Friday, December 18, 2009

From one of the blog readers

I received an email from someone this past week, with the photo at left and the notation: "Mabel Gonsalves, playing Hilda in a circa 1925 production at Hughson High School in Stanislaus County, California". I gather the boy with her is playing Franz, with the two of them in a pose meant to suggest the song "There'll Be Others".

Ms. Gonsalves' daughter has also provided some great images from a 1927 production of THE WISHING WELL, which I'll discuss in an upcoming post.

Many, many thanks to this lovely lady for sending these on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

WISH LIST

While I continue to pour through websites that carry these things, there are a few I'm actively looking for, so if you have a lead on any of the following titles, let me know.

ASK THE PROFESSOR (Lee/Clark)
MAGAZINE PRINCESS (Lee/Clark)
HOLLYWOOD BOUND (Wilson/Bradley)
DON ALFONSO'S TREASURE (Morgan/Penn)
TUNE IN (Bradley/Wilson)
A NAUTICAL KNOT (Inch) -- just the libretto; I have the score
MAM'ZELLE TAPS (Penn) -- again, just the libretto, please
THE GOLDEN TRAIL (Cadman)

Should you have any others not necessarily on this list, let's hear about it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DRAWFS (1938) comes to us from the team of Theodosia Paynter and G. A. Grant-Schaefer, whose work we've reviewed before. Paynter was a recognizable name in the genre as well, mostly in adaptations of fairy tales and popular novels such as Tom Sawyer (an adaptation to be discussed later). Designed for a mixture of middle- and high-schoolers, SNOW WHITE is remarkable for the fact that the lead doesnt really appear onstage until Act Two.

It's sometime in the Middle Ages, and Queen Winnifred has recently given birth to the Princess Snow White. But upon the princess's introduction to the world (in the form of a large doll), the harbinger of death, Frosty Fate, appears and tells the queen her hour has come. She in turn tells her husband to wait seven years, then to marry again so that Snow White will have a mother.

Unfortunately, the king's grief led him to some pretty bad judgment, if the second scene is any indication. It's seven years later, and he's married, per his dead wife's wishes — but to a vain and pompous woman named Tiger Lily, who has a magic mirror that tells her, yes, she's the fairest of them all.

Well, until the mirror meets Snow White, then all bets are off. And of course Queen Tiger Lily is just furious when the mirror tells her that she's now the runner-up in the kingdom's beauty contest. So Tiger Lily does what any sensible-yet-egocentric ruler would do: she hires a terrible woodsman (who, as he tells the audience, is just pretending to be terrible — he's actually a rather nice guy) who is to take Snow White into the forest and return... without her.

He's no sooner gone than the King shows up, wondering where his daughter's gotten to. Queen Tiger Lily tells him she was looking a little pale, so she sent Snow White into the forest for a little walk.

KING. What? Alone? Do you not know that the forest is infested with wild beasts?

QUEEN. Oh, she wasnt alone. A kind and gentle woodsman, who knows the forest well, accompanied her.

KING. What woodsman?

QUEEN. I have no idea; I never saw him before.

KING. You sent Snow White into the woods with a stranger? Your act astounds me! It could only have been prompted by the treachery of a black heart! (QUEEN laughs maliciously.)

Well, now that he's finally figured that out, he sends her to the dungeon while ordering everyone else to go into the woods and find his daughter. And on that, the first act ends.

Act Two is a few weeks later, in the house of the seven dwarfs, who are completely and utterly inept when it comes to the most basic of housekeeping skills. Still, they manage to get it together, take up their pickaxes, and head off to the mines (without whistling, I might add). Once they've left, the woodsman and Snow White appear.

(Okay, just as a note: the script is very specific that Act Two is "a few weeks later" than Act One. What have these two been doing during all that time?)

He tells her she cant go back to the castle, that she has to remain here. But to convince the Queen that she's dead, he's going to take Snow White's kerchief and stain it with blood... never realizing, of course, that now the King is gonna be all over him for letting it happen.

There's a brief intermezzo, and when we come back, she's gone. The dwarfs rattle in, surprised and suspicious at the smell of cooked food coming from the kitchen. They strike a deal with Snow White: they'll protect her if she does the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, the vacuuming, the mowing, the sewing and darning, take out the garbage, peel the potatoes... Well, this thing was written in 1938, right? Still, beggars cant be choosers, so she takes the job. But they're no sooner into their celebration of the free household help when there's a loud knock at the door: it's Queen Tiger Lily, who's somehow managed to escape the dungeon and is out looking for Snow White (I gather the woodsman's ruse didnt work for her either). The dwarfs chase her down the hill, and we take another short break.

The Queen's a determined woman; over the next couple of scenes, she tries to suffocate Snow White with magic lacings for her blouse and then brings the poison apple that sorta/kinda does the deed. The drawfs return, lay her out for burial, and sing a lament for their now-dead housekeeper...

... as a handsome prince shows up, looking for someplace to rest for the night. And they now conveniently have a bed empty. He looks at the dead girl on the table and asks if he can take the body and bury it in the garden behind his castle. They say sure, no problem, and to seal the deal, he kisses the dead girl.

And even though she's not Sleeping Beauty, Snow White wakes up anyway. This being a fairy tale, the prince immediately proposes; she accepts; and we rush into the Act Two finale to let everyone know that Snow White's alive and about to marry off really, really well.

Act Three is at the Prince's place, where the wedding rehearsal is about to begin. Snow White's distraught because the Queen intercepted the invitation meant for the King, but when Tiger Lily shows up to make one more attempt at murdering Snow White, the drawfs grab her up and put her feet in a pair of red-hot metal dancing shoes, then send her out the door. But the King, having found the invitation in his wife's wastebasket, does arrive, and it's decided to move things on to a real wedding. And so with much singing and dancing and happiness towards vertically-challenged protectors, SNOW WHITE ends.

Now, not unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Disney-style flavour in this adaptation: talking animals and wee fee folks dress out the cast, even if the story has plot holes the size of small moons circling Jupiter — not the least of which is what to make of the relationship between the king and Tiger Lily. Remember, he sent her to the dungeon... but she apparently got out to wreak havoc. Even though he knows (or rather believes) the she sent his daughter to her death, he keeps her around — with a royal hairdresser no less.

Well, no one ever said that operetta royalty was especially bright.

Still, it appears Tiger Lily, with her vaguely Oriental-sounding name, can run circles around everyone in the kingdom, since she seems to be about the only one who can track Snow White to the dwarfs' cottage: the woodsman wouldnt have had enough time to get back and tell her anything, so I gather it must be chalked up to her mysterious Oriental powers... and maybe the mirror.

In the directing notes, it's written that the pacing of this should be "brisk", which I gather is how you plow through so the audience doesnt notice all the errors and omissions. Who knows, perhaps Paynter expected them to come in with a still firm memory of the Disney film, which would allow her to slack off a bit. Still, from a plotting point of view, a lot of this borders on the unforgivable, which makes me suspicious of what to expect from TOM SAWYER.

Side note: my copy of SNOW WHITE was previously owned by "Barry", who played the part of Nutty the Squirrel. Tiger Lily was played by "Norma Jeane": please note the odd spelling of the second name. I've only seen that once before, from a certain sex-pot actress who would have been 11 when this production was mounted. There's nothing, of course, definitive in thinking that this was perhaps Marilyn Monroe's first acting gig, but it's fun to think about.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Saucy Hollandaise

Secrecy is at the core of THE SAUCY HOLLANDAISE (1930) by Paul Bliss (cover art by Corina Melder-Collier), although the secret itself... well, like all secrets, you'll have to wait a bit to find it out.

That's not to say it's a good secret. Just that you have to wait.

We're in Holland, in the Royal Gardens. A ship from another country (never specified, but I think it's supposed to be England) has just arrived, and the sailors share their love for sailing the oceans and having a girl in every port. But the Prince who has commissioned this voyage has larger things in mind: to woo the Princess of Holland so he can learn the important State Secret she holds.

For their part, the narcoleptic King of Holland and his wife the Queen (who actually runs Holland with a semi-iron fist) dont want anyone to learn the secret, so they've arranged for the Princess to be shadowed by a tinker named Hans.

Still, the Prince is more than a little relentless and eventually wins the heart of the Princess, who tells him all about the important secret just before the curtain falls.

Running parallel to this numbingly obvious story is a series of gag scenes involving a doctor who, through a process he calls "trephining" manages to mix up the brains of the King and the Prince's ship's captain, who was about to organize a mutiny if the Prince didnt allow the men to stay in Holland. As a result, the mutineer becomes docile (and sleepy), while the King is transformed into a ragin' ruler, cutting through protocols with a razor-sharp sword in order to get all the storylines completed before the final curtain.

The secret? Okay, remember Hans Brinker, who saved Holland from drowning by supposedly putting his finger in the dyke? Nope, didnt happen. Instead, he reversed the engines in the windmills, which sent the water away from Holland instead of into it. For some reason I still havent quite figured out, if everyone knew this, it'd be a problem. I'm not sure how. I suppose it might involve the windmills generating such a force that they would blow back the ships of any invader who might come along. But that's a guess, because Bliss is... well, blissfully silent on the issue.

And perhaps I'm not supposed to. Bliss wrote THE SAUCY HOLLANDAISE as a kind of broad, vaudeville-style comedy, with character roles all over the place — the title should be your first clue about how seriously he takes the story. Everyone except for the two leads gets to participate in some very low comedy: Hans, for example, has a relentless stutter that only goes away when he sings. The doctor is afforded countless opportunities for improvised slapstick, particularly during the operation scene when he mistakenly transfers part of Joe's and the King's brains "without losing a single drop of blood!", as he reassures us. The Queen laughably runs roughshod over everything — think Carol Burnett as Maggie Thatcher here. If nothing else, Bliss does write some delightfully whacked out scenes for his oddball characters.

But the problem is, that's all he does. The score, even by juvenile operetta standards, is paper thin, and it seems that even the publisher had issues with the final product, as there's a moment in the first act when an entertainment is to be performed for the Prince. It's noted that you can ignore the "English Dance" in the score and use just anything else you want. I dont know about you, but that seems a bit cold. Or slapdash on the part of the composer. Or maybe both.

Still, that chill is merited, to some degree. The music aside, the lyrics use the same device — the "story song" — a little too frequently for the numbers to have any real impact. Hans tells us about being a tinker. The Princess tells us about being a princess. The Queen... well, you get the idea. Even the doctor gets a star turn, but it's doled out in the same three-verse/one-chorus architecture Bliss uses for everything else. When he's not using the device, usually during the large ensemble numbers, he writes four lines and has the chorus repeat them... over and over again, to the point where you no longer care about the life of a sailor on the open seas.

Ultimately, THE SAUCY HOLLANDAISE doesnt quite know what it wants to be, whether vaudeville act or romance. And in the process, it turns out to be neither. For that matter, by the end we dont even know for sure if the Prince actually got the Princess. Perhaps we're not supposed to know.

Not that it would make all that much difference anyway.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sadly...

... it seems that Willlis Music, one of the last publishers and distributors of these little shows, has moved its sheet music inventory to Hal Leonard, and the latter has decided not to carry them.

Not unexpected, of course, but still... very sad.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Orphans

For a while, some educational publishers chose to release the script and the vocal score separately, even though you bought them as a set. While I'm sure that was a great idea in 1930, it's left some major holes today, mostly because the scores had longer lives as antiques than the libretti. As such, I have a few that are songs only, leaving the actual storylines a mystery.

It's not surprising, actually. Most operetta librettists, even the professionals, didnt intend for their work to last beyond the final performance. They knew that all they were providing was a verbal clothesline for the music to hang onto. In some cases, what materials we do have conflict with the published scores, which themselves have been revised and changed, mostly just to retain copyright control. For example, THE QUAKER GIRL (1910), by Lionel Monckton, James Tanner, Adrian Ross, and Percy Greenback, saw the removal of a single song from Act Two, which seemed sufficient for Chappell to put in a new copyright claim in 1956, which allows them to retain control of this rarely performed work until apparently... oh... sometime in the 23rd century. Interestingly, the score available at the Internet Archive is earlier than the '56 version and has all of Monckton's work. So would Chappell get all bent out of shape if one performed the 1910 version, even though some of the music is now contained in the "re-edited" score? Probably so.

But the script? We're actually lucky in this case, because the script is available pretty readily online, both the original 1910 version and a pared-down one prepared in the 1980s. Still, there are areas where both conflict with the published vocal scores... granted, in small ways, but enough to be a bit of a headache. Traditionally, the published scores had "extra songs", added to the end, numbers that were cut during rehearsal — or even after opening night — or written when a new performer came into the production. The fact that the available scripts werent likewise updated is cast aside, because the librettists never seriously thought their work merited preserving. These were cast-off plots, built to order around a series of songs... and it was the songs the audience wanted, not the story.

Still, at least in this case, the script exists, and with a little rewrite, it can be adapted to fit the existing score, so I suppose we should be happy to have at least that much. Not so for some of the works in my collection. So we'll muddle through, as best we can, with what materials as they do exist.

EVERYSOUL (1912), by the Reverend J.F.X. O'Conor, is a religious pageant, not to be confused with the morality play of (almost) the same name. In this one, Everysoul is seeking the Land of the Sunrise Sea, where he will find happiness. He's guided by an Angel, who shows him how to distinguish between the voices of nature and the Evil Spirits that sow only confusion. The powers of Darkness are defeated by the Angel and her Good Spirits, and Everysoul finds he can communicate with the flowers and birds. Sorrow comes to Everysoul, but she's pushed back by Gladness and Hope. A few more metaphorical scenes later, and he arrives at the Golden Shore, where the gleaming waves "light up the vision of glory".

I have no idea what the libretto must have been like, but it appears that, were it staged, this would have been a major production, with no less than nine choruses required on top of a score of named characters. O'Conor is very specific that this is not to be performed as a cantata but as a fully staged work. As such, with a complete cast, this would have run close to 100, minimum, not including the orchestra.

Musically, it's... well, very Jesuit. O'Conor was no doubt a man of very deep faith but almost negligible musicianship. The songs are all almost relentlessly cut time, save for the occasional (and very brief) foray into 6/8. But beyond that, virtually the entire score is written, enigmatically enough, in b-flat major. I'm not that well-versed in church music to know if there was some particular symbolism attached to that particular key, but it was a bit surprising.

So, right off the bat, is this something where the libretto even deserves to be preserved after almost a century? Probably not — it was no doubt didactic as all get-out, filled with its own smug religious superiority. But the problem is, we'll never know. And one more little gap appears in our theatre history.

A NAUTICAL KNOT (1909) (no cover available), by Maude Elizabeth Inch and W. Rhys-Herbert (who gave us the painfully dreadful WILD ROSE) has at least a bit more information available, from professional productions in London of the time. Also known as "The Belle of Barnstapoole", it appears to have been a romantic comedy in which the haughty belle of Barnstapoole finds herself serving Her Majesty as a tar on a sailing ship. She gets involved with the first mate of the HMS Bounding Billow, and (somehow) hilarity ensues. Think TWELFTH NIGHT on the high seas, I suppose. Running counterpoint to their naval infatuations is the story of a young village girl and a wandering artist, but it's difficult to know exactly how that one sorts out because the score gives no real indication.

Musically, KNOT is much more interesting than WILD ROSE, possibly because Rhys-Herbert could focus on just the music in this case. Rather than the typical operetta fare, he's filled the score with hornpipes and jigs and country songs, but each has been given a little musical push. The finale, with its nine vocal lines, is almost ravishingly beautiful, but the rest are lovely simply unto themselves, with no specific purpose than just being lovely (Again, shades of WILD ROSE). I have a vague suspicion this was a lot more comic a show than the score will admit.

Finally, THE COUNT AND THE CO-ED (1930), by Geoffrey Morgan and Geoffrey O'Hara, is in many respects, the greatest loss of all. Yes, it's a simple college musical, but it's Geoffrey Morgan, folks, one of the few librettists in this format who had a consistently off-base take to almost everything he wrote. I'm guessing that the script is fairly straight-forward college material: pretty girl meets rich (pretending to be poor) guy and, after a few totally unnecessary complications, lives happily ever after. Colour me seriously disappointed at this loss.

Still, there are a few fascinating points still be uncovered by just looking at the score. For example, Marjorie (who I think is the titular co-ed) is a soprano, while her love interest Hamilton is a high tenor, not the expected mid-to-high baritone one finds in the shows Morgan wrote with Frederick Johnson. O'Hara reserves the lower male voice for a secondary character who happens to be a motor cop (who, again I think, is part of the secondary romantic couple), which says something, I think, about how he saw voice as a portrayal of masculinity.

There's also a number in the second act, a quartet for Marjorie, Hamilton, and two secondary characters:

It's sad but it's funny
How frequently money
Will furnish us joy and delight
It's awfully handy
For flowers and candy
And for lights that are bright

If you had a nickel
And I had a nickel
Between us we'd both have a dime
But now in our pockets
We've nothing but hands
And we've nothing to spend but time

It's a very charming and sweet lyric, with just the right turn at the end... if only I knew how it fit into the plot! Knowing Morgan's other work, I'm sure it had quite the setting.

Any information any reader might have about these three works would be greatly appreciated.

It's difficult to believe...

... that I've been writing this little blog for over a year now, and yet there we are: the first post was back in June of 08. How time flies.

So I felt it appropriate to stop a moment and just muse a bit about this bunch of lyricists and composers who brought so much consternation and, at the same time, joy to a generation of students. Having worked through enough of these scores, I realize we're talking about music that, quite simply, has not weathered well... at least not in the eyes of the theatre and/or music community. Any apparent value it might have as music has been superceded by the inescapable fact that it was written for a negligible purpose. I recently posted a short bio of Arthur Penn on a board dedicated to classical music, and it was greeted with a collective dismissive roll of the eyes. Never mind that the man was good at his craft -- he's simply not on the invitation list anymore.

And I find that sad. After all, Penn and Frederick Johnson and even the slightly batty Estelle Clark did their part to move high school theatre to a higher level, in essence paving the way for the endless performances we have today of RENT and GREASE and WICKED. Before these folks, there was no real school theatre per se, certainly not at the high school level: theatre, like the other arts, was viewed as a waste of time when there were more serious subjects at hand (The more things change, huh?). I dont know whose idea it might have been to write something original for the educational market, but from whatever humble start it might have had, it grew and developed and, for a while, flourished until it was shoved out of the way by cheap knock-offs of Broadway shows. One has only to look at the debacle that was early 50s MERRY WIDOW by Charles George to see how far we plummeted in such a short period of time.

I started writing these firmly thinking that what we have here deserved to be lost, what with their quaint little plots and thin little music and cardboard little characters... and yes, many of them do deserve to be sent into the dustbin of history. But sixty or seventy of these later, I've developed a real affection for not only the works but the people who put them together. Sure, there're lotsa clunkers in the list, but at the same time there's some highly polished work that merits new attention, rather than being shoved into the back shelves of the musty wing of the library and the bargain basement section of eBay. It's sad, in its way, that no one seems to see fit to give these another try, but then I suppose there's a relatively easy answer to that.

I wrote earlier on that these shows came to you as pretty much just words on a page. There were few indications of how something was to be produced beyond the stage manager's guide — assuming the school thought it necessary to spend the extra cash on one in the first place. No cast albums. No YouTube videos. Just the words on the page, which meant you had to find your own way through the material. You had to find your own sound to the music, your own look to the scenery and costumes, your own rhythms to the choreography, and your own interpretations for the characters. And the result was something uniquely your own, not a bad photocopy of "how they did it in New York".

But you had to work to get it. I suppose it shouldnt be surprising that these little works had their glory days during the Depression, when the national attitude towards solving a problem was to just get in there and work it out for yourself, not look to someone else to solve it for you. These operettas and the accompanying books on how to produce them, as minor and dismissable as they may be now, pushed the students into finding things on their own and, along the way, learning to make the most out of what they had at hand. We would no doubt laugh now at the idea of making a costume from crepe paper, but I'd happily bet that in 1931 the little actress wearing it felt as wonderful as her latter-day equivalent does today in her professionally-sewn, expensive New York rental.

Perhaps it's just my own cynical point of view, but it just feels like we've lost something very precious and magical en route to the Junior version of ANNIE. I might even go far as to say we've lost what it simply means to be involved in theatre as an artform, period, but I suppose that might come across as taking on a bit too much. Nevertheless, like everything else these days, theatre — even school theatre — is now an industry, designed for producers and licensing companies to make a few more bucks off the backs of starry-eyed kids. I guess it's best to just accept it as such and move on.

Monday, August 17, 2009

THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL

Another production handbook along the lines of those by Beach and Wilson, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL, by Katherine Anne Ommaney, gives a pretty decent overview to putting on a show.

Ommaney was an instructor at the North High School in Denver, Colorado, and her experience shows: this is a nearly exhaustive (and exhausting) book that covers the entire production process in enormous detail. Unlike Beach and Wilson's books, Ommaney doesnt limit herself to operetta but instead the entire gamut of the performing arts, from straight plays to musicales to pageants to even dramatic societies and how they should best be organized. Her focus is more on directing and acting -- with one chapter dedicated, in detail, to accents -- but she also inserts guidance on the art of the physical production and the craft of playwriting.

Each chapter provides exercises, some of which are... well, a little unusual (in the chapter on pantomime, she suggests going to the movies to watch George Arliss just for his hands). But her intent is obvious, to get her young actors and directors and playwrights and designers to think well beyond the traditional solution. For example, in the chapter on characterization, "laugh like a giggling schoolgirl in church; a fat man at a vaudeville show; a polite lady at a joke she has heard many times; a minister at a ladies' aid meeting." What's interesting (to me, anyway) about her choices is that they all require second level of thought -- not just a giggling schoolgirl, but one in church, which makes the exercise all the more intruiging.

Another, more complex exercise -- this one for playwrights -- starts with five clippings from the local paper. Each additional step in the exercise takes the nascent playwright deeper into the story-telling process: starting from the essential "what", s/he moves on to adding "who", "how", and "why" by working both in the micro ("write a detailed character sketch of the most interesting person you know") and the macro ("name five problems facing civilized people which you think must be solved by society"), then combining all of these various, seemingly unrelated facets into one working script.

Ommaney has a definite leaning towards the simple and direct yet comprehensive. "The average play written by high school students takes ten minutes to present, although there are sufficient possibilities in the plot for a half hour's action." She has little time for the irrelevant and trite: "the average conversation is too scattered, pointless, and dull to hold the attention of the audience" (David Mamet, take note!).

While not lavishly illustrated, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL has some wonderful black-and-white images of scenic design, created by Ben Kutcher. Kutcher came to the U.S. as a child and studied at the PAFA (1910-15) where he was awarded a traveling scholarship for one year of study in Europe. After serving in WWI, he worked in New York in advertising and theatrical work until 1927 and then moved to southern California. Known as an illustrator of children's books, he was a resident of Hollywood, CA until his death in 1967. His usual illustration style is heavily detailed, but in THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL he abandons that for simpler images that reduce things to mass and shape. Nevertheless, there's a definite whimsey to his approach, even for what he considers "realistic" scenery. The endflaps, images of stylized character costumes, appear to be his work as well.

As with both the Beach and Wilson books, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL is an intruiging snapshot of stage production during the Depression. There's a great deal of emphasis on self-reliance and independence of thought, although Ommaney is careful to temper that with mentor-like guidance -- never pointedly pushing in one direction or another, but gently guiding around the traps and potholes.

There's also some fascinating theatre history that could put you on top of your game when it comes to trivia. For example, Ommaney goes into great detail about the Clavilux, devised by Thomas Wilfred as a means of shifting colours of light within the same instrument... a sort of early 30s version of a programmable LED or VariColor today.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

THE SUNBONNET GIRL

Every show, in its way, is a Cinderella story: the heroine (usually) gets her handsome prince after some trial or other, and everyone lives happily ever after. But few embrace the fairy tale as wholeheartedly as THE SUNBONNET GIRL (1929) by the otherwise dependable team of Geoffrey Morgan and Frederick Johnson (with cover artwork by Doris Holt Hauman).

I say "otherwise dependable" because SUNBONNET GIRL is a bit of a mystery. Other Morgan/Johnson shows discussed here, such as CROCODILE ISLAND, display the labours of a team that took a bit of a sideways look at the operetta genre. But SUNBONNET GIRL is either a straight-forward traditional entry into the canon... or a highly subtle parody of one.

We're in the backyard of the Meadows household, where we find all of the local boys and girls gathered for the arrival of Mrs. Coleman, the president of the State Federation of Music Clubs. She's conducting a talent contest for a music scholarship. She's brought with her her son Bob, her daughter Barbara, and Bob's friend Jerry. And it seems everyone in the township will be entering, even the Meadows' daughter Miranda, who's courted by the simple-minded yet devastatingly handsome Reuben (Think Julie Brown's Superman-with-a-lobotomy).

In the midst of the excitement, a shy and poorly dressed girl named Sue timidly approaches and asks if she can participate. Mrs. Coleman is more than happy to add another contestant to the list, but Mrs. Scroggs, Sue's foster mother, adamantly refuses: the girl has plenty to do at home without getting her head all filled with fantasies about getting an education. Sue is of course devastated by this and tells Bob that she knows the Scroggs are holding out on her, that her parents left her a deed to some property, but they wont tell her what it is. Bob decides to enlist the services of the local constable, Ezra McSpavin, to find out the truth of the matter.

The second act is that night, with the contest being staged in the Meadows' yard. There's a couple of singers and a dancing team, and Mrs. Meadows declares the contest complete -- until Mrs. Coleman consults her list and says, No, we have one more, Susan Clifton. No one's really sure who this Susan Clifton is until Sue appears, gorgeously dressed (courtesy her fairy godmother Barbara), sings her solo, and is immediately awarded the prize.

The handsome prince Bob, carried away by the moment, immediately proposes, but Sue refuses, convinced that he's doing this out of pity. The only way she'd seriously entertain marriage, she says, is if she were his equal in wealth and independence. No sooner has she said this than Constanble McSpavin appears, telling her that amoung her affects hidden away by the Scroggs is a deed to a piece of property in Los Angeles (at the corner of Western and Wilshire), which is of course of immense value. This removes any barrier to the match, and the curtain falls on the prospect of a triple wedding.

Now, taken for what it is, this appears to be yeoman's work. The genre is filled with plays such as this, complete with the deus ex machina ending that ever so conveniently wraps up any and all straggling plot threads. But remember: this is Morgan and Johnson we're talking about, guys whose approach was anything but straight-forward. In work either written as a team or with others, they provided some twist that throws the proverbial monkey-wrench into the proceedings. CROCODILE ISLAND and TULIP TIME both have a whacked-out sensibility that made them casually hysterical. ROSE OF THE DANUBE (written with Arthur Penn, who was no comic slouch himself) takes devastatingly accurate pot shots at the film musicals of the day; UP IN THE AIR (with music by Don Wilson) gives us a leading man who was anything but.

So what is it, then, that we should find in SUNBONNET SUE? There are a couple of moments of dead-pan hilarity during the contest sequence, especially Evalina Scrogg's "art song", "Spring is on the Way", sung to an overblown harp accompaniment and a vocal tessitura that rivals that of CANDIDE's "Glitter and Be Gay".

The gentle spring is on the wing
It flies along like anything
The gentle spring is on the wing
The gentle spring is on the wing
So let us sing about the spring

Merrily the birdies sing
Tra la la la la la la
Merrily the notes they fling
Tra la la la la la la
Listen to the birds and bees
Warbling among the trees
Let us sing the livelong day
Spring is on the way

Okay, that's pretty bald. So's "It Aint My Fault", sung by Reuben, the constable's too-hot-for-his-own-good son.

I'm awfuly tired of getting blamed for everything I do
When lots of times it aint my fault as I can prove to you
I never do run after girls as you can plainly see
But then of course the trouble is they all run after me

It aint my fault Im handsome
It aint my fault I'm bold
When I go walking down the street
The girls all say "Aww, aint he sweet"
My fatal gift of beauty
Will haunt me night and day
But it aint my fault I'm handsome
I was born that way

Now, sure, a couple of comic numbers are to be expected, even in the most highly postured operetta. But once you get past the obvious ones like these two, the waters get a little murky. "I'm the Constable" continues the easy laughter, a character study of a self-important "minister of the law", but Mrs. Coleman's "Garden of Old Fashioned Flowers" starts to blur the line a bit between character song and the parody of a character song. It's like listening to something straight out of Hokinson cartoon.

Give me an old fashioned garden
All full of old fashioned flowers

Daisies are dotted all over the lawn
Violets bloom in the hush of the dawn
Roses are shedding their fragrance
Bright with the sun and the showers

There is a balm
In the beauty and calm
Of a garden of old fashioned flowers

Sue's entrance number, "Washing Dishes", outlines her frustration at the apparently endless stream of dirty plates the Scroggs leave in their path, but it's pushed just a bit over the edge, leaving the listener with the image of a kitchen that's filled to bursting as poor Cinderella is denied her night at the ball.

Washing dishes washing dishes
That is all I do it seems
Making wishes making wishes
While my head is full of dreams
Light the fire and scrub the floors
Carry ashes out of doors
And after all my other chores
Then I go back to washing dishes

And that's the thing: everything appears to be mocking the standard traditions of the operetta, but it's an appearance that could be misleading inasmuch as Morgan and Johnson arent so much sending up the conceits of the various song formulas as quite possibly the entire genre itself. Still, I have little doubt these two jokesters submitted this manuscript to Willis with tongue firmly planted in cheek, giggling like schoolgirls at what they got away with. Given their history, it's almost impossible to believe otherwise.

A brief note about Doris Hauman, who provided the cover art: she and her husband George (who illustrated the cover of SAILOR MAIDS) were apparently Willis regulars. It's difficult to know exactly which ones they did, since so many of these covers are left unsigned, but this is the third of hers (the others are HULDA OF HOLLAND and THE BAND WAGON, which she created with George) I've found with a name. I suspect she created the one for SOUTH IN SONORA as well, but it's not signed, so I cant say for sure. This charming cover for FAIRYLAND MUSIC is a truer example of her style: a very open layout, with a nice use of balance and colour. The typography is hand drawn, but it looks like the efforts of a different artist.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

ROBIN HOOD INC.

A bit of a riff on "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", ROBIN HOOD INC. (1928), by Frederick H. Martens and Allan Benedict — as well as cover art by Donn Crane — takes the story of the Merry Men and throws in a little Chicago-style organizing.

It starts off simply enough: the evil Sheriff of Nottingham is surprised in Sherwood Forest by Robin's gang. Inexplicably, Robin lets him go (!) just before Friar Tuck comes in with Ben Booster.

Now Ben here is a curious sort. He's not really described all that well in the script, but I get the impression that he's supposed to be in a suit and bowler hat, even though how he would have gotten into this play is a mystery better left unsolved.

Nevertheless, Ben has come to Robin with an idea: incorporate! That way, the Merry Men dont have to depend on just waiting for rich travelers to come through Sherwood Forest; they can look into such profit-minded activities as bookkeeping and road paving:

BEN. Fellow shareholders, the slogan of Robin Hood Incorporated is "bigger purses and better cuts!" Instead of a corporation of robbers operating for profit, we are a benevolent society acting under Section 43 to deprive malefactors of great wealth of unearned increment... for charitable purposes.

Problem is, they need start-up capital, which sorta bums everyone out until Ben comes up with the scheme of having Robin marry a rich heiress.

But the problem there is that Robin's heart is already promised to a certain Maid Mariam.

Well, no matter, as far as Ben is concerned. There are four very good candidates (none of which are Mariam) for the position of Robin's Wife, so all he has to do is choose one. Robin considers this for a moment, then says, "Sorry, they're all equally fascinating. I'll have to let my friends decide." — which is great, except that when one his friends chooses one of the fair ladies, the other three beat the crap out of him. So Robin tries Stalling Plan B: whoever brings the largest dowry will get his hand, which sets off the four in a mad dash to get their purses... except that Ben has rigged the contest by providing one of the ladies with a bag stuffed with cash. The crossbow marriage is about to begin when Robin suddenly stops everything with a final request:

ROBIN. I am stepping out of my own life. The president of an important corporation cannot leg it about the greenwood cutting purses! In a few minutes Sherwood Forest will be but a name to me. I shall take up golf and manage my wife's estate if the estate survive the working capital it must raise! Yet before I die — I mean, marry — let me see one more gay and rowdy forest dance!

He's hoping to run off in all the rowdy gay-ness, but unfortunately the Sheriff of Nottingham stops by with his archers and arrests everyone.

They're all hauled off to Westminster, where the Sheriff accuses them in front of Prince John of being highwaymen and "woodland yeggs", but they counter that they're merely "honest businessmen pledged to a more equalized distribution of wealth throughout the kingdom".

P. JOHN. Do you deny that you live by robbery?

ROBIN. I would not call it that, your highness. Words are so relative.

FRIAR. Our articles of incorporation prove...

SCARLETT. That we are making a notable practical effort...

L. JOHN. To show folks the beauty of the old ethical law that...

ALL. It is better to give than to receive.

SHERIFF. Bats fly in their belfries, my leige!

FRIAR. Our attorney, as soon as we get in touch with him, shall sue you for libel.

The Sheriff decides this is all nonsense, and to make his point even further, he tells Friar Tuck to get ready for a wedding, that he's going to marry Maid Mariam right there in front of Robin. Needless to say, this doesnt go over well, and within a half page of dialogue, Tuck has cut through everyone's bonds and Robin has the Sheriff in a headlock, promising to detach that same head if anyone comes any closer. The rest of the Merry Men come in, overpower the guards, and the day is saved. Robin leads everyone off, but Mariam and Ben are somehow left behind — and as a result, find themselves held hostage. Prince John is about to lay claim to Mariam himself when...

... suddenly a tall, knightly figure appears from behind his throne, and it's none other than King Richard himself, returned from the Crusades and not at all pleased at what he's seen. Prince John tries to tell him that Robin and his band have all been found guilty of robbery, but Ben intervenes, stating that Robin "is a member of a corporation and hence not responsible individually for its activities". He adds that Robin is also the Earl of Huntingdon, driven into the forest by Prince John and the Sheriff, who wanted his lands.

Oops.

Well, Richard agrees to free Robin and his men, but Ben reminds everyone that Robin still has a fiduciary obligation to marry Lady Lotta, as agreed by RHInc's board of directors. Robin snaps:

I have one message for you all. I will wed no woman others have chosen for me, but the one I have chosen for myself. Not even my king shall tell me where I must love.

The king, surprisingly, agrees but reassures Lady Lotta as well as the other contenders that all shall have mates -- and then proceeds to pair everyone off. One hopes there were enough Maids of Arden to go around for the Archers of Sherwood, but if not... well, what the heck. As Richard says, "Long live Romance!"

RICHARD. I am an old fashioned romantic, twelfth century king, I am content to take my Merry England as I find it.

And to a stirring (and, given the genre, slightly bizarre) song:

Five centuries from now
Is quite far ahead
For no matter how
We'll all be dead
So we'll be ourselves
While knighthood's in flower
We'll keep our romance
While we have the power
We're sitting pretty
On top of our world
It's the only world we know
Then shall we borrow
One bit of sorrow
For a tomorrow?
Nay, not so!

We're sitting pretty
On top of our world
And this being so, somehow
We'll keep on sitting
No one will care
Five hundred years from now!

... we call it quits.

ROBIN HOOD INC comes from the same composer as IN OLD VIENNA, one of the earliest pieces discussed in this blog, and like that work it has the same anachronistic charm and humour. It's surprisingly (and refreshingly) polished, with a fun-filled score and, at points, a laugh-out-loud book. The characters are all, of course, about as two-dimensional as one can get, but that just adds to the enjoyment: Robin is so very, very good, while the Sheriff and Prince John are so very, very bad. Maid Mariam does little more than throw her hands up in alarm and put her lips into a quivering moué of fear when she's not singing eternal devotion to Robin (even when he's looking at being hanged). And in the midst of all this too too traditionalism, we have the Puck-like Ben, styled after every baggy-pants comedian whose schtick was built around the slippery "businessmen" of the day, sending the obvious plot into a couple of delirious trainwrecks. The satire about 20s-era graft and the legal tap-dancing over "incorporation" are sharply pointed, perhaps a bit too much so for a show designed for high schoolers. Nevertheless, it provides a level of comic maturity you dont see very often in these works. Just as VIENNA took great joy with its pot shots at advertising, ROBIN HOOD INC throws the absurdities of Big Quasi-Legal Business out there and shines them up for everyone to see.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

SOUTH IN SONORA

You know you're in serious trouble when your leading actress isnt allowed to sing...

... because she's specifically written to be so ugly that you cant imagine her opening her mouth to anything other than a moan of despair...

... and yet that's the concept, I suppose, behind SOUTH IN SONORA (1932) by Charles and Juanita Roos and Charles Wakefield Cadman. I've mentioned their work before, the rather unfortunate GHOST OF LOLLYPOP BAY, and yet, here, in a work that should be right up their musical theatre alley, we find again that something just isnt quite right.

SOUTH IN SONORA starts with a fiesta at the Rancho Gomez, where a party is in full swing to celebrate the birthday of the President of Mexico. Don Ricardo Gomez, owner of this spread, is the father of five daughters, four of whom are gorgeous, one of whom is... well... not so gorgeous. In fact, Catalina seems to be all stumbling angles and lines, incapable of ever saying or doing the right thing. But because she's the oldest, tradition says she must marry before any of her sisters, who have long decided they're sentenced to a very long spinsterhood. But the problem there is that three of the sisters have fallen in love with an American engineer and a couple of college boys doing some work on the ranch's property.

Still, all is not totally lost, as Dan (the engineer) and Paquita hit on a scheme to marry off Catalina to a bandit general who's camping near the house. Essentially, it goes like this:

(a) convince the general that Rosita (another one of the sisters, the really pretty one) is in love with the general

(b) wait for him to attack the rancho and take everyone prisoner so he can marry Rosita

(c) substitute Catalina for Rosita by putting the "bride" under a heavy veil

(d) tell the general not to remove the veil until he's off the property because it's a priceless (and therefore invaluable) heirloom

So they do and he does and a priest is summoned and the two are married and the general leaves with his new wife and there is much joy in the Gomez household.

Now, lest you think this is just some weird form of sibling cruelty, let me replay for you one scene, in which the bandit appears and takes control of the house:

GENERAL. (flourishing gun) Hands up! Everybody!

CATALINA (clasping hands over heart and gazing at the general with a fatuously enamoured expression) Oh, what a man! So bold! So brave! So fearless! I never knew there were such! A man indeed!

GENERAL. (fiercely to Catalina) Hands up, you! (threatens her with gun)

CATALINA (continues gazing at him languishingly as she slowly puts up her hands)

So it's not like they were arranging something she didnt want... right?

Two months pass. No one's heard a word from Catalina, and Paquita and Rosita are starting to think this might not have been the wisest of ideas (Gosh, ya think?). Down in Mexico City, a new president has been elected, and he sends word that he would like to be entertained at the ranch for some mysterious reason. Meanwhile, Don Ricardo has heard about what happened to Catalina and has decided to send all four remaining daughters to a convent, where, presumably, they can rot before he's willing to forgive them. He's just about ready to send them packing when Catalina appears.

... with her new husband, the bandit general.

... who just happens to be the new president of Mexico.

El Presidente tells Ricardo that marrying Catalina was the best thing that ever happened to him and asks that he forgive his daughters so they too can marry the men they love. You dont really tell a president no (even if the whole thing smacks of some rather facetious comment on Mexican politics), and it all ends happily as the curtain falls.

Now, what makes this particular work a little odd (aside from the scenes noted above and, well, the plot in general) is that, as I wrote before, this is the first time I've come across a musical where the leading female doesnt get to sing. Everyone else does: the college boys, the engineers, the four sisters, even Don Ricardo and the Bandit General, not to mention the sly Indian housemaid who gets the general there in the first place. But not Catalina — she simply stands there in the first act looking doleful (well, until the general arrives) and smashingly (and inexplicably) wonderful in the third. But she never gets to express it in song. For all we know, the General loves her because of her ability to make really good corn muffins, but the Roos and Cadman never let her say for herself.

Of course, that might not be such a terrible thing. For example, Dan's protestations of love to Paquita:

Without you, my dear
The world is drear
I love you love you love you
Dark clouds disappear
When you are near
I love you love you love you
Dull winter is gone and spring is here
Because I believe you love me dear
The sun shines bright
And the skies are clear
I love you love you love you

... or when Don Ricardo discovers the ruse:

Gone! Gone! Gone!
Look upon my wild and deep despair!

To which the sympathetic chorus replies:

Away! Away!
To the rescue we go
Before the dawn is breaking!
This bandit dog must bite the dust
For the fair maiden's taking, taking!
To horse! To horse!
And away to the hills
With speed we must go riding!
In canyon wild or mountain glen
This bandit bold is hiding!
Gone!
Gone!
Gone!

Now, in all the time they spent singing this somewhat interminable finale, they probably could have captured him, but hey, no one said operetta choruses were especially bright.

Musically, Cadman really overshadows everything else in here with a score that's by comparison to LOLLYPOP BAY bright and sparkling and lush and almost too romantic. It's all very Mexican, but not so much so that it wanders in to parody: he knows just how far to take it. There are a couple of moments when the college boys take a particular song and re-sing in four-part barbershop harmony, but that seems more of a laugh at an American style of revamping things than the Mexican original. Still, it's simply not up to his non-operetta work: he's not quite strolling, but it's damn close.

It's just so frustrating to read this and know what these three were capable of in other areas of entertainment and how scant of their talents were put into these little shows. LOLLYPOP BAY was bad enough, but SONORA seems the more heinous crime, since all three were supposedly heavily inspired in their "serious" work by the American Southwest and Mexico. I have one other work by this team that I havent really looked at yet; perhaps it'll redeem their reputations a little. But on the basis of SONORA, that's starting to seem somewhat unlikely.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

THE GYPSY ROVER

Constructed from the same awkward framework as COLLEGE DAYS, THE GYPSY ROVER (1919), by May Hewes Dodge and John Wilson Dodge, seems to underscore that the mindless charm and fun of CRIMSON EYEBROWS was indeed something of a fluke.

It's the late 18th century, in a gypsy encampment on the outskirts of a country estate held by Sir George Martendale. Rob, our gypsy hero, proclaims to one and all that the gypsy life is for him... which is a pity because he's actually Sir Gilbert Howe, heir to the Howe estate, stolen in infancy by his nurse Meg, who now lives with Marto, the head gypsy. Rob has been raised with the understanding that Meg and Marto are his parents, even though they have typically swarthy gypsy skin tone while he's a typically pale English gentrymen, but we wont bother with the little detail for the moment.

His days are spent going to town and getting the best deals he can in trade, but it seems he's not the best at this. But no matter: the children in the camp love him, particularly for his stories and songs about Fairyland. His best friend is Sinfo, who's in love with Zara, the camp tease. Sinfo's incessantly frustrated by her convenient attentions, but we get that sorted out in good time before the arrival of Lady Constance, daughter of Sir George Martendale, and her fiancé, Lord Craven, who's a bit of a fop. They left the highway to pick some flowers and promptly got lost (well, no one ever said English nobility was especially bright). Craven's a nervous wreck about being in an actual gypsy camp, but Constance relishes the idea of a life without social whirls.

She meets Rob, and, of course, it's love at first sight. Their romance is interrupted by the arrival of Sir George and his guests out on a fox hunt. There's the pesky little problem of Lord Craven, but Sinfo and Marto take that issue in hand, threatening (subtly, of course) Craven at knife point that he should tell Sir George what a swell guy Rob is. Sir George thanks Rob for his kindness to his daughter, and with much happy singing about the return of the prodigal daughter, the first act ends.

The second act takes place in Constance's bedroom, two nights later. Craven, in a jealous snit, has forced the marriage to take place the following morning, and you can imagine what Constance thinks of that. Her misery is transformed to joy when Rob climbs up the ivy outside her window. They plot to run off together, but Sir George and Lord Craven intercept them at the last minute. Rob is sent to prison (for presumption, I suppose). And the second act ends.

Okay, bear in mind that we're 113 pages in on a script that's 134 pages, so you can imagine what Act Three is like. It's two years later. Rob has escaped from prison and been restored to his proper title and lands but has refused to date to set foot on English soil. While in Paris, he fended off an assassination attempt on the Prince and has become his best friend and constant companion. His singing is the hit of the continent, especially his song "Fairyland". For her part, Constance broke off her engagement to Craven and has sworn eternal love to her gypsy and has never married. Finally, the Prince has persuaded Rob — now Sir Gilbert again — to return home to England that very night for a soirée at Sir George's country mansion.

Yes, the same Sir George who threw him into a "bottomless pit".

And we find all this out in about two pages of dialogue between two tertiary characters. As they did in COLLEGE DAYS, the Dodges seemed to realize they only had a little time left and slammed everything they could in the way of necessary exposition in with the speed of a professional baseball pitcher going for a perfect speed ball game. They manage to get it all in just before Sir Gilbert makes his entrance. He's greeted by Sir George as a fellow aristocrat, even though Sir Gilbert, in an aside, remembers (for our benefit) his treatment in George's dungeon.

Constance appears and is introduced to Sir Gilbert, whom she doesnt remember. She fends off his approaches by telling him she's still in love with her gypsy boy — and of course, all he has to do is sing one line from his hit song "Fairyland" to jog her foggy memory. And they live happily ever after.

Now, as with COLLEGE DAYS, there's so much wrong in the plotting. Characters like Sinfo and Zara appear, sing their song, and then are seemingly forgotten. In fact, there's a parallel relationship in the third act between a Captain Jerome and Sir George's other daughter Nina, and that one's no more developed than the earlier one. We have no idea what happened to Meg after Act One; I gather she and Marto pulled up camp and went someplace else, because they're never mentioned again. Craven hangs in there for Acts One and Two, and you'd think he'd be there for Act Three for some final dramatic tension.... but he's not. Instead, he's written out with a casual and convenient knotting of that particular plot thread. It's also left uncertain whether Constance's two years of enforced celibacy are because she really loves Rob or because she's gonna show Daddy who's boss.

Lyrically, it's not very impressive (again, what happened to the wit we saw in CRIMSON EYEBROWS?), with songs that seem shoe-horned with no respect for the character singing. One love song is much like any other, which is sad considering what could have been done with characters like Sinfo, whose easily-threatened masculinity would have made for an amusingly sweet (if awkward) love song to Zara. Instead, it's easily tossed off lines about "sailing hand in hand across our gypsy land". The music too aspires to grand operetta in the Lehar vein, but it just doesnt quite make it: despite some well-intended parts work for each act's finale (Act Two's finale boasts ten vocal lines), the rest is just as treacly as the lyrics — and, for that matter, the script itself.

Again, it's almost bewildering to set this next to CRIMSON EYEBROWS and imagine they came from the same source. EYEBROWS showed wit and style as it poked fun at the conventions of the juvenile operetta. ROVER, on the other hand, ably demonstrates what was so very wrong with the format: shallow characterizations, clumsy plotting, awkward lyrics and music. Granted, ROVER comes from the early years of the high school operetta, and we've already seen numerous examples of works that succeeded where those like ROVER failed. If anything, ROVER demonstrates what we were coming from: the European model of Strauss and Lecoq. It would be a few more years before we would see the transition to what would be more properly described as a musical comedy, as the influences of composers such as Kern and Monckton made their impression on the professional operetta.

The cover art, by the way, is unsigned, but it smacks of the style of "C. Dodge", who provided the illustration work for COLLEGE DAYS and the not-yet-discussed WISHING WELL, also by John and May. I havent been able to find out what his/her relationship is to the authors, but it's clear it was all done in the family. There is the possibility that this is Cynthia Dodge, who wrote WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH SALLY, but I havent found anything yet to confirm that.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

YOKOHAMA MAID

YOKOHAMA MAID (1915) simply adds to my theory that the legacy of Arthur Penn is one of musical theatre's lost treasures. A wonderfully demented work, the play (which precedes CAPTAIN CROSSBONES by a few years) chronicles the results of a social experiment gone very, very wrong.

After an opening number in which a herald fills us in on some completely unnecessary backstory, we're in the garden of Sing-a-Song's house, where everyone has gathered to fete her sixteenth birthday. Unfortunately, the celebrantee isnt quite ready, but that leaves time for the mayor Fateddo to arrive and put everyone in their proper place... on the ground, eating dirt.

Once that's out of the way, Sing-a-Song appears, not caring tuppence that everyone knows she's sixteen. Her enjoyment of the moment is cut short when Fateddo tells her she's his betrothed, thanks to her father's will, which requests that she marry "a real live mayor", and Fateddo is the only single mayor her father knew.

Needless to say, this doesnt go over well with Sing-a-Song, but her misgivings are meliorated by Fateddo's announcement that she's to go to America for two years to become an acceptable, accomplished wife. She will be accompanied by Kissimee, her companion, and Tung-Waga, her nurse. And with a proper Donizettian sextet, the curtain falls in Act One.

Act Two takes us to the Mayor's garden. It's been two years, and he's anxious to see Sing-a-Song again (although he seems slightly more interested in the money and lands her father left her). The three women appear, now dressed in extravagant "American" style, and Fateddo is surprised to see the change in Sing-a-Song: rather than a quiet, demure little maiden, now she's a controlled, "sophisticated" American lady who has a few ideas all her own about this supposed marriage. But the Mayor sets all her objections to the side and starts the ceremony...

... only to be stopped by Harry Cortcase, a lawyer, and his associates Hilda and Stella, because it seems Sing-a-Song has married him. Fateddo dismisses it, pointing out the statements in the will that she "be willing to marry Fateddo" and, of course, the notes about her marrying a "real live mayor". Harry elegantly sidesteps the former by stating that of course she was "willing". The fact that she's married now simply makes it "impossible", which of course the will doesnt address. And as for marrying a real live mayor, Harry throws out the information bomb that he is indeed a mayor, of a town called Dollarsville, and had been a full month before marrying Sing-a-Song. As such, all of the requirements of the will have been met, so Sing-a-Song gets her father's estate. Unable to do anything now, Fateddo decides to commit "social hari-kari" by marrying Tung-Waga instead. And with another sextette, the curtain falls.

As noted, this was written prior to CAPTAIN CROSSBONES, and in some respects it shows. It's not quite as mature a work as CAPTAIN: the humour is a great deal broader, dependent on groaning puns — especially in the character names: Muvon Yu is the policeman, Knogudi is the mayor's secretary, Ah No a laundryman, and so on. Nevertheless, Penn's libretto allows for some great star turns for its secondary characters. For example, Tung Waga's song in Act One on the agonies of growing old:

Dim is my eye and grey my hair
For which misfortunes I hardly care
But had I been born at a later date
No doubt I could have controlled my fate

O powder puff
O sweet cold cream
Without your help
Life a curse would seem
O dainty rouge
O fifty cent massage
Had I but known
The powers you own
I would have begged my parents to
Postpone their marriage a decade or two

Like the libretto, the score is also not quite up to CROSSBONES' virtuosity, but it comes close. In some respects, this is because CROSSBONES is scored more as a full-bolt opera, with more complex choral work, while YOKOHAMA MAID is a chamber work with a smaller cast and therefore lower expectations. Still, there are some dazzling pieces of choral work and two finales that put the singers to their best advantage. It's a very clean work, with no obvious diversions for the sake of adding a musical number: everything builds, which is fairly rare for works of the period. Surprisingly enough, there are no dance numbers, although a few of the songs would lend themselves to adding one.

But Penn's larger goal seems to be in the singing: he arranges his score so that everyone gets an equal amount of face time, whether solo or as part of one of those sextet finales. The chorus works in complete subservience to the soloists: they sing more as an extension of the orchestra, not as a part of the acting company.

Nevertheless, like CROSSBONES, the Gilbert-and-Sullivan antecedents are clearly on display, with wry rhyming schemes and a storyline that speaks to cultural differences in a broadly comic way. While G&S's satire is more pointed and specific, YOKOHAMA MAID is a bit more scattershot, even with its smaller scale approach. Still, it shows Penn's slightly absurdist sense of humour in development, with all the groundwork in place for the more mature works such as CROSSBONES and THE CHINA SHOP.

Note: while in NY this past weekend, I hoped to finally secure the libretto to MAM'ZELLE TAPS, also by Penn. The Library of Performing Arts' computer database said they had one, but no one could locate it. Very frustrating, as you might think. Still, I have a few more options before throwing in the towel on ever finding one for that particular work.

To balance that frustration, I also put in a request for the libretto to PINK LADY, by Ivan Caryll. A hit when it opened in NY in 1911, it too has been almost completely forgotten. But we'll do our part to revive a bit of interest in this utterly charming little show.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

THE LADY SAYS YES

We should never forget that one of the purposes of the high school musical was not only to entertain but also to educate. Now normally that education came in the form of learning how to build scenery or run the mimeograph machine or play second-chair violin (when you should have had first, gosh darn it!). However, running with stories of Dutch flowergirls and Japanese shopowners came the occasional script that was taken from something in American history, although using a historical incident was fraught with peril. After all, you had to have a heroine (because girls are more likely to try out for theatre than boys) and there has to be a romance of some kind... which sorta means Lincoln's assassination probably wouldnt be high on folks' lists of stories that would translate well to the high school musical stage.

Nevertheless, there are a few — amoung them, THE LADY SAYS YES (1936) by Phyllis McGinley and Gladys Rich. I confess that when I first say the title, I expected some kind of Gershwin pastiche — certainly not the triangle of Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. Nevetheless, THE LADY SAYS YES does indeed treat us to a quick (very quick, actually) musical retelling of one of America's most famous botched proposals.

We're in Priscilla's living room (which is large enough to accommodate the authors' request for a chorus of 80!). The Maidens of Plymouth are having a little sewing bee, interrupted by the Men of Plymouth, led by local braggart Goodheart Manning, who has come to present Priscilla with a rabbit he shot in her honour. The Men (the italics are all Phyllis' idea, but I'm going to stop now) retire to the Council Room (which, since they dont really leave, I gather is just down the hall), leaving only Miles Standish and John Alden. Standish tells John that he's tired of being a lonely soldier: he'd really like to have someone like Priscilla around. But he's terrible with words, so could John be a really great friend and ask her for him?

Problem is, John really likes Priscilla himself. For her part, Priscilla is pretty gosh darn fond of John as well, and she cant understand why he wont take a little initiative. Still, love comes and goes, but friends are for, like, forever, so John agrees to deliver the message... even though he's none too happy about doing so. Standish is thrilled, so he arranges for John and Priscilla to be alone.

John delivers the message.

Priscilla delivers the classic line.

And we're at the end of Act One.

Act Two is still in the living room. Everyone's gathered for a little bon voyage party for the Mayflower, which sails back to England at high tide tomorrow. Standish is, of course, furious with John, so things are a bit strained. But the tension is broken by the arrival of a bunch of savage heathen Indians, who do a little dance and then tell Standish that we're all going to war. Standish, already pretty POd about the whole Priscilla thing, tells them that if they want a fight, just bring it, after which he launches into a song:

The man with ambition
Owns no inhibition
He need not petition
His friends or the Lord
He's servant, he's master
He mocks at disaster
And goes his own way
With his hand on his sword

Make a thing yourself
If you want it made correctly
Do a task yourself
If you want it done directly
Prime your own musket, boys
Build your own shelf
And this let me advise
Be very, very wise
If you would make love
Do it yourself!

No bitterness there, uh-uh.

At this point, Priscilla none too gently tells him to get a life, that if he wanted her, he should have said so instead of sending a messenger boy. Chagrined, Standish says yeah, maybe he should have — and he decides to be Mister Nice Guy by appointing Alden to be his deputy and take care of the town while he goes off to mix it up with Indians. But he'll be back in time for their wedding...

And on that somewhat alarming note, we end. Now, all things considered, THE LADY SAYS YES is actually a rather sweet little work about a woman who owns a house with a Great Big and Very Busy Room. I suspect that everyone in Plymouth actually lives with her, because everything seems to happen in this lady's living room. Women bring over their spinning wheels and gossip. Men show up with fresh kill. City government is operated from its settees, and Indians use it to call out these rude English people who dont seem to understand the concept of personal boundaries. I wonder how the poor woman sleeps at night, knowing that, even as she blows out the candle in her little bedroom, someone's still using that living room as Community Central, even at two in the morning.

But no matter. THE LADY SAYS YES really is a sweet little work, long on musical charm and just long enough to be entertaining. Ms. Rich's music commands a lot from her young performers, including some fun little pieces of parts work, while Ms. McGinley's script has opportunities for a couple of actors in secondary roles to do a bit of serious scenery chewing. My copy was apparently used by the actor who played Goodheart Manning, and it's quite the treat to see his carefully written notations about blocking and inflections.

THE MERRY WIDOW

By the 1950s, it seems, we were seeing the demise of the high school operetta: the scripts were for the most part highly abridged (and poorly re-written) classics... such as THE MERRY WIDOW (1952), by Charles George and that musical upstart Franz Lehar. Pronouncing itself "the Greatest Operetta Success in the World", this version takes Lehar's sweeping melody and joie de vivre and reduces it to almost an unrecognizable mess.

The basic story is still the same: a young widow is romanced by a handsome prince. But that's about all that one would recognize from the original. Under Mr. George's guidance, the setting is a seaside resort that smacks of the Jersey coast. Gathered for the season is a relentless crew of Very Rich People and Their Assorted Hangers-On, not to mention a society reporter only thinly disguised as Dorothy Kilgallen, a quartet of Maxim showgirls, a prince from one of those small yet terribly romantic European countries that one can never quite find on a map... and some guy from Chicago. Something on him later.

For now, we are told in the opening chorus that:

I say to all here assembled
That the season is under way
If for your position you've trembled
You need have no further dismay
For in the Blue Book's new edition
There is no one on condition
E'ry one has been approved to date
Which makes you rate in the social state

With that out of the way, it's time to lay on the exposition... with a shovel.

CLARISSA. Well, Mrs. Talbot's name has figured prominently in several of Miss Killgarden's columns. And Mrs. Talbot is newly arrived.

MRS. R. Which Mrs. Talbot?

CLARISSA. The widow of the fabulously wealthy Ellsworth Talbot.

MRS. R. You mean the late butcher of Chicago?

MRS. VAN. One would scarcely refer to Ellsworth Talbot as a butcher. He founded the great meat-packing concerns.

MRS. R. He dealt in meat, therefore I should classify this Mrs. Talbot as the butcher's widow. Nouveau riche. No background. (stiffen haughtily)

... and so on and so on, through a litany of the play's main characters. Monty Nelson (the guy from Chicago), who's also supremely rich. The mysterious Mr. Popenstein, who's been here for exactly eleven days. And of course, much talk about Adele Talbot, who's not only fabulously wealthy but incredibly young (25) and gorgeous (of course) and charming (natch) and... well, everything these society matrons arent. Therefore, they cant stand her.

Adele finally makes her entrance, encircled by every single man in the place.. and even a couple that arent. She tells them how much she misses Chicago, and I'm sure every single one would drive her there that night had it not been for the inopertune entrance of Monty Nelson, who dashes all their plans by escorting her by himself to the balcony. He makes yet another pass at her, which she pointedly (but charmingly) deflects, telling Monty that there's another man she's interested in... then quickly assuaging his crushed ego by saying Monty's "everything a woman should desire... and yet -- "

The woman just doesnt know when to keep her mouth shut.

... particularly when she finally shares the mysterious man of her dreams is a prince that she met...

... while she and her late husband were on their honeymoon.

Class act, eh? Mooning like a love-sick calf, Adele was apparently only one or two steps from ditching her husband and running off with this guy. Still, she insists nothing happened, that she stayed true to her husband (whom she didnt love: "Marriage to a man you do not love is like buying a napkin when what you want is a tablecloth.") until he conveniently died. Now she's off to find Mr. Mystery Date.

Well, she's no sooner gone than Popenstien appears, "the epitome of all masculine charms". It doesnt take long to figure out that it's Adele's prince, in disguise, on a little getaway. He's all suave charm, a bounder who can draw in women as adroitly as she can men. At this point, the story becomes achingly obvious, save for one plot twist late in the second act when it seems the Prince has a pre-arranged fiancée he sorta forgot to mention to Adele. In tears, she runs to the arms of the happily surprised Monty, who thinks maybe he's gonna get her after all. But only a few pages later, she goes back to the Prince, who decides that, for her, he'll give up his throne and go with her back to Chicago to help her run her late husband's meat packing plants. With one more sniff from the social arbiters at this shocking development, we have a merry celebratory finale, and the curtain falls.

There are so many, many things wrong with this adaption that it's difficult to know where to start. The characterizations are broadly painted with an eight-inch brush, and some of the motivations are... well, it would be less than charitable to call them appropriate. Adele comes across as a Slave to Duty who apparently hated life with her husband. That, coupled with the way Monty comes on to her, makes you wonder just how faithful she really was to the old guy. Then there's her schoolgirl passion for this prince: something she started, as noted, on her European tour honeymoon. Given her apparent treatment of Ellsworth and the Prince's widely publicized reputation as a bon vivant at all the right places in Paris (I mean, when does he rule his little country?), one almost thinks these two are right for each other... for all the wonderfully wrong reasons. Ah, and if you need any more evidence, there's the scene between him and Carlo, his minister in charge of the country's finances. His country is going broke... and he just cant bear to bring himself to return to deal with it, without having seen Chicago first.

Well, no one ever said operetta heroes were all that bright.

Buried somewhere under this mess is Lehar's score, which has been slashed to the point where many of the numbers are completely unrecognizable from their original settings. The combined script and vocal score runs about 150 pages, but the bulk of that is George's tedious, overwritten script. Most of the numbers are a scant few pages, reducing this almost a Coles Notes version. Indeed, Mr. George does to this what he did to the waltz in the previously discussed WALTZ TIME, and you want to throttle him, hard, on both counts.

The "greatest operetta success in the world"? Please. This MERRY WIDOW is a mere pretender, one that aspires to greatness on the coattails of its much more sophisticated ancestor. Pardon me while I sniff... hautily.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

THE MAGIC PIPER

Based on Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", THE MAGIC PIPER (1931), by N. Mitchell Hubrich and Carol Christopher (with beautifully designed cover art by Corina Melder-Collier), is like AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE in that it's a relatively short work meant to be performed by everyone from first graders through those in middle school.

It's 1225, in the small German town of Hamelin. A town crier starts the proceedings by telling us that he relays all the really important news, like the fact that the mayor has lost his snuff box. Katrina Van Winkle returns from a visit to Hanover to the competing attentions of Hans and Peter. Little Yacob has learned a song about a goat. And Frieda has a new doll.

But the biggest news in town has to deal with, of course, the rats. They're everywhere, even so far as stealing babies from their cradles and dolls from their beds. The mayor (who, by now, has successfully found his snuff box) and the town council are beseiged by everyone to find a solution... and who should appear by a mysterious piper. He tells everyone he'll take care of the problem for the fee of a thousand guilders.

"A thousand?" says the mayor. "Do it and we'll give you fifty thousand!"

The Piper nods his head, takes up his flute, and lures the rats into the river, where they're all drowned. The Piper returns for his fee, but the mayor laughs him off. Furious, the Piper takes up his flute again and charms the children to follow him into a cave at the base of a mountain. The mountain then slams shut.

Now this is where Browning's poem ends, but given that we're dealing with the juvenile operetta here, we cant leave good enough alone... so the story continues. Or, as noted in the script:

In order that the story may have a more pleasing ending, the librettist has added two more short scenes, bringing the children back.

...
which, in effect, is like those late-Victorian adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in which the star-crossed lovers dont quite die. At any rate, during the very brief Act Two, we're inside the mountain. The Piper entertains his little captives by providing them with music so they can dance. The Town Crier appears, with a bag of money, and the Piper, his honour assuaged, convinces the kids it's time to go home. The even briefer Act Three shows their return and the general rejoicing as the curtain falls.

As with RAINBOW'S EDGE, this is one of those playlets where the twenty-three musical numbers (over 44 pages!) are connected by the most minimal of dialogue, two or three lines maximum. Whatever side stories there may be, such as Katrina's return, are presented, then immediately forgotten, so we can move on to the next scene, which more or less turns the whole show into a series of star turns: a dramatic reading, a choral intro, a specialty dance, a comic number, a short dramatic ballet, and so on, all thrown together around the most minimal of adaptations of Browning's work.

Granted, you dont come to productions like this looking for depth of character. There's never enough time, after all, not when you have so many musical numbers to drive through. But the Piper is a bit of an odd comedy role here. Remember: the town has ripped him off, so he takes their children as revenge. But he soon finds out that babysitting this pack aint what it's cracked up to be, because only a day or two in, and he's run out of stories to tell them. And they're bored. Mightily, mightily bored. When the Town Crier appears (conveniently through the audience, so no one questions how he got inside the mountain when no one else could) with cash in hand, the Piper cant convince these urchins fast enough that it's time to go home and see Momma. It's interesting that he doesnt even appear during Act Three, save by a distant, off-stage flute solo. Instead, the children run on, everyone sings the finale

Oh we are all happy
Our children have come home
And from our city Hamelin
They never more will roam

... and that's it.

Thing is, the original poem (and the folklore on which it was based) was an object lesson: follow through on your promises. In THE MAGIC PIPER, that lesson disappears into thin air; no one in Hamelin has really learned anything by the theft and subsequent return of their kids, which sorta defeats the purpose of the story.

That's not to suggest that the audience couldnt figure out the message here. When you walk into an adaptation of well-trod material, you're going to bring along whatever moral lesson you obtained with it, so I gather Christopher and Hubrich felt they could just blunder along, provide a "more pleasing" ending, and let the audience do all the moral heavy lifting...

... which feels like even more of a rip-off than the Mayor's bait-and-switch payment for services rendered.