful baritone voices I have ever heard. The entire performance was probably the best experience of my school life. It was wonderful.

Joel said...

No I didn't have the wonderful baritone voice but did have the male lead. This was back in 1949 I think. Location, Kansas City, Kansas---Rosedale High School.