Wednesday, January 21, 2009


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.

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