Saturday, February 28, 2009


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
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.

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