Friday, November 14, 2008

CARRIE COMES TO COLLEGE

CARRIE COMES TO COLLEGE (1926), by Estelle Merrymon Clark and Palmer John Clark, answers the ever-daunting question: can a simple foster child, an old-fashioned girl taken under the wing of a wise old owner of a boarding house, ever gain the love of the ne'er-do-well whose father has arranged surreptitiously to pay off his son's debts to men of questionable morality by using one of his school chums whom everyone thinks is the governor's son and attending school incognito?

I stay awake at night pondering such questions, I assure you. Thank goodness the Clarks were here to answer it. I just wish they could have done so in a slightly less complicated way. This one has more subplots and counterplots and Lord only knows what all else to fill a dozen operettas, but the Clarks have managed - somehow - to fit them all into one almost-tidy little script.

So... to graze through the story -- Spenser Goodnow, student and only son of the industrialist Hiram Goodnow, has fallen into evil ways. How evil, you wonder? Drugs, perhaps? (It is, after all, the 1920s, so we're not too far from "Reefer Madness".) Alcohol? Gun running? Nope, not at all, dear reader. He owes money... and apparently not much, except that, again, this is the world of the High School Operetta, where everything is very, very good or very, very bad. His owing money, even if just a little, is very, very bad. Poor boy. So he plans on throwing one last blowout for his friends and then disappearing someplace until the heat is off...

... and then he meets Carrie. Sweet, old-fashioned Carrie, who's madly in love with Spenser but doesnt dare tell him because after all he's rich and she's poor and it would never work out. Still, the girl's smitten. So's he, but see, that's the thing: he cant tell her; she cant tell him.

Ah well, no one ever said operetta leads were especially bright.

Okay, so Dad finds out that Spenser owes a little coin. Once he calms down, he arranges, through Madam Lousie the Beauty Doctor (dont ask, I have no idea), who apparently works for Hiram as a snitch on Spenser, to pay off the creditors by giving it to one of Spenser's schoolmates, Porky, who's rumoured to be the son of the governor because he always has a lot of free cash on him. One of Spenser's other schoolmates, Tommy, an inordinately serious student who avoids even looking at girls if it's going to interrupt his studies, tells Spense that Porky is taking care of everything, and Spenser is happy that someone else is there to clean up his mess... until Porky blabs everything and Spenser now thinks everyone is out to get him and it's all just terrible. Now he wont accept the loan -- which has put Carrie in an awkward position, because she's told Spenser's creditors that he's acknowledging his debts and paying them. Her solution? She'll pay the bill, even though it takes every penny she has. She then turns around and tells Spenser to be a man for once in his life and get a job so he can pay her back.

Miraculously, Spenser picks up the gauntlet and redeems himself... entirely... within three lines of dialogue and an intermission. No more easy times for this boy, nossir: he's opening an auto repair shop, which is, of course, such a huge hit that he's able to repay Carrie and keep his grades up so he can attend commencement. But he hasnt been exactly kind about it because he thinks she was part of the plot (even though she wasnt), and the poor girl becomes so distraught that she decides to leave town, maybe find some other boy that needs a girl to pay off his ill-gotten debts. But Madam Louise (remember her?) stops her at the train station and confesses that she is Spenser's mother (Bet you never saw that one coming!) as well as Carrie's aunt (via a step-sister, so there's none of that icky incest problem). Governor Thomson shows up and reveals that Tommy is his son and that his boy has earned the ten grand promised him if he kept his grades up. Spenser gets Carrie. Tommy gets the "spitfire" Bobby (Yes, of course Bobby is a girl -- it's 1925, remember?). Porky gets... well, nothing, I guess. A warm, friendly hug from the Governor -- uh-oh....

And the curtain lurches to the floor.

I'll give you a few moments to catch your breath.

Okay, the songs in this epic. Spenser certainly shows his colours with his opening number:

Dainty little girls,
Like a string of pearls,
Scintillating gay and sweet,
Naughty imps I see,
Tantalizing me,
In your merry dancing feet.

Mothers, keep your daughters far away from this boy. Fathers, keep your sons away from Porky:

China is the place I'm going
Where they wear their garments flowing
Eat chop suey, rice, and bouillon,
Drink tea they call the Oolong
But to me food shouldnt matter
Gee, it only makes me fatter
Now I'm just a perfect measure
For a China girl to treasure

Chinky, chinky China girl
Pompadou without a curl
Rosebud lips, dont we look sweet
Pretty little dancing feet
Sip our tea or flirt or fan
Smiling at you 'Melican man
We dont dance in twists or whirls
We are only China girls.

Dont you wish, Porky honey. But you can understand his need for such a fantasy world when you see what he has to deal with in real life. See, poor Porky is pretty much the school's escape hatch: always there to lend the money when they need it, but do they respond with thanks? Nope. As Spenser sings:

When I go walking down the street
With Porky as my ally
The people will declare
"There goes the millionaire"
They'll say my style is hard to beat
And though Porky's clothes are rather neat
They'll say he is my valet
They'll say he is my valet
And Porky'll take me for a spin
In a car not made of bumps and tin
Oh, I'm not telling what I'll do
When Porky pays my IOU

Is there something about that song that seems a little... disconcerting? Even more so when it's followed by a four-part hymn to money and how it can buy you all the right friends? This play, like BETTY LOU, really makes you wonder what the authors were thinking when they put it together, because everyone's almost obsessed with making a quick buck when they're not ripping off a friend. Tommy seems the noblest of our cast of academics-in-training, but even then you have to wonder where his father came up with ten grand as a graduation present, like perhaps he was raiding the public coffers a bit? In CARRIE COMES TO COLLEGE THE SEQUEL, do we find out that the Governor has been put in jail for theft? Does Porky exact a cruel revenge for all the abuse he suffered from his classmates? Does Bobby ever reveal that she is actually a he? Does Spenser's auto body shop steal from its customers as efficiently and thoroughly as Spenser ripped off his friends?? Does Carrie ever wear a dress that isnt gingham?

Maybe the Clarks didnt answer the questions at all. I'm gonna be awake for hours.

Monday, November 3, 2008

OH DOCTOR (2)

I havent posted about a real script in a while, and there is indeed a backlog. But I had to share what's arguably the weirdest thing I've found in quite some time. It's not part of the genre per se, because it's not for high schools, and it came along later than materials I usually look at. But this is one of those "you have to see it to believe it!" pieces of theatre history. It's not that it's just bad theatre -- Lord knows we have plenty of that to choose from. This is traffic-accident-in-the-making bad theatre, right up there with HER FIRST ROMAN and DUDE. One must savor such moments.

OH DOCTOR (1962) comes from the fevered brain of Walt Marsh, who provides book, music, and lyrics for this epic saga about a hospital producing a fund-raising show. The quasi-soap-opera plot (the head of nursing thinks she might be in love with a nightclub owner, but her intentions are thwarted by a less-than-pure coworker who has other plans for him) is just a springboard to fill out the time devoted to the "show-within-a-show" in the second act, where we see not only vaudeville-style numbers but "slices of real hospital life": the ambulance bringing in the drunken driver, the husbands waiting anxiously outside the delivery room. Mr. Marsh came up with this project after spending twelve years on the board at a hospital in Belleville, Illinois, and he apparently devoted considerable time to it. The book has not only the script but the more-or-less complete music score and a long introduction, in which Marsh tells us he's released the rights to any hospital that takes it on for fundraising purposes. Apparently, from what I can discover, no one took him up on his offer. I looked at the cover and assumed this was a Charles Ludlam-style spoof, something like one would have seen off-Broadway in the 1960s/1970s. No such luck.

Okay, let's get the story out of the way. As noted, it's about a nurse named Jane who, to supplement her apparently meager salary, owns a flower shop -- not one of those overpriced things you see in the hospital lobby; no, this is a sad little neighbourhood place that Jane has taken over because "people are like flowers: they look and shine their best when the have heaps of tender, loving care," after which she sings (in C -- everything's written in the key of C):

All through life's story,
Its pain and its glory
Are bringing life's lessons to you.
For kindness and sweet understanding
Make all the world seem bright and new.

Tender, loving care
Bring back the bloom to the roses,
Smiles to the ones you love dear,
Comfort and blessing cheer.

... and so on and so on. This happy little moment is just spoiled by the entrance of Pat, the Evil Scrub Nurse, who doesnt like that Jane has been palling around with Bill, the rich nightclub owner. Jane insists that it's all innocent, that she was at his apartment trying to get him to donate fifty grand to the hospital, but Pat's not buying it, especially when Bill comes in and makes his intentions towards Jane *very* clear.

Oh, it's looking hot and spicy already, right? Maybe even borderline tawdry. Okay, at the very least, tacky.

Well, now we're in the hospital administrator's office, and the current fund raising... well, it's not going well. Jane is concerned, yet Dr. Mason is optimistic in an FDR-dealing-with-the-Depression kind of way. Why, if folks just knuckled down and worked, gosh darn it, they could raise more money than they could ever possibly need! Then they sing about it, and you can just see there's more than just some professional relationship happening here. Poor Jane, having to choose between a grabby, hands-on nightclub owner with fifty grand and a resolute, moral, no-doubt-penniless-but-you-could shave-butter-with-that-chin hospital administrator who, as far as we can tell, doesnt have a first name. What's a girl to do?

This tortured tale is then set off to the side as we learn that the human body is worth, in 1962 dollars, about ninety-eight cents (in a song, of course). We watch in growing incomprehension as the scene shifts between the waiting room and the maternity ward, for no other reason than the fact that the author wants to show what people in hospitals do all day, I suppose. Then things get... okay, strange. The hospital board is having a meeting about the fund raising, and in the middle of it, one of the doctors gives a mini-lecture on proper technique for Kageling. What is Kageling, you ask? It's exercising a series of muscles that enhance sexual endurance. Very popular in the 70s, by the way. What does it have to do with fund raising, you ask? Not a thing.

Well, the fund raising show has started at the nightclub (Oh, did I mention that Bill decided to put his club at the hospital's disposal for that, in the hopes that he might get Jane in bed? I didnt? Pity.), and our first view is a production number called "Anatomy", something that, according to Mr. Walsh, "looks better on girls than it does on boys". I'm not suggesting Walsh is sexist... okay, yes, I am, because, according to the stage directions:

At conclusion of dance, the wife, full of life and vigor... sees her spouse bent, decrepit, with cane. The wife sings, condescendingly, "Anatomy looks better on girls than it does on boys."

This is followed by the scene in the ER, with the mini-morality play involving the drunken driver on her (Note, please: a woman driver; is anyone surprised?) near-deathbed, a "comic" scene involving Nicotine Anonymous, and a song a husband sings as he tries to get his various body parts to sleep... until his wife comes in wearing a sexy negligee, and then it's "Everybody Wake Up!" It wraps up with an absolutely bewildering number called "White Shotgun", which (I think) is supposed to be a serious comment about pre-marital pregnancy. It gets special blacklight effects, for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

But backstage, the love trapezoid continues, with Pat storming into Jane's dressing room (She has one, even though she doesnt perform -- go figure) and furiously ripping Jane's robe off, leaving her in bra and panties before a blackout. How not-very-nice of her!

Ah, but Pat's not finished, not by a long shot. She's also hired a couple of thugs to make it look like Jane stole the proceeds -- only to be double-crossed when the thugs steal the cash and beat her upside the head so hard she has to... here it comes... go to the hospital! Even though the thieves are caught, Jane feels just terrible about what happened to Pat and devotes her off-hours to sitting in Pat's room, holding her hand until she awakes from her coma.

Dont laugh; this is serious stuff, okay? I mean, the woman is in a coma.

Sure, the author is obsessed with women, in a shallow, hyper-sexualized kind of way that would seem more befitting a sixteen year old boy than the mature man in the photo on the back cover. He seems to take every possible opportunity to show the poor ladies in the cast in as few clothes as possible, including a shower scene for Pat. Looking at the relentlessly repetitive motifs of sex and women -- and taking into consideration that rather astounding cover photo of what easily could be a blow-up sex doll -- it makes you wonder if Marsh wrote this just so he could have a bunch of half-naked women onstage, all under his masterful command...

Well, it all sorts out happily: post-coma Pat gets Bill, Jane gets Dr. Mason (talk about your bouncing board relationships!), and we end with yet another rousing chorus of "Anatomy" before the curtain mercifully falls and the audience rushes out to burn down the first hospital they encounter.

Okay, some addenda. The book I have was autographed by the author and presented to none less than Morton DaCosta. DaCosta was a highly respected director and author whose work was seen both on Broadway and in Hollywood, and I suspect Marsh sent it to him in the hopes of seeing it on the Great White Way. How something from DaCosta's library wound up in a flea market in Burlington, NC, is one of those curious mysteries we shall perhaps never solve.

As for the work itself, there are only two Google references. One's an antiquarian book store that's selling this puppy for forty dollars, and I wish them luck in actually getting it. The other is, surprisingly enough, that OH DOCTOR was part of Ayn Rand's personal library, according to papers from her estate.

Now, think about that for a moment. The founder of Objectivism had this somewhat sleazy little musical in her personal library. Was it a gift from a devoted fan? Was Marsh her personal physician? (Not likely: they didnt live in the same town.) Did she have a "thing" for "playing doctor"? Should we entertain the vision of Ayn Rand in a fetching little "hello nurse" outfit? Or, more interestingly, was Rand thinking of making Atlas Shrugged into a big Broadway spectacular and was sourcing possible composers and lyricists, someone who could set "Who is John Galt?" in just the right key of C? The mind truly reels at the possibilities.