Saturday, December 27, 2008

MAID IN JAPAN

I've commented on the collisions of cultures earlier (in GYPSY TROUBADOUR), but they reach new heights in MAID IN JAPAN (1932), by Helen Stilwell and Margaret Gatwood, edited by Emil Soderstrom and with cover art by Donn Crane. As usual, the Americans are in the middle of it, making havoc for everyone until a rather surprising (and utterly unanticipated) deus ex machina.

We're in the gardens of Hirohito, Lord Keeper of the Seal. A number of young ladies of the court are enjoying the evening air when a pair of salesmen from the US barge in, giving their spiel. What are they selling, you might ask? Suspenders, I reply -- something about as useful to the Japanese of that time as bathing suits are to Eskimos.

And it's right here that the show's gimmick kicks in: when talking amongst themselves, the Japanese speak perfectly good English. A little stilted, perhaps, but clear and understandable. Have them talk to the Americans, and suddenly we're in the realm of "no tickee no washee!" And as if that werent enough, Bill (one of the salespeople) cant tell the difference between men and women here ("They all wear skirts!") so he decides:

If you cant tell what gender it is, give it a pair anyway!

Ah, the Ugly American. Well, here's the other problem: legally, they cant sell their suspenders to the Japanese until each product is stamped "Made in Japan". Even though they arent, that could have been easily changed by passing a few discrete Yankee dollars around in exchange for a permit from (you guessed it) the Lord Keeper of the Seal. But that would be too easy, right? Nope, here Tom (the other salesman) has fallen for Hirohito's daughter Hanano, and she for him. But she's promised to Prince Matsuo, who's apparently a bit long in the tooth (which means he's probably over 30). Still, her attendant Lototo has arranged secret meetings between her and Tom but now insists these stop.

This romantic interlude is interrupted by an offstage crash! It seems Bill has gotten himself in an accident with a rickshaw driver.

Ive subwayed through big towns
Ive ridden to the hounds
Ive airplaned over big hills
Ive even waded rills
But I never really knew
What thrills might be
Until one day in old Japan
A coolie tempted me

Oh, Jinny Jinny rikishaw
Youve made my bones all sore and raw
Oh wont you listen to my plea
The way you act is killing me
The streets go up and down
The houses spin around
The river's in the air
And stars are everywhere
Oh Jinny Jinny rikishaw
I guess you're quite outside the law
But I'll get even with you yet
American man he wont forget
And youll get taken for a ride
't will be the end of Jinny Jinny rikishaw!

Bill pretty much steps deep into it by telling Hanano why he and Tom are there in Japan and the problems with selling the suspenders without a proper seal. Before Tom can stop him, Bill tells Hanano that this is why Tom asked the ambassador to introduce him to her... news that Hanano doesnt take very well, as you might guess.

But it seems one of Hanano's friends, Toshi, wants to help "handsome nice American men": her father apparently knows some great secret about Hanano. Bill agrees (even though he's not sure what he's agreeing to), and she exits only seconds before Peggie, Tom's sister and Bill's fiancée, catches him. He tells her she has nothing to worry about, that it's only Tom that's in danger, but that can wait while they exit to spend some quality time together.

Tom and Hanano reconcile, but Hirohito catches them, and is he upset or what... Despite Tom and Hanano's pleas, he decides she's to marry Matsuo that very night and Tom has to leave the city. The lovers have one more little love song, and just as Tom is about to leave, Lototo tells him to hide: Matsuo is coming! He's even less impressed when he finds out his intended is in love with someone else, so he orders Tom taken away and thrown into a dungeon. As Tom is pulled off by guards, Matsuo cackles and rubs his hands in Simon-Legree-style enjoyment.

Act Two starts later that night, during the Festival of the Full Moon. Peggie is distraught that her brother is in prison, but Bill cheers her up with a patriotic little ditty about how great the US compared to Japan, a number so apparently infectious that the chorus (all Japanese, remember) join in.

Hirohito and Matsuo find Hanano and tell her it's time -- and to ensure her complete loyalty to Matsuo, Hirohito has ordered Tom's execution... but not before he's forced to watch her marriage. Matsuo twirls his moustache as Hanano makes one last plea even as Tom is tied to the tracks and --

Wait. Sorry. Wrong melodrama. Anyway, it's all getting a bit too close to crunch time when Toshi's father appears:

Now many years ago
A certain lord I know
Did me a serious wrong
Said I, "It wont be long
Ere you'll regret this deed."
To which he gave no heed
But now the time has come
My vengeance has begun

Hirohito starts to squirm a bit and orders the man taken away, but before the guards can do so, Toshi's father declares that Hanano is not Hirohito's daughter! She was left, as an infant, on a shrine to Buddha after her real father, one John Barlow, an American missionary, died in an earthquake in Nagano. Hanano forgives her pseudo-father, tells Matsuo to take a hike, and starts packing for a wedding in the good ol' USA.

But what about the suspenders, you ask? Hirohito tries to remain firm, but Bill threatens him with "some of our government's international lawyers", and he caves, agreeing to turn American-made suspenders into ones "maid in Japan"...

Well...

Musically, Gatwood cant decide whether she wants to attempt Japanese, Chinese, or just one-size-fits-all "Oriental" music that freely mixes the first two with a smattering of Indian and Middle Eastern. The rest -- the standard ballad, the quasi-comic song, even the temple dance -- are all just generic song styling, with no real themes to hold everything together. Whatever "editing" Soderstrom did, it didnt seem to help.

But just pull back a bit and think. Granted, these works are all fantasies and nothing more. People fall in love and decide to get married within the two-hour performance span: that's not unusual. Neither is it all that unusual to have some kind of last-minute revelation that the hero or heroine that we thought was impoverished actually turns out to be the heir/heiress to a huge estate. In that regard, I can forgive the plot resolution how she's not really Japanese but really American: it's well within the accepted bounds of the 30s high school musical.

But MAID IN JAPAN has a slightly bigger perceptual problem. I mean, okay, if Hanano is an American, wouldnt she look... well... not Japanese? Wasnt anyone suspicious that she looked... well, different? I mean, not even her American boy friend could tell -- so what does that say about how attentive he is? Truly, this has me curious. She's eighteen (I think: the script's not specific), and she never had an inkling that something might be a little wrong, in all those years of growing up with her Japanese father and her Japanese friends, all of whom never saw anything unusual about her. Fascinating. A director in the 30s would just shrug his shoulders and say, "Yeah, well, who cares?" But I'd really love to know how the modern director, whose audiences are slightly more aware of such inconsistencies, would get around something like that.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

SAILOR MAIDS

Mistaken identities (and expectations, for that matter) abound in SAILOR MAIDS (1926) by Charles Ross Chaney (cover art by George Hauman), which is listed, inexplicably, on iraniraqwar.com -- I'm not kidding: a used copy of this operetta is selling there for $69.00, and what it has to do with Iran, Iraq, or their war completely escapes me. Ah, the mysteries of the internet...

So let's take a look at what we do know for sure. Chaney was born in Kansas but spent most of his life in the Fresno area of California, where he worked primarily as a school superintendent. Apparently coming into his talents as a composer late in life, he studied under several composers and music teachers before turning his attention to writing operetta. SAILOR MAIDS and THE BELLE OF BARCELONA were his two biggest successes, and he was one of the few in this genre who wrote book, words, and music.

SAILOR MAIDS, like BETTY LOU, is an interesting look at "how the other half lives": our heroine Frances Marie has just turned eighteen and is celebrating her birthday by launching her new yacht. Her crew is a band of young ladies known as the Sailor Maids, and her pilot is to be Edward Dover, a childhood friend whom she hasnt seen in eight years and yet somehow is her fiancé -- go figure. Problem is (isnt there always a problem?), Edward hates the water. He knows zip about yachting. What seems to temporarily save him is that, when he arrives at the birthday celebration, he's mistaken for a caterer employed for the occasion.

Now, sure, he could have just said, "Hey, it's me, Eddie!" -- but he doesnt. And why, you may ask? Because he's seen Frances' friend Jeanette... and he likes what he sees. Or, as he sings it:

I'm a caterer
But why they chose me for this position
Is a mystery I cant solve
Someone surely is mistaken
What I know about catering
Would not be worth repeating
If some trouble I would avoid
I will have to be explaining
A caterer, a caterer, a caterer
Who does all sort of fancy things
Who spoils the broth and spills the beans
I wonder if I can do it
To me it does not seem amiss
To wear a sporty suit like this
Perhaps appropriate a kiss
I wonder if I will rue it
If I may to the kitchen go
And with that maiden be
What jolly fun, o what a treat
How fortunate for me
It's quite a bold advance
But I will take a chance
I'll take the risk and hie me to the kitchen

As you can see, lyrics werent Cheney's strong suit.

So: what to do about Frances? Edward, in a moment of sudden inspiration, turns to another late arrival, a genuine yachtsman named David, and convinces him to assume the role and sail the yacht. For his part, despite some hesitation, David's more than happy to, if it gets him closer to Frances. The complication is Edward's father and Frances' father have both seen the real Edward, but Edward dismisses David's concerns over that with a light "oh, I'll say it's just a lark".

And then there's Gerald. Captain of the rowing crew, the not especially bright Gerald's also infatuated with Frances Marie and has asked her countless times to marry him, but she's never given him an answer one way or the other -- but she promises to do so "tonight". Given what we know about her feelings about the man she assumes to be "Edward", methinks poor Gerald is sailing en route to some unhappy news.

Meanwhile, David is getting more and more upset by the awkward position Edward's put him in: he's starting to really like Frances (and she seems positively doting on him) and doesnt think he should be, since he's not really Edward at all. And Edward's finding it difficult to get quality time with Jeanette because he's under the command of the house cook, Olga, who's a demanding Swede that consistently has to chase him down and send him back to the kitchen to work. So, by the end of the first act, the charade is still afloat, but only barely.

Act Two is later that night, during the birthday celebration. The sailing went well, Frances is even more enamoured of "Edward", Gerald is even more frustrated, the fathers congratulate each other on a successful love match between their children. David's borderline frantic, but Edward stops him from going to the fathers and confessing all by proposing another plan: bring Jeanette and Frances here and tell them everything. Once they're won over, the fathers will have no choice but to acquiesce... or so Edward thinks. But of course, not even that goes smoothly: Edward is sent yet again to the kitchen just as Jeanette has brought Frances to hear something the "caterer" wants to tell her. Jeanette thinks that it's some kind of scandal, and Frances immediately fears that Gerald may have overheard her and "Edward" earlier.

And now David (as himself) encounters the two fathers -- and when he has the opportunity to set things aright... for some weird reason he doesnt. Or maybe it isnt so weird, because by now he's really gotten to like Frances. Really.

Well, just when you think it cant get any more confusing, Jeanette suddenly blasts out of the house, claiming the "caterer" has stolen something from her, her most prized possession. Edward (the real one, remember) protests: he hasnt done any such thing! But remember: in everyone's eyes, he's a mere servant, not one of the guests, so it seems that no matter what he says, he's still a thief. Well, now he has no choice but to confess who he really is, and, as you might expect, Frances doesnt take the news very well. And is she not only furious with Edward: she's livid with David. And when poor Gerald tries to console her, she make sit plain that she wants to be alone. So much for Gerald, who exits stage left.

Well, hopelessly infatuated David makes one last pitch at Frances. Jeanette admits that what Edward stole was her heart (aww!). The fathers, still confused, try to straighten it all out and fail miserably until Edward takes control of the situation and pretty well forces everyone's hand, including his own onto his still doubtful father. It seems a double wedding is in the air as the curtain falls.

SAILOR MAIDS is remarkable in that it's a very book-heavy show, much more so than most in this genre. It almost has to be, given how much plot and counterplot there is roaming around the stage. Generally, in these things you get a page of dialogue, then a six page musical number. SAILOR MAIDS reverses that, with pages of dialogue connected with very short songs of maybe a page and a half or two in length. Chaney has a very workable farce buried underneath his operetta, but it's covered over with so many trivial musical numbers (and they are trivial, compared to even the work by the Clarks) that the ending is a slam-bang, pile-on-the-information sprint that rams the conclusion home. There are some rather remarkable pieces of structure, particularly in how Edward manages to be "Edward" to the fathers and "the caterer" to everyone else, sometimes literally within seconds of each other, but these are exceptions. The rest is so heavy, weighted down with mechanics, that a play that should float seems instead to flounder and ultimately sink.

Musically, he's slightly more successful: the few numbers that do work have a certain music-hall sensibility to them, like "Take the Name I Offer You", for Edward and David. The ensemble pieces, such as "A Thief! A Thief!", are more light opera in tone, giving this thing a curious mix that's neither one thing nor the other.

But know who I feel sorry for the most? Not Frances: she's marrying well -- David is the son of a very successful shipbuilder, so I imagine her sudden interest isnt just based on his chiseled jawline. So's Edward: Jeanette seems the kind of girl who'd put up with just about anything from her man. Truth be told, both of the leads have a streak of cruelty in them a meter or so side: Frances simply toys with her men -- and then gets all self-righteous when it's played on her. Edward is too much of a coward to simply say who he is and what he wants and be done with it. Both treat their "inferiors" (i.e., folks like Olga) as barely a step above civilized (which is pretty ironic right there). But poor Gerald, about the only truly honourable character in the play, one whose sub-plot is treated as casually as anything, has spent the entire play waiting for an answer to his proposal, and Frances just writes him off -- and for that, he's probably lucky. After his dismissal, he's not seen again, so one can only wonder what happened to him. Hopefully his rowing crew consoled him well, because I can definitely imagine, seconds before the final curtain, him racing back onstage with an ax.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

THE GYPSY TROUBADOUR

By now, you must have figured out that the high school operetta took some pretty unusual turns. Between MOON MAIDEN and SHOOTING STARS and the utterly bizarre XINGABRU, the genre has more than its share of... well, unusual concepts. In the main, you look at them for what they're worth: little flights of fantasy and fancy that were designed really for the kids to show off a bit. But the worlds designed for each was usually fairly specific and followed (however vaguely) an internal logic that made the final piece palatable.

THE GYPSY TROUBADOUR (1931), by Effa Preston and the omnipresent Don Wilson, really requires more than its share of stretch to get the concept off the ground, because it's predicated on the collision of two worlds that would never have met in the first place.

Gypsies are, of course, a staple of the operetta genre: there's probably a dozen titles with the word in it, and fully a quarter of my collection features a "gypsy dancer" as a divertissement at the very least. As usual, the gypsies, much like blacks or Jews or the Irish or anyone who's not Caucasian American, are all sketched so broadly as to be something two or three steps beyond an affectionate stereotype. But GYPSY TROUBADOUR, when you really look at it, pushes that to a conceptual extreme.

Our hero is Nikoli, son of Todoro, who's the leader of a band that calls themselves the Haaren tribe. Nikoli has been away to college, an act that required special permission for him to even think about leaving, given his place -- but now he's returned, determined to make a success of himself in the cold, hard world of poetry. His father, needless to say, doesnt greet this news with any degree of enthusiasm, but he's even less impressed when Nikoli announces his intention of marrying an "outsider" named Clare, who's the daughter of a businessman. Todoro, after all, had planned for his son to marry within the faith, as it were, to Rosita and then together the two young people would carry on the leadership of the tribe. And if that wasnt bad enough, Todoro's nephew Vario, a scheming little villian, is delighted, because now all he has to do is push his uncle a little further by setting up some small issue that will result in Nikoli getting thrown out of the tribe. Then Vario can marry Rosita himself and take over.

Now we meet Clare, and it doesnt take too long to ask what Nikoli sees in her. She's spoiled, petulant, and thoroughly annoying. Her "friends" arent much better (which suggests something about what kind of life Nikoli led while away, but we wont dwell on that). Vario manages to steal a pearl necklace from Clare and oh so nonchalantly drops it into a box of trinkets that Nikoli has brought intended for Rosita. Clare sees the necklace on Rosita's neck and goes ballistic, blaming her for the theft. Nikoli, assuming his once-girlfriend gave in to temptation, chivalrously takes the blame himself. Rosita, blinded by love for this two-timer and not wanting him to be denied his destiny as Leader of the Pack, insists she took it. Todoro, who's apparently quite the stickler for honesty, is furious and bans both Nikoli and Rosita, telling them they have to be out by midnight.

Why midnight, you ask? Well, if they had to leave now, we wouldnt have a second act, would we?

But the punishment is averted, thanks to a counterplot set off by Tom, Nikoli's "happy go lucky" college chum, and Marko, the camp fortune teller (something on those two in a minute). Now convinced that her beau will never succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of poetry, Clare gives Nikoli the heave-ho, and the poor boy turns on the rebound to ever waiting arms of Rosita. Vario's scheming is exposed, he's expelled, Clare storms off in a huff, and with much dancing and slapping of tambourines during the nuptials of Nikoli and Rosita, the curtain falls.

Now, on the surface, this is much like any other facilely-plotted operetta. You know by page 5 how it's all going to sort out, so it's not like there's any real surprises. And yet there're other things at play here that make THE GYPSY TROUBADOUR more than unusually head-wrenching. Right off the bat, it's got more than its share of sermonizing, with an ensemble number called "Dont Try to Be What You Aint":

Just do your own stuff
Dont pose as sinner or saint
It's folly to bluff

Then there's the gypsies themselves. Speaking in a sort of slightly elevated, decidedly European way, you just know that we're not talking about the folks that live around the New Jersey area; these are very much European gypsies, singing, dancing, trinket-wearing, harness-mending, East European gypsies. Not a single American (or, as Todoro dismissively describes them, "house-dwelling") influence to be seen anywhere... and yet the play is set, quite clearly, in the States. On the surface, that's probably easily dismissed as a theatrical conceit and nothing more -- and yet it also adds an interesting layer to things, almost like Nikoli's return is comparable to Puck coming back after a few years at Eton. A cunning director might push this to give it almost a Brigadoon feel, turning the gypsy camp into this magical place of fantasy and other-worldliness, so that the collision of these two worlds becomes even more pronounced.

Musically, it's also interesting to see how Preston and Wilson assign styles to their characters. Bear in mind that in most operettas you have a standard roster of waltz, allegro comic number, 4/4 ballad, and so on, and it's all pretty much interchangable, whether the play is set in Japan or a circus tent. But here, you can almost hear the cynicsm ladled on the characters by their creators: for example, Clare's little love song to Nikoli:

The skies are bluer than ever before
The blossoms are sweeter by far
The grass is greener, the breeze more soft
And brighter each distant star

... and so on and so on, in a subtle but still almost laughably mawkish catalogue of clichés that becomes more and more self-parodying. I know we're not supposed to like Clare very much, but this seems to be denying her even the least amount of character -- and we're only on the second page after her entrance. She's not bad, she's evil incarnate hiding behind a gentle smile and dyed blonde hair in her quest to marry into the presumed fortune that will come with her husband-to-be the Poet.

Then we get Tom and Marko, and what a piece of subtext these two are. According to the character descriptions, Marko is "a tall man with a large, athletic build", while Tom is smaller, fair-haired, and costumed in a suit with a "loud necktie". Throughout the play, he and Marko "conceive a great admiration for each other", so much so that by the end they're finishing each other's sentences and, in one memorable scene, actually walking arm in arm. One might guess that Nikoli's time away from the camp exposed him to slightly more than just a liberal arts education. And what seals it? Tom's final line to Marko, ostensibly spoken about Clare, but...

Moral: never be off with the old love before you are on with the new.

... which could be translated as, "Hey, I didnt get a shot at Nikoli either, so what're you doing after tambourine practice, big boy?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

THE PRINCE OF PILSEN

Part of the fun of collecting these things is that you never quite know what you're going to find (like CHILDREN OF DREAMS). And then you research it, and you realize, wow, what a find. For example...

THE PRINCE OF PILSEN (1902) by Frank Pixley and Gustav Luders. The only copy of the libretto that I can find is at the Library of Performing Arts in NYC, so actually talking about that will have to wait until my next trip there. The last production I can find was mounted in 1997 by the Musical Theatre Research Project, led by Elwood Anaheim (who, sadly, cant locate the abbreviated script they used for that staging). His opening remarks, quoted here from the MTRP website:

Although unknown to us today, THE PRINCE OF PILSEN was extremely popular in its initial run 95 years ago. The musical comedy opened at the Tremont Theatre in Boston in May 1902, and had a considerable run there and on the road before opening in New York on March 17, 1903, at the Broadway Theatre, where it ran for 143 performances. It later enjoyed a run of 160 performances at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. And, for the next 20 years, the musical was often produced in revival on Broadway and throughout America.

Composer Gustav Luders was born in Germany in 1865. A conductor turned operetta composer, Luders was formally trained in Germany and came to the United States while in his twenties. Once teamed with librettist Frank Pixley, the two would eventually have a respectable musical comedy career ending with Luders’ premature death in 1913. Although their musicals may not be remembered today, they certainly were known by composers of the golden age of musical theater. Today’s audiences are sure not to miss the similarities between the students’ music of THE PRINCE OF PILSEN and Sigmund Romberg’s THE STUDENT PRINCE. (In fact, PILSEN opened in New York the same season as the U.S. production of ALT HEIDELBERG, which was later to form the basis of THE STUDENT PRINCE.) One of their earliest efforts, THE BURGOMEISTER (written in 1900) tells the tale of 17th century Peter Stuyvesant falling asleep and reawakening in the year 1900 (38 years before that same character appears in the Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill musical KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY). Although Pixley and Luders achieved success with their next musical, KING DODO (1902), THE PRINCE OF PILSEN produced on Broadway the following year was their greatest triumph. They went on to create THE SO-GUN, a MIKADO-like operetta set in Korea, and WOODLAND, a strange tale with a cast of birds, both in 1904. But nothing the pair subsequently composed approximated the fame or fortunes of PILSEN.

THE PRINCE OF PILSEN is a lighthearted tale with many familiar plot twists—familiar by even 1902 standards. Much like today, the turn-of-the-century audience for popular entertainment found comfort in familiarity. The plot concerns a case of mistaken identity: Hans Wagner, an American beer manufacturer traveling Europe with his daughter Nellie (and in Nice to meet up with son Tom, a naval officer) is mistaken for the Prince of Pilsen by a hotel concierge desperate to drum up business. Pilsen, by the way, is not only a city in Czechoslovakia, but also the root of the word “pilsner,” a light beer with a strong flavor of hops. And there lies the confusion. As can only be expected, the real Prince arrives with his friends from college, and decides to make the best of the opportunity by posing as a commoner.

Produced during this country’s greatest influx of immigrants, THE PRINCE OF PILSEN is a fine example of what I like to refer to as the “Ugly American” form of musical theater. Like many comedies and popular songs of the past century, the book and lyrics playfully poke fun at the accents and manners of foreigners and new U.S. citizens. Although not politically correct by today’s standards, this “Ugly American” device allowed an audience of mixed immigrants and new citizens to laugh at each other as they tried to assimilate American customs and language.

As was the custom, the dialog in THE PRINCE OF PILSEN was largely written in dialect, and it was up to our actors to decipher the hieroglyphics provided by author Frank Pixley. Make no mistake, the accents you will hear tonight were written to sound ridiculous. Strangely enough, for a story that takes place in Nice, there are no Italians in the plot, but the French, German, and British are lambasted for their accents and manners. In contrast, the employees of an Italian hotel and students from a Heidelberg university speak English without an accent, as does a Czechoslovakian Prince who, by the way, breaks into German from time to time. But, as is generally the case, the Americans never bear the brunt of the joke. The “Ugly American” device actually backfires because the story’s “real” Americans are stock characters, bland and boring, and can not possibly compete with their flesh and blood foreign counterparts.

The original authors of THE PRINCE OF PILSEN, along with other creators of early musical theater, did very little to assure that their material would be preserved for future generations. In fact, until the 1970’s, musical theater was not viewed as a serious art form that warranted research. Of course, much of that has changed today, but 95 years ago, no one thought that we would be interested in preserving a silly little musical. So, as was the custom in early musical theater, much of the scripted action was “suggested.” The script might state “whistling business” or “business with fountain” without defining the action. Since these scripts were developed for established performers, “business” refers to a routine that was part of that performer’s stock and trade. Somewhat like trying to put into words a physical routine of the Marx Brothers, the term “business” made it easier for future performers to adapt their own trademark shtick. Over the years, in lieu of an organized system, much of this material was passed on from performer to performer.

I have other scores from this period, all discovered by accident: an incomplete copy of Pixley and Luder's WOODLAND (cited above), MISS BOB WHITE (by Williard Spenser, who provided the score for THE LITTLE TYCOON, arguably one of the first truly American musical comedies, and who was considered by some to have been the Rodgers and Hammerstein of his time), THE CHINA SHOP (by Arthur Penn, whose ROSE OF THE DANUBE was the first work discussed here -- I'm hoping to get a copy of the libretto to his MAMZELLE TAPS in the near future: it looks like a fascinating little piece of WW1 theatre), THE PINK LADY (with music by the incomparable Ivan Caryll) -- all of whom were huge hits in the day and now are all but lost to us. Hopefully, someday, someone will give these another look and dust them off for another shot, even if as concert pieces. I realize that we cant save everything from our musical theatre history, but -- much like the little operettas I blog about -- there's still much to admire in these nearly forgotten works.

Friday, December 19, 2008

THE LUCKY JADE

A misnomer of a title (because it's anything but lucky!), THE LUCKY JADE (1929) has a curious set of credits on the cover. The book was written by Joseph Harrison but "adapted" by Edward Bradley. Harrison also provided authorship of the lyrics in tandem with the seemingly indefatigable Don Wilson, who also wrote the score. As is the case with these little works, there's no information available about Harrison or Bradley.

We start this work with a brief prologue, to give the audience some background as to the mysterious piece of jade that figures so prominently in the plot-to-be. In a "voo-doo temple somewhere in darkest Africa", we see a pair of priests guarding a large solid-jade idol. There's a temple dancer, who gets a smattering of music before a "trader" (as he's listed) forces his way in, kills the priests, kills the temple dancer, then cuts one of the ears off the idol "and holds it aloft, laughing", as the curtain lowers for a moment.

Suddenly we're transported to a graceful Southern mansion where a fox-hunting party is in full swing. The cacaphony is interrupted by the news that Mary Ann, a "daughter of the Sunny South", is returning from a trip to Manhattan. Much merriment ensues, but the question mark remains: did John, her never-stated-but-surely-must-be-her beau meet her at the docks when her boat arrived? (Okay, point of order: the house is in Virginia. Surely they had trains?) An elderly renter, Downs, makes a few aimless jokes about not being a century plant, then tells three young bucks the secret of his success with the ladies: his uncanny ability to get a divorce:

I have started forth to woo
As all the other young man do
Some maiden fair of beauty rare
To be my cooing dove
But after years of matrimony
Now I'm paying alimony
All my extra spending money
Goes to former wives

I'll wager since I've told you this
Youll never leave your single bliss
A maiden's heart is like a blushing rose
Her affections changed by every breeze that blows
Tho she swears that she loves only you
With suspicion view each promise new
That in the future she'll be true

Hope you were making notes because that song is just riddled with foreshadowing.

Okay, it seems John didnt meet Mary at the docks. Bad move. His bashfulness will certainly get him in very hot water, and he's able to make a quick exit only moments before the lady herself gets her grand entrance... and not alone. While in New York, she met the dashing Horace Ferguson, who has intentions on her, and the very French Fanchon, who serves as her new maid (much to the ire of the house "mammy" Liza). John is almost forcibly dragged back on by Colonel Waverly, his uncle, and is none too pleasantly introduced to Ferguson."He's a tin horn sport with patent leather hair," John opines, "and a hoodlum. I'll bet he's from Chicago."

Well, in the midst of all this domestic drama, Liza brings out the Lucky Jade (Somehow, she's the great-grandaughter of one of the priests killed in the temple, but how she got it from the trader is a plot point never discussed) so she can tell Mary's fortune.

Mumbo, Jumbo, come back spirits, come back hants, come back to Mammy Liza. Ooooo... ah sees trouble. Ah sees money and a paper with a red seal. Ah sees a girl, an' ah hears guns, an' ah sees a man fall, then ah sees mo' money, a lot mo' money...

... which of course gets Ferguson's attention immediately (Oops, did we just give away something?). He makes a none-too-discrete inquiry about the piece of jade and offers to buy it "as a souvenir", but Downs discovers that that piece of jade is worth a thousand pounds to the British Museum.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann has ripped John a new one for not meeting her as promised. He responds by telling her, in a rush, that Ferguson is a bounder, not worthy of touching her hand. Nevertheless, she finds herself curiously attracted to a man who was, only seconds ago, "so brutal". But she's only momentarily distracted by that because now, if life werent so awful enough, the sheriff has shown up with a notice of foreclosure (Why, you ask? It's complicated), but the Colonel convinces him to wait on serving it until after the party they're having that evening. And if that werent enough, the Lucky Jade has been stolen! And you know what that means! Just all sorts of horrible things!

Still, a party's a party, so when the curtain rises on Act Two, everyone is having a swell time at this masquerade party Mary Ann is throwing to celebrate her own return home. Colonel Waverly accuses Downs of having stolen the jade, and when Ferguson intercedes, the Sheriff notices something "familiar" about him. Well, it seems Downs *has* stolen it, but at Ferguson's insistence -- and yet Downs, who knows about the reward money, has no intention of giving it to him. Still, Ferguson does manage to get it (through a singularly bizarre party game) and is almost ready to bolt when John accuses him of taking it (much to Mary Ann's ire at his insulting her "guest"). John decides to settle this in true Southern fashion: a duel.

Ah, but it gets even murkier: Ferguson has been working this so he and Fanchon can run off together (the cad!). John finds Ferguson and challenges him; Ferguson's insistent reply is that he "never miss(es)". And Mary Ann, the bubblehead, has listened to the entire exchange and never caught on.

Well, no one said operetta heroines were especially bright.

A storm hits, and everyone heads for their cars to drive home. Waiting for the party to disperse, John and Ferguson eye each other (with additional reminders that Horace never misses). John leaves to make final arrangements for their encounter, and Ferguson suddenly tries to bolt, confessing to the Sheriff that he's never shot a gun before. (The Sheriff doesnt seem especially concerned.)

John finds Mary Ann and sings her a little farewell. And Mary Ann finally realizes she's in love with him too.

And now he's going to get killed. Supposedly. Although we know he wont.

Arrgghh.

Well, turns out the bridge has been washed out, so everyone in the party comes back. Just as the duel is to take place, Downs proves Ferguson stole the jade -- and naturally Ferguson is happy to have the law take him away so he doesnt get shot. But wait! It turns out that John isnt just the Colonel's nephew: he's also the heir to the Frazier millions, more than enough to save the plantation from foreclosure. Somehow in all this, the bridge has been rebuilt, because the party all reprise their song about leaving, only moments before we make our escape as well.

If anything saves this piece, it's -- as usual -- the music. The script just reels from one plot point to another, utilizing every possible cliché... which I guess can be overlooked, since it is from 1929 and was no doubt inspired by the early film musicals. Aside from one truly funny scene between Fanchon and Mammy (in which the former rattles away in très perfect French while the latter is giving her what-for in her best mock-Southern-black), everything else just seems piled on, with every stock character you can imagine and with the chorus almost shoved on and off not so much by obligation of plot as expedience to give the heroine time and space to sing another solo. This becomes almost glaringly obvious during the final scenes, in which they're treated much like a bunch of chess pawns sprawled across the board.

The score, on the other hand, is a fun little romp, with fox trots and two rather charming ballads and the obligatory waltz. There's also a broadly sketched hint of Gilbert and Sullivan ("Maidens Yield", which almost feels written for, and jettisoned from, Iolanthe) and a very tricky little trio for our love triangle ("Three's a Crowd", which must have driven music directors crazy in rehearsal because of its convoluted structure).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

WORDS AND MUSIC

The terrifying task of writing an operetta falls to the hapless hero and heroine of WORDS AND MUSIC (1941), by Bert Horswell, Adele Bohling Lee, and the usual standby Don Wilson. Actually, Wilson served in this on as "editor", which, in light of his work on dumbing down such scores as BABES IN TOYLAND, probably means he had to do some rewrites and musical contouring... not unlike the situation that falls the crew in this work.

It's time for the Barton College annual school operetta, which for years has been written by the head of the drama department. But this year's production is threatened when the dean of theatre comes down with a severe case of the measles. But calamity is averted when Anastasius Longword, head of the English department, and Samanthia Highnote, head of the music department, offer to collaborate. He may be an Elizabethan scholar and she may know no music more contemporary than Beethoven, but these two are determined to help Barton in its hour of need.

But, of course, there's more to their collaboration than just writing some operetta -- they met years ago in Venice... many years ago, to be frank. Since that time, they've had this careful distance between themselves, nothing more (or so they claim) than a "mutual admiration". Still, both are too frightened to say anything more and put their obvious adoration for each other into their work.

Problem is: it's terrible. The plot is blatantly ripped off from Romeo and Juliet, and Longword thinks that Samanthia will think him unimaginative and pedantic if he gives her this to score. But one of his students, John Warren, offers to send it to a friend of his in New York who works in musical theatre and can quite possibly modernize it for performance. At the same time, Samanthia fears she's out of her depth at writing this kind of music... until one of her students, Mary Allen, offers to... yep, send it to her friend in New York, who'll give the score a little snap and jazz.

Now, both professors are nervous as cats in that proverbial roomful of rocking chairs, as neither has a clue what the other has done. John and Mary assure them (separately, of course) that everything's going fine, and the work will arrive in time for the review by the board of trustees and faculty. It does, at literally the last minute. The school president asks Longword and Highnote to read the script, and they do their best to pretend that they know it by heart... even though neither has laid eyes on it before now. The students help out by offering to provide a singing chorus. And so we begin...

It takes all of a few minutes to figure out that Longword and Highnote had nothing to do with the "hotsy-totsy" opening number. While the students are elated to have something contemporary to perform, the president is more than a little suspicious. Well, wouldnt you know it -- just as Longword and Highnote are about to get it handed to them, John and Mary step forward and admit that they wrote it all... because, well, after all, their professors were just too classically minded to come down to the level of something like this.

Naturally, the president and trustees agree to let the show go on. John and Mary decide to extend their partnership into something more than just professional. And Samanthia gets to hear the words she's been waiting to hear since 1894. And with that, the curtain falls.

Much of the charm in WORDS AND MUSIC is swamped by an almost obsessive need on the part of the authors to sound "with it": there's no less than three "train" cheers and a school cheer that, because of the amount of patter in it, is positively murky. And yet, for something written in the 1940s, this -- like MOON MAIDEN, mentioned before -- sounds a bit older: a early 30s-era work, save for a few of the major production numbers, which suggests that Horswell and Lee had been tinkering with this for a while, and Wilson stepped in to make it performable.

Still, despite that, WORDS AND MUSIC has a sweetness to it, provided in large part by the long-thwarted romance between Samanthia and Anastasius. Both now in their 60s, their characters arent so much played for broad comedy as they are for a rather sympathetic look at love not quite long past. Longword, of course, is given his share of bad comic lines about growing old, all in a dodderingly ornate suggestion of academia gone to seed. His description of the proposed plot:

To begin with, the heroine Rosamund, is the Belle of the Nineties, and the hero Archibald jas just given her a ring. But her father, Sir Marmaduke Dillingwater, objects. Now Archibald is quite poor and Sir Marmaduke objects because he thinks he'll have to support Archibald. The lovers plan to foil Sir Marmaduke by eloping in the night. On the appointed night, Archibald climbs a rope which Rosamund has hung from an upstairs window. I've injected a bit of humourous incident right here. It seems that Rosamund in fastening the rope did it by merely closing the window down on it, and when Archibald reaches the top and taps on the window, Rosamund in a moment of forgetfulness opens it. The inevitable happens and her lover tumbles to the ground, making a considerable amount of noise in so doing. In the second act another elopement ruse is foiled, but in the third and last act Sir Marmaduke gives his consent so the elopement is unnecessary and they marry. Quite the surprise ending, dont you think?

But the authors are careful not to do the same to Samanthia -- instead, she comes across as a woman who knows she's loved far too long and not terribly well. You almost wish she had a song to express it, but she doesnt -- and maybe that's okay.

WORDS AND MUSIC also has five -- count 'em, five -- big dance production numbers, including something inexplicably called "Dance of Tomorrow", to be performed by "Eccentric Dancers". Another is a dance for a chorus of bakers ("Cream puffs or cookies, Jelly rolls or cakes/You're my sweet potato, For you my heart bakes."). For the rest, one is one of the train dances mentioned above, while the other two are given to the expected blackface comic relief - a "hoodoo dance" and a broom dance, to be performed by the janitors at the top of the second act instead of the usual entr'acte. WORDS AND MUSIC is actually crammed full of dance: every ensemble number has opportunities for everything from the "eccentric" to the traditional (and inevitable) waltz. The number performed for the audition of the new school operetta suggests a whole lot of tap in the background as the boys sing:

Ladies, listen, get an earful
News we have and not so cheerful
Of your futures we are fearful
You cant have your cake and eat it too
One thing, certain that is this thing
Just be sure that you're not missing
When you total up your kissing
Here's advice we freely give to you

Dont save your kisses
Till you're a missus
Cause a miss is as good as a mile
Remember, sister
That any mister
Always misses a mess's sweet smile

Now dont be caught waitin'
No more hesitatin'
Just start in your datin' right now
So dont save your kisses
Till you're a missus
Cause a miss is as good as a mile

Taken for what it's worth, WORDS AND MUSIC is actually fun. My only wish is that we had a duet in it somewhere for Longword and Highnote, perhaps something they wrote together as intended for the show they didnt write at all. It could have been a charming moment of "old style" to contrast to the brassiness of the "modern". Like so many others of the genre, it would need expansion: the dance numbers could use more music, certainly. But as it stands right now, it's like looking back to another time that, in turn, looks back yet again.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

RINGS IN THE SAWDUST

Unlike earlier work mentioned here by the Clarks, this is more atypical fare for Estelle and Palmer: simple story, simple characters, simple show. And at the same time, this is so Verdian or Donizettian that it slides this over into the "opera" side of "operetta". RINGS IN THE SAWDUST (1925) has foundling children, thrilling adventure, lost documents, thwarted love, abduction... a little bit of everything (as is par for the course with this husband-and-wife team), with a sextet to boot. And yet at the same time, sadly, it has more than its share of missed opportunities.

We're on the grounds of a small-time traveling circus, owned by the stalwart (and, to be frank, sometimes stupid) Toby Dunn. He's secretly engaged to Sally Squeezem, the daughter of the town banker, who holds a mortgage on the circus. When the banker finds out about the engagement, he disowns his daughter and threatens Dunn with foreclosure.

At the same time, Widow Marybelle Jaybird (where did Estelle get these names?) and her busy-body sister Eliza Slimmer, spend most of the play running after Marybelle's son Willie, who takes a ride in the circus' balloon, then leads everyone on a mad chase through the woods, and finally climbs down the chimney of... well, you'll see.

Toby and Sally plot to have the banker abducted and sent to Marybelle's house (because she has this thing for him: Lord knows why) before he can serve the foreclosure. They're assisted in this by two roustabouts, Inky (who's "coloured") and Dinky (who's Irish), but the plan goes awry and Inky is packaged up for the widow instead.

Ah, but now we have a mystery, because when the banker goes home, he finds the mortgage papers missing. He suspects Sally, but the widow suggests Inky, who's arrested and taken to jail (with no evidence, but this is 1925 we're talking about, I guess). But we find out that Willie (remember him?) climbed down the banker's chimney and used the mortgage papers to wrap up some fruit he stole. Sally and Toby are forgiven. Inky is freed from jail. Marybelle gets her banker. And the curtain falls.

Truly, I'm amazed that Estelle Merrymon Clark got as much work as she did. It had to have been because she and her husband were a package deal, and Palmer was such a good composer that the publishers felt they could tolerate Estelle's inanity. This one is no exception: the overture begins with a classic circus march and glides almost effortlessly from one number to another, but the opening chorus is almost painful in its search for rhymes:

This is the day of days for us
This happy, sunny day in June
All the pretty girls you see about
Have waited since the hour of noon

We have money too, Mister Ticket Man
Money we have saved all year
All tied up in our little kerchief
I suppose a dollar near

See, now the sun shines in the sky
We have left our clover field
Rolling hills and meadows too
Happy with the joy they yield

... and so on and so on. I mean, there are lyrics in this art form that can be pretty awful, but Estelle truly takes it to a new low. Yet her script rises only marginally above them: exposition laid on with a shovel on the first two pages of dialogue, adorned with gaglines such as:

WIDOW. (speaking about her husband) But he was happy most of the time. His picture hangs on the wall where I can see it, and he's always smiling.

ELIZA. Hmmph! So glad he's dead.

(Insert rimshot here, I suppose.)

Ah, but this brings us to our first Donizetti moment. As the widow and Eliza are being catty with each other in front of the banker, Willie has run off and hidden in the balloon. Drama ensues:

CHORUS. See the balloon is in the sky
Now tis gliding swiftly by
See its banners dip and rise
Like a bird it proudly flies
Like a deer it seems to rest
On the mountains' snowy crest
Now it drops beneath their height
Fading, fading from our sight

WIDOW (breathlessly, to an agitato) Where is little Willie?
Oh where is my child?

ELIZA. With the balloon or the lions wild.

WIDOW. Oh little Willie, he's with that balloon.

BANKER. Never fear, Madam, we will find him soon.

WIDOW. Little Willie's in the sky
He'll be an angel bye and bye
Wonder if he'll learn to fly
Up in the sky?
Oh my! Oh my!

CHORUS. Little Willie's in the sky
He'll be an angel bye and bye
Wonder if he'll learn to fly
Up in the sky?
Oh my! Oh my!

Yikes. As for minor characters, you might have guessed that the two roustabouts are played for comic relief. Just as we saw with THE PENNANT, in which a Jew gets ridiculed, now's our time for a little Irish fun, although it's not as merciless as drawing as we've seen handed to blacks throughout this series. The dialogue for Dinky is written for laughs, although he gets a (relatively) lovely tenor song in Act Two (again, thanks more to Palmer than Estelle). But poor Inky. All he wants to do is leave the circus and his (unseen) harridan of a wife:

Oh dis am no place fo' a chile lak me
So ah's gwine right back to Afrikee
Wha' my ancestors libed so lovin' and free
An' dey's al buried by a bamboo tree

Ah'll get me a spear an' some fedders too
An ah knows ah'll surprise 'em, deed ah do.
Don ah'll get me a gal wid a ring in her nose
An' she'll danceroun' on her bare little toes

Blubbidy Blue! Jiggledy Gee!
Shinny, shinny up a coconut tree
An' we'll ance to the tune ob de jujube
When ah gets back to Afrikee

Second verse and chorus adds a dancing troop "dressed as Hottentots". But we're not done yet: RINGS IN THE SAWDUST is a veritable embarrassment of riches. Consider Eliza's solo turn in Act Two:

A busy body I cant abide
I always want to run and hide
When Missis Jones goes by
When Missis Jones goes by
She borrows everything they eat
From buttermilk to sausage meat
Sometimes I nearly die
Sometimes I nearly die

... continuing relentlessly for three more verses and an extended chorus, propped up once more by a score that serves such lyrics far more than they deserve, which seems to be the case of the entire piece, unfortunately. Add to that a script outline that doesnt come anywhere near exploring the potential of the storyline: the banker's botched "abduction", so supposedly important to the plot, takes a mere couple of pages, as if to say "Well, we got that plot point out of the way, huh?" and features a sextet musical number that screams for development and gets none. Cap it off with a resolution that you saw coming on page 3, and all in all, it's like a ticket to a side show booth: lots of promise outside the tent, laughably nothing inside.