Tuesday, December 23, 2008


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 clich├ęs 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?


Anonymous said...

Where would I acquire the script for this particular show please ?

Sean Martin said...

Technically, it's still under copyright, which means I cant photocopy it and send it to you, sorry. About the best I can suggest is watch eBay and Abebooks.com.