Saturday, February 28, 2009

THE BAND WAGON

A diverting pleasure that leaves you hanging without you even knowing it, THE BAND WAGON (1937), by Sarah Grames Clark and Arthur Penn (cover art by George and Doris Hauman), demonstrates how you can have as many as six story lines running at the same time and still make it easy on your audience.

We're at a train station near a large, unnamed Northeastern college, which is to be the site of a marching band convention and a pan-college glee club concert, not to mention a street carnival as well. No less than fourteen principals are introduced in the first eight pages, each with his or her own plot, which range from a West Point cadet named Don who finds himself in an on-again, off-again love affair with a senator's daughter names Betty... to a pair of suitcases that have been mixed up in the confusion of everyone's arrival, resulting in two boys (Jerry and Sandy) getting those belonging to two girls (Prue and Sally), and vice versa. And if things couldnt get crowded enough on stage, suddenly a full marching band comes through.

One of the band contingents has traveled from Montana in the accompaniement of an elderly professor, while one of the glee clubs has arrived under the supervision of another -- and it turns out that these two have a bit of a history together, one both the band and the glee club hope will be rekindled so everyone has a reason to stay an extra night for the carnival.

Okay, Betty meets Don, and it's all terribly cute and everything... but it's not till Prue and Sally show up that we get to the real action. Remember: they've been given a suitcase with boys' clothes in it (specifically, their band uniforms), and they hatch the scheme to dress up in the uniforms and drive the ladies wild at the carnival that night:

What could be sweeter
Completer
Or neater
Than you and I
Gaily flirting by
With a saucy eye
On every dear lassie
So classy
And sassy
So sweet and shy

... which is followed by a "flirtation dance" (and, I gather, a little 1937 version of hot girl-on-girl action).

Now, at the same time, Jerry and Sandy (who got the girls' suitcase) are convinced by some of their bandmates to put on the girls' evening gowns.

Just a little bit of this
Can make a mister into miss
When it's added to a little bit of that
Just a frilly fluffy tie
Or a veil across one eye
And a man is transformed in nothing flat

You just take a fussy bit of lace
Or don a silly hat
And you look a lovely lass
Or a spiteful little cat
You can see yourselves we've got it
Oh we've got it down pat
Just a little bit of this and that

Why? you ask. To make some other girls (in yet another plot line) jealous, although that's pretty well hidden in the dialogue. And so the boys do, without putting up even the least amount of fight... and they do seem to be enjoying it. A lot. Almost as much as the girls dressed up as boys. Magically, everyone can wear everyone else's clothes because everyone's the same size. Yikes. The resulting complications of girls-as-boys and boys-as-girls command so much of the second act that Betty and Don are all but forgotten: everything builds to a point where the four crossdressers are all arrested for disorderly conduct and hauled off by the police...

... except they're not really the police, just more bandmembers having a lark on Carnival Night. After this wow-i-bet-you-never-saw-that-coming plot twist, there's a brief coda the following morning, where we find out that the two professors have already gone to New York on the midnight train. Everyone laughs and laughs and laughs and (finally) sings as they get onboard for... well, wherever they're going from here.

But wait, you ask, what about Betty and Don and Prue and Jerry and Sally and Sandy, not to mention Hal and Marybelle and the two redcaps Mose and Sam? Got me, ace. I gather it's all supposed to end happily for our various couples, but Clark and Penn are leaving it open for a sequel, I suppose.

Nevertheless, despite the loose ends dangling all over the final curtain, I can see why BAND WAGON would have been as popular as it was. It's huge. I'm not kidding: you could put the entire senior class in this thing and still have parts to fill. Between the fourteen named characters, you also have the band, the other students who have come for the events, the townspeople, a relatively small band of gypsies, and a West Point contingent. As a concession to smaller schools that might not be able to handle a production of the size, the authors mention that should a marching band not be available, the director can use Boy Scouts or a local military parade group instead... which would put an interesting spin on some of the characters, that's for sure.

And it's also fun, with songs that allow everyone to show off just a bit, whether singer or dancer. Surprisingly enough, most of the songs actually propel the plot, which is a nice change from the usual "drop a cue out of mid air" approach usually employed in the genre. But let us not forget that Arthur Penn, who wrote the music, didnt limit himself to just high school operettas: he was also an established composer of professional-level stage works, such as Mam'zelle Taps and Nautical Knot. I imagine that while he may have seen works such as BAND WAGON as sort of a banker's holiday, it didnt stop Penn from contributing a score that went far further than even our old standby Don Wilson could have composed.

Penn is actually the second such high-profile composer I've come across that worked in this genre -- the other being Charles Cadman, mentioned earlier. I wonder if the publishing companies saw these as the real acquisition gems they were, considering who these men were and what they gave the musical world.

Still, the one thing that you leave with with a work like BAND WAGON is how easy it is to get people to wear clothing not meant for their gender. If indeed Jerry and Sandy and Prue and Sally did get together after final curtain, I'm sure it means one gigantic wardrobe for everyone to share.

Now there's an image for you to consider.

Very quick thank you

So I wrote that my score of WOODLAND was missing the last eight pages.

That has now been corrected by my good friend Colin Johnson, who lives in a small village in the Kent region of England. He rummaged around his attic, found his copy, scanned the pages in question, and sent them to me -- God bless Colin, God bless England, and God bless the internet.

And check out his absolutely amazing site: http://www.halhkmusic.com/. I have no idea where he's found all these scores, but I'm glad he did!

Monday, February 16, 2009

WOODLAND

This is another one of those lost masterpieces like THE PRINCE OF PILSEN -- and comes from the same creative team of Gustav Luder and Frank Pixley. A "forest fantasy", WOODLAND (1904) is loosely based on "The Birds" by Aristophanes and is true to the source material only in the sense that the players (all of them in this, unlike just most of them in the Greek original) are birds.

Although I havent been able to track down a copy of the libretto, the list of characters makes it pretty clear that this was a satire of some kind: there are birds representing Justice and Politics and Town Gossips and the Church. It was quite the hit, with a rave review in the New York Times, which seemed especially enamoured with the music (For those interested, you can hear the songs in midi configurations at Colin Johnson's incomparable site: www.halhkmusic.com/woodland.html) and the physical production.

The sad thing about works such as WOODLAND (and PRINCE OF PILSEN, for that matter) is that so little exists about the shows beyond the vocal scores. The scripts have all but disappeared, save for a very few tantalizing clues: PILSEN, at the very least, left behind a footprint that allows for a decent reconstruction, but WOODLAND might as well never have existed, for all the information one can find. And given what a joy the score is, that's a real shame. I have little doubt that the libretto was a string of facile jokes, but it would be fascinating to see what strung together the gems that make up the score.

Still, just finding the score was a bit of a coup: there are only a few copies out there, from what I can see, and most seem incomplete -- my own copy stops at 178, which means I'm missing the last eight pages.

But it's the mystery of the thing that tantalizes me. If anyone knows anything about this eccentric work, please, please let me know.

LAZY TOWN

Another voyage into the surreal world of Estelle Clark, LAZY TOWN (1935) was ostensibly written for the lower grades, but so much of it is so disjointed and (at times) downright bizarre that I wonder how it was received by audiences expecting something slightly more than a cute pageant for 10 year olds.

The title has nothing to do with the play, by the way. Lazy Town is (apparently) a Dutch settlement outside an unspecified Western town, sometime during the Gold Rush days of the 1840s. I say "apparently" because Estelle really makes you work to figure this out.

Nevertheless, we're in the sad little cabin of the Roozee family. Papa has gone off to make his fortune in the gold fields, and no one's heard from him in five years. Mama keeps everyone's body and soul together by taking in laundry. It's Meena's tenth birthday, and all she really wants is a doll she saw in the shop window. Instead, she gets a party.

Hmm. On one hand, a doll. On the other, a fun time with your friends. Tough call. And she seems to have made up her mind: friends are for the moment, but a doll like that is forever. And now it seems unlikely she wont get it. Well, cant have everything, I suppose.

Still, her friends have brought her presents (except for the annoyingly cute Snitzy, who brought a gift "but I ate it"). Still, Meena's all about that doll, so Mama gives up and goes to get it for her. While she's gone, Meena falls asleep and dreams of a witch who's brought a bunch of brownies (the fey folk, not the food) and a caldron in which she stirs good luck.

She wakes up when her brother Peter barges in, with his friends Slim, Patch, and the forever-hungry Tubby. Gold's been found north of town, and now the whole town is celebrating, with bonfires and Lord only knows what all else. Mama, who's come back, takes Meena to the toy store (because I think she couldnt figure out which one Meena wanted) while Peter and his friends disappear to make deliveries for his mother.

Theyre no sooner out the door than a crew of Mysterious Men and Women appear and proceed to redecorate the place, turning the sad little cabin into a gorgeous palace.

Who are they? It's a mystery.

Why has the play turned into an episode of Extreme Home Makeover? Because it has.

And with that, the curtain falls on Act One.

Act Two starts a short time later, with all the neighbours waiting for Mama and Meena to come home for the party. Inexplicably, no one seems to notice (or comments on) the substantial changes in the room in the last twenty minutes: instead, they're all doing their best to keep Tubby from chowing down on the birthday cake while keeping ghosts out of the corners of the room (Dont ask me; I have no idea...).

When the two do return, Meena's convinced the witch changed everything, because, well, the doll she wanted is sitting right there in a fancy chair that wasnt there a half hour ago. There's a strange laugh outside, and Meena runs to see if it's the witch. Everyone else is suddenly despondent because they think they'll never see poor little Meena again. To take their minds off that gloomy thought, they decide to put candles on the birthday cake... but none can be found.

Well, we cant have that, so Ten Candle Lighters mysteriously appear and place candles on the cake. Tubby, of course, has to eat one. Meena rushes back in with Papa, who has hit it rich and made all this happen. He's even brought Peter a burro "all the way from Nome", but the animal refuses to perform until a fish tied to a stick is dangled before its eyes by a little Eskimo (or maybe he saw the glint in Tubby's eye). Papa decides to give the cabin to the poorest family in town, and everyone sings and dances as the curtain falls.

Truly, what drugs was this woman doing and where can I find some?

Granted, operettas for the younger set were a lot less structured, but this one is truly out there, even for Estelle. The storyline truly makes little, if any, sense: burros, eskimos, candle lighters, flower dancers, a chorus of baby dolls, tap dancing newsboys, "mystery" men and women (who, by the way, never appear again after their star turn in Act One) -- it all becomes more than a bit surreal, even by Mrs. Clark's usual convoluted standards. Granted, it's one of those plays that guarantees a part for everyone, no matter whether they're singers or dancers or capable of absolutely nothing at all. But it's all such a mosh, a grab bag of literally any- and everything, all tossed in for no other reason than the fact that Estelle chose to toss them in.

The lyrics are up to her usual standards. The opening chorus:

Hand in hand we dance around and joyously we sing
As we're linked together like a garland in the spring
Come and join us in our happy roundelay
For our Meena's ten years old today

... and, a page later, when they leave:

So long, Meena! We'll come back without a doubt
To light the candles so you can blow them out

... and the appearance of the Mystery Men:

We are Men of Mystery
We go from place to place
We never show our face
For we're Men of Mystery
(All hiss loudly)

Why a hiss? I have no earthly idea, but bearing in mind that we're dealing with the sometimes inscrutable brain of Estelle Clark...

The music is pretty much a no-brainer as well, which pretty well fits considering the intended age group. No song is longer than sixteen bars, which means one short-short number after another. The running time is probably just over an hour, if that.

But the thing is: compare this to WHAT'S WRONG WITH SALLY, which I wrote on earlier. Meant for the same age group of performers, it has far more substance and structure than this rather Fellini-esque spectacle. This one just leaves more questions than anything else: why is everyone Dutch? Why is the place called Lazy Town? Why did Papa hire an entire Broadway show to give his daughter a birthday party?

And the biggest question of all: why on earth did this woman continue to get work?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

LIBERTY LANE

This one is in pretty sad state: no cover and a barely legible first page. Nevertheless, LIBERTY LANE (1943), by Catherine Allison Christie and adapted by Lilburne Hoffman, is an intruiging snapshot of schoolchildren and the wartime mentality.

The first act is Uncle Sam, studying the globe and worried because he doesnt think America really has it any more. He despairs. But Miss Liberty (whom he doesnt quite recognize at first -- an interesting little point, given the times) urges him to be more optimistic and then, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes him back to the high points of American history: Washington, Lincoln, and the soldiers of World War 1, whose glorious return from battle rings down the curtain on Act One.

The second act suddenly moves to the rehearsal for a Bond Rally, to be presented by the Boy Scouts (or, as the author indicates, the Girl Scouts, or just any old bunch of kids if you dont happen to have any Boy -- or Girl -- Scouts). It's not going well: the girls cant get the lights positioned right and the boys cant remember their lines. But they start to muddle through, even though "Uncle Sam" cant find his pants and "Miss Liberty" has come down with the mumps.

But then we see the US dealing with problems never before encountered... like ration books, who appear -- accompanied by jars of fruit, meat, and gasoline -- and tell the incipient audience that, yeah, times are tough "but we're winning the war!". These are followed by gremlins, who put "too much salt in the meat and too much starch in your shirt".

And now the Gardeners, whose home gardens are threatened by evil Weeds. But the Gardeners prevail and cut the Weeds down, then dispatch the Gremlins as well. Then everyone, including the Act One Uncle Sam and Miss Liberty, as well as Washington, Lincoln, the WW1 soldiers, and a colour guard -- return to the stage for a rousing patriotic finale, in praise of kids as the future of America.

LIBERTY LANE is a mixture of old standards, like Yankee Doodle Dandy, and somewhat over the top patriotism, such as the title song:

Come on come on along
March on forever down Liberty Lane
Come on singing a song
Faltering never in Liberty Lane

It is the trail of the red white and blue
It will not fail to bring freedom to you

So come where honor and glory reign
March down Liberty Land

... or the finale:

Lead on, Young America
Lead on, Young America
Come from the verdant fields
Come from the sandy shore
Come now, come now
A million more

Come for your country needs your service true
Come for your country's calling you and you
To lead on, Young America
Firm and free
Our own native land
We sing to thee

... which is sung in counterpoint to My country tis of thee.

I have to admit, I'm somewhat taken aback by the unabashed patriotic spirit of this little work. It wears its stars-and-stripes heart on its sleeve, make no mistake about it, and it does so with a naive gusto that would make it the envy of every flag-wrapping senator in Congress today. It deals not only with whipping up fervent glee for America but also addresses the problems that came with the war, like rationing and all the thousands of daily little annoyances that come with a full-blown wartime economy.

And it is so amazingly innocent...

I find it a little interesting to compare the tone of this to what we have to deal with today: World War 2 certainly had its share of big time governmental blunders, like the California internment camps for Japanese Americans, but it had a focus that led to a specific purpose. And we havent seen that since. Maybe it's because everything from Korea on hasnt really been a war (since they were never formally declared as such), and this most recent fiasco has demonstrated that we cant just go into other regions, play kingmaker, and then expect everyone to just love us for trying to remake the world in our own image.

Somehow, I just cant see a work like LIBERTY LANE today -- nor can I imagine a return of the Bond Rallies that inspired it. For a half century now, people have grown more and more suspicious of war as a way to solve problems -- not because it's not necessary but because we always seem to get stuck with leaders that cant do it with honesty and integrity. About the closest thing we have to bond rallies these days are the our political conventions... and that's pretty sad, when you think about it.

If anything, LIBERTY LANE is a very, very harsh mirror on American society today. Its one-dimensional love of country would no doubt inspire mild derision in audiences today, but it should also make us ashamed for not following through on Uncle Sam's and Miss Liberty's hopes for what was then the future. The children of LIBERTY LANE grew up to be even more monstrous than the enemies we faced during the war. If he werent sad already, I'm betting Uncle Sam is now feeling downright suicidal.