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.

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