Wednesday, January 21, 2009

PURPLE TOWERS

Every so often, I'll get something, read through it once or twice, and think "Okay, that's cute, but..." Then, I'll get something like MOON MAIDEN: a first read doesnt even begin to do it justice because it takes a while to see what the authors had in mind. So it is with PURPLE TOWERS (1927) by (who else) Don Wilson.

The story is typical operetta fare: mistaken identities, revelations of enormous wealth at the last minute, a (very) low comedy black face character, and a score that's part fun and, well, part something else altogether. But see, thing is, that doesnt matter much.

Act One is the train station at Centerville, where part of the town's daily ritual is to come greet the train (as well provide an opening number). All sorts of people are arriving today, including Urseba Applegate and her niece Helen who are en route to take vacation occupany of the mysterious manse, the Purple Towers. Urseba is one of those wealthy women that knows what she wants and will pretty much stop at nothing to get it, even if it turns out that it's not what she wants at all. Accompanying them is a young man named Phil Bradley, who writes novels and whose father was financially ruined by the owner of the mansion, the recently deceased Arthur Vanderlip...

... which brings us to the last person arriving today, a young lady named Mary. Phil's had his eye on her ever since they all boarded in Chicago, but she's been hesitant to say anything to him because it turns out she's Arthur's daughter. Not exactly the best way to meet someone, doncha know. So she takes advantage of the situation and pretends to be Applegate's cook, who was hired sight unseen and, conveniently, wont be coming.

Well, rumours have been swirling around Centerville that Purple Towers is haunted. It's not, of course, but everyone thinks so because they keep hearing these strange noises... which are actually a prize fighter named Red who's been using the empty house as a training camp. He and his manager Earl are actually on their way out of town when Red realizes he's left the contract for his next bout back at Purple Towers.

So... Urseba, Helen, Phil, Mary, and their various friends all head to Purple Towers to scare any spirits away by... how else? -- throwing a party. During the festivities, Red and Earl weave their way through the action as they look for the contract; instead, all it does is reinforce the fear that the place is Ghost Central. Urseba's maid Tillie collects everyone's valuables and puts them in a suitcase (Why, you ask? I'm not sure myself) for safe-keeping... but wouldnt you know it: Red's suitcase is exactly like hers, and the two get switched. Mary gets blamed for it, because Urseba now knows she's an imposter -- but she cant reveal who she really is because she's fallen for Phil and doesnt want to screw it up by telling him who her father was.

Well, eventually it all gets sorted out: Parker and Red are discovered, and everything gets explained. Phil is so smitten with Mary that her dead father no longer matters. And the curtain falls.

Not the most brilliant piece of writing, by a long shot, but what saves this little gem is the tongue-in-cheek approach Wilson has taken to everything, especially in his handling of the chorus. Consider the number in which they tell us why they're at the station:

GIRLS: Girls from Centreville are we.

BOYS: They are peaches as you see.

ALL: Every day when it's time for the train
We come to meet it in sunshine or rain
Winter, summer, spring, or fall
We/They are here to greet you all
Singing, clinging sunshine bringing
Girls from Centreville.

We're all on our toes
When the whistle blows
We have nothing else to do
So we are here when the train goes through
All the traveling men we know
Stop to smile and say hello
We're glad to meet them
And cordially greet them
When we come to meet the train

Now, sure, it seems simple enough, but it's emblematic of the way he approaches the chorus. In his hands, they're this utterly ditzy bunch, practically a character en masse that comment almost non-stop throughout the play. They hail Mary as a brilliant cook, even though she keeps telling them she's not. They spontaneously appear behind Phil when he needs a musical supplement to his love ballad. Then, still convinced of Mary's prowess as a cook, they all suddenly put on chef's whites and sing about being experts in the art of cooking -- under Mary's sublime guidance, of course. During the obligatory black-face number, they appear as "Hottentots", but I can imagine the director who buys into the total weirdness of this making them something that mocks the very joke that is the art of black face. Virtually every ensemble number is a bizarre, shatter-the-fourth-wall song that sounds like something more appropriate for a cartoon than a stage musical -- but considering that this whole thing is a cartoon, on so many fronts, maybe that's not so unexpected. After all, Phil falls hard and fast for Mary, to the point where he sings no less than three love songs to her in the space of about 30 minutes. For her part, she gets to duet with him only once, but what a duet it is:

I can hear the bells in the old church tower
I can see the crowd waiting for the hour
There stands the preacher with a smile on his face
I'll bet that he's like to take my place
Now I hear the groom saying "I do"
The bride says she'll take him and obey him too
Now you have the ring that says you are/I am your wife
Now you'll/I'll serve your/my sentence:
Labour hard for life.

Please note: she gets "hard labour for life" -- tell me, what soprano would take that even remotely seriously? It's all so very typical and yet so self-parodic that it's charming and funny all at the same time.

Truly, PURPLE TOWERS is by turn utterly theatrical and beguiling and still eye-roll-worthy. The music isnt Wilson's best, but it's far from his worst: he actually writes with a sense of character theme and carries them throughout the evening, thus raising the score from the essentially pedestrian to the reasonably acceptable and, at times, the outrageously wry and funny. Wilson was still finding his footing when he wrote PURPLE TOWERS, and it shows. But at the same time, you can also see the first emergence of someone who would be a defining force for the genre. I'd noted earlier in this blog that his writing of this period is suggestive of Gershwin or Dorothy Fields, and PURPLE TOWERS is no exception to that. It's very much cast from the musical theatre mold of the time: light, frothy, and surprisingly entertaining.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I'm blogged!

Musicals Blog Directory

I dont know what this means, precisely. But here we are. Apparently blogged.com is an index of blogs across the Internet, and someone put mine in for submission.

Pretty cool.

WALTZ TIME

Back in 1973, critics were raving about Sondheim's all-3/4-time score for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC: it was the first time in Broadway history that a score had been written to such tight parameters (although, to be honest, some of it veers into 6/8). But Sondheim could have discovered a thing or two about writing all-waltz scores by perusing WALTZ TIME (1945) by Charles George.

Not that someone like Sondheim would have actually learned from the experience: if anything, WALTZ TIME does for waltzes what THE WILD ROSE does for flowers -- instill a desire to leave the theatre and seriously thump the first Strauss-wannabe that crosses one's path.

Our central charcter is Kirby Stevens, young, gifted, obessed with writing music, one whose tastes (according to the author) "run to melody and beauty rather than swing and syncopated noise". His ambition is to write a great waltz, one that will live in the hearts of its listeners.

Now, there's nothing wrong with ambition. But let us not forget that Kirby lives at home and seems to think he does so free of any obligations. Actual day-to-day chores are witheringly beneath him -- he is an artiste, a humble slave of the demanding god Music. Anything else is just... well, beneath him.

Should you think I'm being cruel here, consider:

MRS STEVENS: Your brother is a hard-working, industrious boy.

KIRBY: (significantly) I'm sure no one expected Sir Arthur Sullivan or Vincent Herbert to have the soul of a laborer.

Yeah, nice kid. He also makes fun of everyone else's tastes in music, which has pretty well ostrasized him from almost all his school chums, with the notable exception of Sue, who seems to think Kirby can write no wrong... even though Kirby's more or less oblivious to her attentions: when he's not at home playing the piano, he's over at Gretchen's... playing the piano (A piano seems a requisite for getting this boy's eye.).

And Sue doesnt like that very much.

Note to Sue: get a piano.

Ah, but the haughty Gretchen doesnt like waltzes very much, leaving Kirby in a conundrum: the girl he wants -- rich, sophisticated, rich, elegant, rich (Did I mention rich?) -- berates his work as old-fashioned, even as he points out that all jitter-bugging does is make you sweat... whereas a waltz, well, it's romantic.

His friends do not share his sentiments.

Well, nuts to them, he decides in a fit of pique. He's going to write the next number one song on the Hit Parade -- and it's gonna be a (wait for it) waltz! Good for you, they reply, as they all head out to enjoy the sunshine. Once they're gone, Patricia, Sue's best friend, tries to clue Kirby in on Sue's feelings for him, but he's oblivous as always: "If only Gretchen felt about my music the way Sue does, I'd be the happiest fellow live."

(Did I mention that Gretchen is rich?)

Well, now we meet Jeff, who's (understandably) tired of his snot-nosed brother. With their father dead, Jeff got put to work immediately after hgh school, while Kirby took his part of the inheritance and went to college -- and never seems to want to let anyone forget it.

KIRBY: I'm sick and tired of him playing the martyr. Father left us an equal amount of money. I took mine to get an education, therefore I have no money. Jeff has the money and no education. So I'm by far the richer.

Honestly, doesnt it make you want to pop this boy in the mouth a few times? Still, his mother and brother are adamant: one more month of this nonsense, and then he has to either find a real job or find another place to live so someone else can support him (Did I mention that Gretchen is rich?).

Well, time for the reversal-of-fortune scene: just as Kirby has accepted his failure, a letter arrives from radio star King Wayne the Waltz King. He got Kirby's manuscript and has asked one of his performers to sing in on his show -- and if it gets a good reception from the audience, he'll pull a few strings and get it published.

Now, of course, everyone just loves Kirby and his work -- even Gretchen. Sue's devastated when she hears Kirby tell everyone that Gretchen was the inspiration for this little ditty, but she almost manages to mask it. And Kirby's mother? Well, she always knew her son would be a success!

Act Two starts the night of the broadcast, and everyone's all excited. Gretchen shows up, looking fabulous (and rich), so delighted to hear HER song that she sent herself flowers to congratulate herself on his success. Ah, but tragedy strikes: King Wayne's performer decided not to sing the song (You'll understand why soon enough). And if Kirby's world couldnt get any bleaker, there's a phone call.

From Sue.

Telling him she's getting married to someone else.

And now the boy figures it out. As he rushes to stop the wedding, the curtain lurches to the stage, and we take a brief breather.

The next morning. Kirby has come to realize Sue's love for him... and if that's not enough, he's visited by a Lester Templeton, a music publisher who just happened to be in Atlantic City during the King Wayne broadcast and who now just happens to be driving through Kirby's town on his way back to New York City so he can offer Kirby a publishing deal.

So all ends happily: Kirby gets Sue, Jeff gets Patricia, Gretchen gets Gretchen. And with a last reprise of Kirby's hit song, the curtain falls once more, this time, thankfully, for good.

Sometimes, when reading these scripts, I honestly wonder if the writers set out to create the nastiest characters possible as a challenge to their young actors. Lord knows, we've seen greed portrayed enough times, but WALTZ TIME punches it up about three or four levels: just about everyone bases their life choices on money, all with an egocentricity so massive that it makes one wonder if the stage is large enough to contain it all. The let's-work-together spirit of World War Two doesnt seem to have touched this afflutent bunch, and it shows, especially in our main character. After all, let's face it: Kirby's not exactly a nice guy. He's the epitome of the spoiled, over-educated little brat -- and shows his complete lack of business sense when he doesnt even bother to read the contracts Templeton tosses at him. Meanwhile, his mother demonstrates quite ably her ability to spin her affections from one son to the other when the money's right. But that seems to be how most of his friends operate as well: before the song's acceptance on King Wayne, Kirby's a laughingstock; once the song is accepted, they cant be close enough to their buddy-buddy and newest, bestest friend in the whole wide world. Only Jeff, the working-class stiff, gets through both acts with some intergity: yes, he congratulates Kirby on his success (which is greeted with a somewhat snarky "I told you so!" response), but it's done with the same blunt honesty he shows in Act One in his exasperation with his free-loading brother.

And all of this comes down on a single song, repeated no less than three times throughout the show. Ladies and gentlemen, Kirby Stevens' masterpiece:

Sweetheart, sweetheart
I love you
Such a sweetheart
I never knew
My arms will hold you
We'll never part
Always enfold you
My sweetheart

I might add that these are all of the lyrics... for the entire song... every bit of it.

(Insert sigh here.)

Musically, it doesnt fare much better. The bulk of the score is written from a rather relentless starting point, the key of F. A few veer ever so slightly into the key of C, sometimes even E-flat, but the tempe are virtually the same throughout, which I'm sure resulted in an evening not unlike the infamous Chinese water torture: drip-drip-drip, drip-drip-drip, drip-drip-drip... OKAY, ENOUGH! I'LL CONFESS! I KILLED HIM WITH A METRONOME IN THE MUSIC ROOM BECAUSE HE WOULDNT STOP PLAYING "SWEETHEART"!!