Monday, March 30, 2009

THE RADIO MAID

High school operettas, as far as I've found thus far, generally fall into three very distinct categories. First, you have the shows like UP IN THE AIR and ROSE OF THE DANUBE, which are charming enough and sufficiently well written to merit another look for production.

Then you get the mis-fires like CARRIE GOES TO COLLEGE and BETTY LOU: works so astoundingly awful in that train-wreck kind of way that you wonder what the authors really had in mind, and yet they sit there daring you not to keep reading.

Then you get the ones that are really neither here nor there because they're so vacuous. There's no story to speak of, no real characters, no score — in other words, the kind of work that has "contractual obligation" all but painted across everything with a 3" brush. So it is with THE RADIO MAID (1930) by VM and CR Spaulding.

The story, such as it is, is a weekend in the country for a crew of college students, three young ladies who serve no other purpose but to provide a little vocal variety. They have no names. They're always together. Apparently they're friends with Robert, the son of their hosts, but, as with so much else in this work, that's a guess because the script never says one way or the other. The curtain comes up, everyone appears in car coats and luggage, the hosts sing a song of welcome, and we're off.

But one guest coming later is Robert's girlfriend (maybe? or maybe she's just a schoolboy infatuation?) June, who sings on a radio show that will be broadcast that night. They pick up the signal, and there's June, singing everyone's favourite song, "Just a Cottage for Two":

Just a wee little home
I can call my own
That's the dream I long to see
Just a cottage for two
With a pal like you
And life would seem so dear to me

Next we meet Joe and Mabel, the farm's "hired hands", who've had a long-running, somewhat tempestuous relationship. He wants to "propose", but she'll have none of it -- and in this context, "propose" doesnt mean propose, it means something else entirely. Take a wild guess. A really wild guess. The fact that you can see through this in such short order is indicative of the level of depth RADIO MAID aspires down to. To top it off, this is a running gag, and it wears out its welcome in pretty short order.

June finally shows up — I gather the radio station was down the street someplace because it takes her all of three pages to arrive behind everyone else — and Robert doesnt waste a moment getting close to her. They have a little love song and they're just about to kiss... when our chorus bursts in and sing a spirited little anthem to their friend-maybe-classmate-maybe-adored-star. And with that, Act One ends. Okay, so all the story threads seem resolved... well, with the exception of the Joe/Mable one, but that's hardly enough reason to return for the second act. Nevertheless, there is one, so you return your seat, hopeful that something interesting will happen.

But nothing does. Everyone's been out for just the most wonderful walk to a neighbouring farm, and there's a few giggles and winks at Robert making sure June is accompanied every step of the way. Meanwhile Joe's headed out to the cornfields in advance of the husking bee planned for the evening to find a red ear of corn, which gives him the right to ask anyone for a kiss. But again, Mabel turns him down, even more adamantly than before (What does it take for this guy to get the hint?).

June and Robert return and, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, sing a reprise of "Just a Cottage for Two". The kids leave. His parents sing a little song about when they were young. The kids come back, with the information that Robert found a red ear and (shockingly) kissed June. Everyone dives into the finale, at the end of which Joe brings Mabel on and shouts "WE PROPOSED!" And the curtain falls.

The authors say this little gem runs an hour and a half, but I'd bet more like an hour, even taking in account applause and an intermission, which itself seems gratuitous considering the work's brevity. But "pointless" really sums up this work: there's a song, then a dozen lines of dialogue, all of it exposition laid on with a shovel: everything just this side of the French maid picking up the ringing telephone and telling the caller (and us) who everyone is and where they are and why things are so... 'ow you zay, screw-ee... At the end of this, one wishes there was a French maid, just for a little comic relief. There's nothing funny or even vaguely humorous in RADIO MAID. At the end, we're no closer to knowing who these people are than we were at the beginning, and the songs they sing are so meaninglessly vapid that you simply dont care. You cant even call this Chekovian-style minimalism: it's not really much of a slice of life so much as it is a few crumbs. And you really dont want a second helping.

About the time this was published, there were maybe four companies providing these works, with Raymond A. Hoffman and Willis commanding the pack. Witmark was close behind, but Ditson, the company that published RADIO MAID, just never seemed to get the concept. Ditson also provided us with the previously mentioned GYPSY TROUBADOUR, but that work seems to have been an anomoly, because everything else out of this company in my collection is as simple-minded and thin as RADIO MAID. Most of it appears to be one-shots by writers and composers who went nowhere after this one kick at the operetta can, which suggests that Ditson was the equivalent of a pulp-novel printer.

There's also something peculiar about the cover art, which looks like it was taken from something else and chopped off to fit. The trellis, for example, just stops, and the artist didnt even try to trim it off with any symmetry. I'm not sure who the woman in the middle is supposed to be or why there are two couples shown, since the play is really only about one (Joe and Mabel, being black, dont figure into this graphically). My guess is that this was intended for something else and then cobbled onto this work at the last minute, but that's only a guess.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

WINDMILLS OF HOLLAND

American merchandization and modern technology get their come-uppance in WINDMILLS OF HOLLAND (1913) by Otis M. Carrington.

Myncheer Hertogen is a rich Dutch farmer whose mill is the pride of the area. His one daughter Wilhelmina is in love with a poor songwriter named Hans, while the other daughter Hilda has the good sense to fall in love with Franz, who's the son of an equally rich farmer. Into this comes Bob Yankee, an American entrepreneur who's trying to convince Hertogenbosch to mechanize his mill and make it more profitable.

The problem with that, however, is that Hertogenbosch's employees are earnestly protective of the mill as it is right now: because of it, they have a job, sure, but it also becomes a matter of personal pride that their mill is the best in the region. So between his daughyer's romantic complications and this, poor Hertogenbosch is getting slammed on all sides.

For a piece written by an American, though, WINDMILLS isnt exactly the most complementary when it comes to its solo US character. Bob is a shyster of the first order, pretending to be anything in order to win the good graces of the farmer and, subsequently, his wife, his daughters, and Hans. When he finds out that the farmer is part of a local band, suddenly he's a volunteer bandsman too. When he thinks the way into the farmer's wallet is through his daughter, suddenly he's in love with her. And in the end, when the farm staff has told Hertogenbosch they're not letting this American screw around with their windmill, the farmer tells Bob Yankee that he's still welcome back anytime, an invitation Bob essentially snubs off as he exits in search of another gullible Dutchman while everyone else wishes continued success to the two couples and Hertogenbosch's windmill. Oh, and by the way, Hans gets a last-minute letter from a music publisher in London that's buying his songs... so now he's not poor anymore.

WINDMILLS is a pretty facile piece, but it has some great moments, mostly in the songs. For example, Wilhelmina's mother Vrouw, tries to deflect her growing infatuation with the American:

There was a wise old spider
And he made a little cider
Out of rose and violet leaves
And he set a tiny table
Just as good as he was able
'Neath some broad and shady leaves
Then he saw a fly a-flying
So he set up such a sighing
That she stopped to hear him say
"I'm so love sick and so lonely
Wont you stay and be my only
And we'll drink the hours away"

... and you can imagine the lesson coming out of that. Or Hilda and Franz's spat, sung to a terse little allegretto:

HILDA. Dont think I'll be lonely
Or that I'll be sad
Dont think I'll be grieving so

FRANZ. I'll be only happy
Gee but I'll be glad
I'll soon find another beau

HILDA. I'm so tired of seeing nobody but you
And listening to your silly prat

FRANZ. That's just the way I'm feeling too
So why not let it go at that

I mean, cant you tell these two are just made for each other?

Every year from 1912 to his retirement in 1949, Carrington wrote an annual operetta custom-order for his theatre classes at Sequoia High School in California, which allowed him to work out any problems before publishing and distributing them from his own company, Myers and Carrington. He was the first to use an "orchestra chorus": singers in the pit whose sound supports the singing onstage. WINDMILLS was his very first attempt and, while it shows a certain amateurism (Almost every song is introduced with a variation of "Here, let me sing a little something about that"), the music is simple enough for untrained voices but clever enough that it doesnt stall in repetition.

Friday, March 27, 2009

THE PALACE OF CARELESSNESS

From Ivine, Laurene, and Hattiebell Shields comes THE PALACE OF CARELESSNESS (1928), which isnt so much an operetta in two acts as it is two one-act operettas joined at the hip.

Act One is a room in the Lost and Found Building in London, home to discarded and lost items such as umbrellas, watches, dolls, even pieces of candy that sit waiting for their owners to come and reclaim them. Every night at midnight, the objects come to life for one hour, and our first act is essentially a revue of singing and dancing Then, precisely at one AM, everything is returned to its place on the various shelves, and it's quiet once more.

Act Two shifts things to a courtroom, where the judge and jury convene to pass sentence on those who come in search of his lost belongings. An organ grinder comes looking for his lost monkey. A sad clown is in search of laugh. A Boy Scout does his good deed by helping an old man into the chambers to find his umbrella. A little girl and her nurse arrive in search of a doll she left on the streetcar. The sight of all these people reunited with their lost things returns the clown's laugh. With a solemn promise to NEVER BE CARELESS AGAIN, court is adjourned.

Aimed more at grade school performers than high school, PALACE is a morality play on the importance of keeping track of one's possessions, but, in the beginning at least, it's not like it hits you over the head with it. Rather, the first act is more a party atmosphere, with the toy solders marching about and a teddy bear dancing for peanuts. The dolly is a bit too self-important for her own good, but she too soon enters into the spirit of things — after all, she too has been left behind.

But it's Act Two where the lesson is whacked over your head like a cudgel. The judge makes it plain from his entrance that he will brook no nonsense:

In this court strange matters are decided
To this judge strange doings are confided
Oft by me the foolish are derided
For stories told a trifle one-sided

I am the Judge, the Judge am I
My station in life is very high
Yet I must listen to tear and sigh
Of careless people, oh my

... and the careless begin to arrive, each with his or her own story of how something was lost. As you might expect, it's quite never the owner's fault. The monkey was there, now it's gone! I know I had the umbrella in my hand just a moment ago! and so on and so on. The jury's inclined to be lenient, but the judge seems to lose more and more patience. At the end of the day, he commands all of them to swear:

I promise that careful as careful I'll be
This day and henceforth evermore I do swear
To keep my belongings I'll take the greatest care

— as the found objects jubilate:

Of course we were quite panic stricken
On finding we were lost
With a terrible queer sick feeling here
And our minds were torn and toss't.

But here in the Palace we made good friends
Now we all agree
Wherever you are in this great wide world
Some friendly souls you'll see

Friends, indeed. The Shields were careful themselves to make their animated objects endearing to the extreme, from the portly alarm clock to the haughty doll to even the old umbrella lady.

I'm old and I'm rusty
My poor ribs all crack
Whenever I'm opened
By Jill or by Jack
I'm always passed 'round
From this hand to that
And when the rain's over
I'm left on the mat

There's even a sack of vegetables:

What jolly vegetables are we
We make you well and strong
We're popped into a cooker pot
And cooked the whole day long
The funniest thing about us
We're always in a stew
You'd think we'd never laugh or sing
But that's just what we do

When the kettle is hot
We sing and we shout
To the whistle of old man Steam
We skip and we prance
To a gay bubble dance
We all make such a jolly good team

Much like THIRTY MINUTES WITH THE MIKADO, the choreography is all explicitly spelled out in text to the measure numbers of the songs. None of it is especially difficult — this is for junior grades, after all — but it's still fascinating to see the movements the authors had in mind for their songs and how much conveys the character, whether candy stick or ravenous bear.

As usual, there's not much to be found about the Shields. A net search didnt unearth anything, which isnt so surprising. Reading the script, I suspect they were British: everything feels authentically English — except for the Boy Scout, whom I suspect was inserted by the American publisher. I wonder if this was initially a European script (like WILD ROSE) that was resold to the larger American market and given only a bare gloss of a translation to make it attractive to schools over here.

The gorgeous cover is uncredited, but the initials CMC are in the top centre vignette, indicating it's the work of Corina Melder-Collier, who, like Donn Crane, was an artist frequently employed by these companies for either cover art or interior illustration (I suspect, but cannot verify, that she did the cover for CROCODILE ISLAND as well: it looks to be the same style). Most of her work consisted of interior drawings for books of songs or games for children, but she made the occasional foray into operettas as well. As with so many others in this collection, the typography is all hand drawn.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

CROCODILE ISLAND

Another movie-musical pastiche, CROCODILE ISLAND (1930) comes from Geoffrey Morgan and Frederick Johnson, the same team that wrote BELLE OF BAGHDAD, and it carries the same wacked-out sensibility as its sibling.

Crocodile Island, which might be in the South Pacific (or might not — and in truth it doesnt matter), is ruled by the cheerful King Bongazoola and his chamberlain Nitwit. Everyone's all happy — except for the evil sorcerer Coco Orinoco, who wants to rule the island himself. He pretty well does anyway, courtesy a supposed "oracle" (which is really just a wooden ventriloquist's dummy) that tells him the wishes of the island's sacred crocodiles. His latest scheme demands that the king and the chamberlain offer themselves as sacrifices and be thrown into the croc pit at sunset.

As you might think, that idea doesnt go over real well, so the king spends a good chunk of subsequent time figuring out how to avoid this rather unpleasant fate. His daughters, Pearl and Petal, are brazen enough to say that they think the sorcerer is full of hot air, but their words are tempered by the royal nurse, Mammy Lu, who doesnt want to upset the "oracle".

Meanwhile, a ship from the States has pulled into port, bearing a party of American tourists. Among them are the hypochondriac gem collector Amos McSnoozer; the near insufferable Miss Abagail and her nephews Thomas and Jefferson, and a black porter, Hopalong Simpson, who makes no secret of the fact that he wields a mean razor.

Pearl and Petal ask Tom and Jeff to help them save the king, and they hit on a plan to have Hopalong replace the king at the last moment, under the assumption that his skill with the razor will help keep him alive. Hopalong overhears this and, since he has no real confidence that the crocodiles prefer white meat, resolves to hide until the danger has passed. Fortunately for him — and unfortunately for Coco — he hides in the shrine that bears the dreaded oracle. When the sorcerer calls on the oracle for one final pronouncement, Hopalong is able to change the course of events by demanding the sacrifice of the sorcerer instead of the king. The sorcerer confesses all, the king gives his daughters to Tom and Jeff, Hopalong gets Mammy Lu, and it all ends happily.

As with BELLE, this is essentially a fun little show, but it has one noteworthy advantage over its companion (as well as several others in this genre) in that the songs, in the main, actually propel the plot. Rather than stopping everything for a musical number, the authors have rewritten some of the dialogue into song lyrics. For example, once the king and chamberlain are told of the sacrifice they're supposed to make, they respond in song:

We have to think of a plan
To baffle the sorcerer man
If he is a winner
The crocodile's dinner
Will never come under the ban

We're certainly far from gay
This isnt a time for play
The quicker we scurry
And hurry and worry
The quicker we'll find a way

Even the mandatory love song has a loopy little charm:

You're just the kind of girl my mother used to be
When mother was a girl like you
She had the same sweet wonderful smile
Changing to laughter once in a while
Now is it any wonder
She should win the praise of all who came to woo
I can only hope I'll have the luck my daddy did
When mother was a girl like you

There's also a couple of small-scale patter songs, a quasi-Mozartian quartet, a paean to vitamins, and a "dramatic" solo in which Coco outlines his plans when he becomes king, as well as a large-scale first act finale that involves just about every major character.

But this is the thing about CROCODILE's score: it's a complex little construction, with leitmotifs just about squandered all over the place. I pity the music director that tackles this one, because just looking at it, you can tell that it's not for the timid of heart. The overture is six pages of heavy allegro work, and the first act finale is twelve pages that are even more demanding. It gives its singers opportunities to demonstrate their acting as well as singing skills, and it requires their best attempts at both.

Like BELLE OF BAGHDAD, CROCODILE ISLAND is a cute little show-off piece that could be mounted today, with a few minor changes. I suspect it was a big seller within the high school operetta canon (My copy is a 1942 reprint), because it is so mindlessly challenging. I'm really starting to like Morgan and Johnson's work, and I'll certainly be on the outlook for more.

The other thing to note here is the cover art, something I've been meaning to discuss for some time now. If you havent noticed by now, some of the covers for these little works were pretty impressive pieces of art. Donn Crane, of course, created some real stunners, but the uncredited artist for the cover of CROCODILE ISLAND did a wonderful job of evoking the sheer ditziness of the play. The characters are portrayed with a gentle yet outlandish humour, and the use of three colour printing is put to its best advantage. When you look back at these images, you have to remember that full-colour printing wasnt as viable as it is today: the artists had to be clever in their use of tint breakdowns as well as skilled in layout and rendering typography (The type for most is hand-drawn, not typeset). As with so many other truisms of the late 20s and 30s, one had to make the most of little, and these covers prove that.

Monday, March 23, 2009

HULDA OF HOLLAND

As I wrote once before, you never quite know what you're going to get when you receive one of these. It might be the published screenplay/score to a now-lost Vitaphone movie. It might be a Broadway show from the turn of the last century that has music so gorgeous it deserves a remount.

Or it might be HULDA.

On the surface, HULDA OF HOLLAND (1925), by May Hewes Dodge and John Wison Dodge (cover art by Doris Holt Hauman), is hardly different from any of the hundreds of high school musicals of the period. The story is simplicity itself: a young girl, betrothed to someone when they were both infants, has fallen in love with someone else. The resolution of this typical triangle is eminently predictable, but my fascination with HULDA comes from a very, *very* different source.

Let's breeze through the story first, okay? Hulda and her father Peter are awaiting the arrival of Hulda's fiancé Jan Steen, whom Hulda has never met because the Steen family moved to America shortly after the engagement was settled. But now the grown-up Jan is on his way, and Hulda's a mess, because she met another American while visiting Paris, a certain Jerry Heyden, and the two are madly in love. Jerry convinces Hulda to tell her father that he's Jan.

Meanwhile, the real Jan has arrived: not only is he an acquiantaince of Jerry's, but he really has no interest in getting married, so he's more than happy to play along in the charade. However, once he meets Hulda, he inexplicably falls in love with her and tries to expose Jerry... but no one believes him, because "Jan" has introduced Jan as his mentally-deficient cousin Billy. Everything's going just fine for Jerry and Hulda until Adrian Steen, Jan's father, appears on the scene and exposes the deception. So at the end of the second act, things arent looking too good.

Act Three is a week later, and Peter has figured out that Hulda will never be happy with Jan. He and Adrian have a meeting of the minds and figure it's best to butt out and let Hulda and Jerry have their way. After a minor bumps in the roadway, our little lovebirds get together, and everything ends happily ever after.

Okay, pretty simple stuff, right? Oh, just you wait... See, here's the thing. Hulda's intended, Jan? According to the notes, Jan's "effeminate" and "eccentric", and you can probably bet what those are code words for. In case you havent figured it out, here's Jan's opening lines:

Goodness mercy me! I'm simply exhausted after my walk up those dusty roads. Mercy! Just look at my shoes. I just dont care! It was horrid of Daddy forcing me here to see this Dutch person that he says I must marry. He hasnt any appreciation for my sensitive, artistic temperment. I really never could tolerate those awful farm persons. Bourgeois, I call it, simply bourgeois. My sensitive soul shrinks at such an alliance.

Yep, after seeing how the high school operetta treated blacks and Chinese and Jews, now we get a very rare sight: the 1920s perception of homosexuals. And what a sight it is:

JERRY. I want to take your name and be accepted into the Cats household as the fiancé of Hulda.

JAN. Mercy! Do you know her?

JERRY. Of course I do, you idiot!

JAN. Idiot! Jerry Heyden, you have such a vulgar way with you.

JERRY. That's nothing to what I'll do if you dont agree to what I ask.

JAN. Jerry Heyden, you great big brute, you always did pick on me. Is it because my white soul wanders in fields of beauty where yours never treads?

If that's not bad enough, hang on:

PETER. Yah, come right in de house, Myncheers.

JAN. Thank you so much, you sweet old man. (hippity-hops into house)

JERRY. Dont mind Billy. He's not at all dangerous. Just a little queer... (taps head) you know.

... or when Jan tries to convince Peter that he's really Jan:

JAN. I just tell you, Mycheer Cats, you'll be sorry for the way you're treating me. Hulda is my fate, my white rose on a barren widlerness of unrequited love.

PETER. (to Jerry) Yah, he's yust like dot Romeo.

JAN. (melodramatically) Romeo! Oh, wasnt he just too sweet for words?

And when Jerry's deception is exposed, how does Jan react?

JAN. Goody, goody, goody!

I'm sure that this part was approached as the operetta equivalent of a "trouser role": a male played by a female. One can only imagine the parental outrage if little Johnny had to mince on stage and say those lines and then face the football team the next morning. Even as a character, Jan is easily intimidated, threatened by the smallest of gesture, and verbally (and sometimes physcially) pummeled by everyone including the romantic male lead, who's supposed to be — in theory anyway — the good guy. So what then are we to think about Jan?

Okay, to tell the truth, despite the fact that Jan is... well, to say he's a "stereotype" is being kind, I suppose. Still, when he's not onstage, this play takes a nosedive into predictable pablum, which gives rise to the long-standing fact that the villain always gets the best lines. This villain sweeps them up and carries them offstage in a rhinestone-studded dustpan. Even the deus-ex-machina ending (As a child, Peter was saved from drowning by a boy who grew up to be Jerry's father) cant make HULDA rise above the mediocre.

But Jan? For all his "you big brute!"s, he gives this musical the same lift that some of the blackface characters have done in other operettas described in this blog. To be sure, it's hardly the most complimentary portrait of gays, but we're talking 1925 here... and something for high schools at that, which would make it certainly shocking, to say the least. Jan's is definitely the plum role in this piece, complete with his own solo turn:

My thoughts are like the butterflies, they float
On the waves of fancy, like a boat
Gliding onward like clouds that float above
My soul is filled with beauty, rapture, ecstacy, and love!

I'm aesthetic, so aesthetic, my!
At the mooing of a calf, I sigh!
When the mourning dove begins to mourn, I cry!
There is no one so aesthetic as I!

... at which point he goes into an "eccentric" dance.

So I say Jerry can have Hulda, and vice versa. No doubt they got married, settled down in Scheveningen, had a bunch of screaming kids, and raised tulips. But Jan? I wanna know what happened to him when he got back to New York. Now there's a 20-era high school musical, complete with Gershwin tunes, just waiting to be written...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

CAPTAIN CROSSBONES

Arthur Penn's work has already been noted in this blog a few times, but this is one of his "grown up" compositions, aimed less at high schools and more at community players, and it's a wonderful piece of near-lost American musical theatre.

CAPTAIN CROSSBONES (1918) is clearly and obviously a variation on Pirates of Penzance: girl in love with pirate (who's really not a pirate after all, but actually... well, you'll see soon enough). Throughout his works, Penn strove to become the American equivalent of Gilbert and Sullivan, and yet, as CROSSBONES demonstrates, he had a uniquely comic voice, in both words and music.

Set on an ocean-front mansion in Cuba, CROSSBONES deals with Theresa, daughter of the easily-irate Spanish grandee, Don Cubeb de Cigarro. Because of his age, he's constantly swarmed by relatives who are, frankly, waiting for him to die so they can lay claim to his estate. She's tutored by the dull spinster Miss Pelling, in classes in English she shares with a visiting American heiress named Eleanor, who's left New York because she thinks everyone wants her for her money. Theresa's big secret, however, is that she's in love with an American planter, Richard Stoneybrooke -- but this is an arrangement her father would never agree to.

For her part, Eleanor is the unwanted object of the favours of Captain Bombastio, head of the island police, who will go to no end to prove his love to her, even to the point of having himself arrested by his seconds-in-command when she points out that, in America, he would be taken in for annoying a lady. But secretly he's also there to let Theresa know that Richard is on the grounds and wants to see her.

Problem is, the grounds are patrolled by a retired pugilist named Bill Pilgrim, whose one and only professional fight ended when he somehow managed to knock himself out. Now working as a guard, his one particular job is to make sure that Richard stays far away from Theresa. Without sharing who he really is, Richard gets the terminally bored Bill out of the way by suggesting he join a pirate crew that the man he's after supposedly leads. Bill happily heads to the pirate lair, leaving Richard a few moments' private time with Theresa. Together, they concoct a plan that sees Theresa abducted by the pirates, and the demanded ransom will be her dowry for their marriage.

Surprisingly, the plan actually works, because Richard is, in fact, Captain Crossbones, a Pirate Chief. His band of buccaneers run off with not only Theresa, but also Eleanor and Miss Pelling, as the curtain falls on Act One.

Act Two is their lair, on the Isle of Pines. And now we see the pirates for what they really are: bored. While they really want to run something through, the only thing they've killed of late is time. The high point of their day is the arrival of Kitty, their local postmistress, bringing them letters from home. But they cant open them yet, because their wives as well want to know the contents... and who shows up but those very wives, who are apparently staying at a local hotel while their menfolk are playing pirate on the beach.

Is this starting to sound a little weird?

Good.

As it all turns out, these are a bunch of Americans on a lark. They've all been brought to Cuba by Richard to help him get the woman he loves and play out that schoolboy fantasy of running away to become a pirate. But now everyone has to convince Don Cubeb that they arent really pirates at all but Americans brought here to defeat the dreaded pirate band that has abducted Theresa. Everything is staged and double-backed and staged again such that, when Cubeb arrives to reclaim his daughter, Richard has "killed" Crossbones, and his friends have "killed" the rest of the pirate band. He wins fair Theresa. Eleanor, convinced that Don Bombastio actually loves her for her and not her money, agrees to marry him. Now out of a job, Miss Pelling finds solace in the arms of Bill. And with much singing and dancing and general merriment, the curtain falls.

What's fascinating about this is that CROSSBONES is structured almost like a Feydeau farce. You come out of the first act thinking, okay, I know how this is gonna end -- and you're right, except that in the second act Penn takes you on a wild ride before letting you get to the obvious conclusion. Richard, for example, has to be both Crossbones and Richard in the same scene, in a dazzling feat of scripting. And Penn doesnt skimp on the secondary characters either: Richard's aide-de-camp, Anthony, ever at his side, constantly assures him whether or not his actions are legal... because Anthony is a New York lawyer and knows all about these things, you see.

Lyrically, CROSSBONES is by turn witty and wry and flat-out funny, with constantly inventive rhymes. For example, the entrance of the pirate band that have come to abduct Theresa:

We're a gang of pirates bold and villianous
Hist! Hist! Ho, for the blunderbuss!
This here sort of life is killing us
Hist! Hist! 'Ware of the Spanish cuss
Note our mien -- sufficiently ferocious
Watch our deeds — you'll find them atrocious
Though we're young, as pirates we're precocious
Hist! Hist What will become of us!

Or the same crew, at the top of Act Two:

A pirate's life is a terrible life
When he has to act politely
He finds it hard to keep on his guard
And say his prayers nightly
A pirate really out to be
An animal wild and untamed
But when his claws are drawn or clipped
A pirate cant help but feeling hipped
And he naturally feels ashamed
Oh a pirate's life is a terrible life
A terrible life indeed —

Their wives' response:

Thus we show appreciation
Of your generosity
We're enjoying our vacation
By the Caribbean Sea
It's so nice to know you are busily employed
With your scheme adventurous were overjoyed
Tell us when you're through, my darlings,
We can pack up any day
To return with you, my darlings,
Back to the dear old USA.

CAPTAIN CROSSBONES is one of those rare works that screams for a serious revival. The music is acknowledged as some of Penn's best (which is saying a lot right there), and there are abundant opportunities for a company that's bored with endless productions of PINAFORE. The comedy is so facile that it hardly feels like a play written a century ago: there's only a few very small references to topical issues -- instead, it's almost like a happy collision of IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and the very best of the American music-hall.

THE MODEL BRIDE

Barbie meets the high school operetta in THE MODEL BRIDE (1949) by Harold Allen and our old friend Don Wilson. Designed with a virtually all-female cast (only one male role, but even that can apparently be played by a girl), this relatively short piece chronicles the lives (and of course loves) of six "manikins" who work in a bridal shop in Atlantic City.

Run by Madame Beaumont, a "lady of a certain age", the shop caters to the very wealthy, so it's not too odd when a certain man-about-town named Larry Purcell has started buying a lavish trouseau for his bride.

Problem is, no one knows who the young lady might be. Some folks already think he's a little crazy, planning for a wedding day without a bride, but Mme. Beaumont is more philosophical about it: as long as the cash is coming in, who cares.

She does have her standards, though. No nouveau-riche trash for this establishment:

MME. BEAUMONT. Our styles are distinctly Parisian, quite a la mode you know. They are not the common department store styles. Our customers must remember that. If there is any doubt as to that I will have to raise the prices. That will convince anybody that they come from Paris.

... and only a few lines later:

We must be very careful to see that we have only the best people as our customers. Rather than have any of those vulgar nouveau-riche wearing my creations in public, I would rather lose a sale altogether. As for catering to anyone who represents, shall I say the working element, rather than that I could raise the prices still higher. After all, I am not in this profession for the mere money.

This leads to a rather manic patter song in which she tells us her history as a girl behind the counter:

Now if you successful be and win a quick promotion
Observe your patrons carefully and humour every notion
And never hesitate to to discuss things tete-a-tete
It will help in your work behind the counter

The girl behind the counter
Is the girl you've got to spot
She's bound to have your number
And she knows you to a dot

For she sees that youre a married man
The first time that you call
A Democrat or Republican
Oh she knows it all
No detail does she overlook
Your life is just one open book
You cant conceal a thing from her
The girl behind the counter

Ah, but there's still the question of Larry's Mystery Bride. Rumours swirl: maybe she's a cripple or blind or has just awful taste in clothes, leaving her hapless groom to pick out not only her wedding dress but also her dresses and her hats and her hosiery and her lingerie (I'm surprised it stops there, but it does.). Or maybe she doesnt even know about the wedding at all! Or maybe she's poor and cant afford nice clothes and he's getting her all this as a surprise!

The only thing the models know for certain is that whoever this mystery bride is, she's a perfect thirty-six. As such, Purcell always requests the same model to show the clothes he's buying, a young lady named Dulcie who's (conveniently) also a perfect thirty-six. She, natch, is hopelessly in love with him, but he's rich and she's poor and so that's that, as far as she's concerned. Of course, we know better, right? However, no one ever said operetta heroines were especially bright, so Dulcie closes Act One with a plaintive little song:

Oft I in all this brilliant dress parade
Have worn the wedding train and veil for some lucky maid
I've posed and smiled and charmed men with my art
I've tried to hide the loneliness breaking my heart

So today I'll be gay
I wont let them know I care
I'll conceal how I feel
Let them wonder, let them stare
For I know love will find me in the weary throng
And when it does my heart will thrill with song

And when I've found true love at last
No more I'll search alone
For someone who will care for me
Someone to call my own
In lovely spring I'll wear his ring
And hand in hand we'll roam
Forever together our lives will be
And no more I'll search alone

... at which point she throws herself on the divan and sobs as the curtain descends.

Act Two, and Larry shows up to make sure everything's ready -- after all, today's his wedding day! He remains coy about who the intended lady is and toys somewhat mercilessly with Mme. Beaumont that everything is to be sent to the hotel to the attention of "Mrs. Lawrence Purcell". Then he confesses: he's not dead certain himself who the young lady is, but Mme. Purcell remains professional about something she's dying to know.

Larry asks to see the bridesmaids' dresses first; his lack of reaction makes them wonder if he really knows what he's doing (Trust us: the audience too). Mme. Beaumont then announces that the bride's dress is ready for inspection, and Larry asks that everyone leave the room so he can look at it with all due attention. Mystified, they do. And when Dulcie comes in, all decked out, Larry's a hopeless fluster that finally tells her she's the intended bride. The other models will be her bridesmaids (That's convenient, wouldnt you think?), and Mme. Beaumont can give Dulcie away ("It'll be the first time she's given anything away to a customer!"). The other girls express their surprise, but Mme. Beaumont shares that she had this figured out a long time ago -- after all, she was a girl behind the counter.

And with that the curtain falls, with only a few lagging questions: does she know anything about this guy? And how come he has such great taste in lingerie?

Well, it is a Barbie world, after all. Sure, she's in love with the big lug, but it's more about the clothes and the DreamHouse in Connecticut and the DreamCar and the DreamHoneymoon. In years to come, no doubt, she'll take up work as an airline stewardess or maybe even an astronaut. But on occasion she'll open the closet and take out that wedding dress and try it on just to make sure it still fits, because at the links the other day Larry introduced her to the nicest young man named Ken, and she likes what she sees....

Saturday, March 21, 2009

GEORGIA JUBILEE MINSTREL / THE ENTERTAINER

Blackface was, as you've probably figured out by now, a long-standing tradition in the high school musicals of the 20s and 30s, so in some respects, I suppose it was inevitable that someone -- in this case, Frederick G. Johnson -- would write a juvenile version of a minstrel show. Hence, GEORGIA JUBILEE MINSTREL (1936).

The show is built along the lines of a classic minstrel show, with the Interlocutor and six End Men. Johnson begins with a very grand overture that I'm sure is heavily orchestrated for brass, then moves into an opening chorus that starts before curtain rise.

Way down in Georgia
Moon is shining bright
Way down in Georgia
Darkies are singing tonight

It's underscored with a lot of tension-building tremelos and performed with close-cut harmonies that no doubt challenged its young performers. When the curtain rises, the ensemble is all seen in standard minstrel formation, and the music jump-cuts to a quick 2/4:

All aboard!
Hear the whistle blowin'
All aboard!
Hear the rooster croonin'
Everyone knows
Everyone knows
When the minstrels come to town

It's loud and quick and "snappy". Then the Interlocutor shouts "Gentlemen, be seated!" -- and we're off.

As one might expect from a minstrel show, the dialogue is replete with bad jokes, although the ones in this production are miles away from the classically bawdy ones. Instead:

INTERLOCUTOR. Earl, I understand there was quite an argument up at your house the other night.

EARL. Yep. Ma told Pa kept her awake because he was always talking in his sleep.

INTERLOCUTOR. And does your father really talk in his sleep?

EARL. Sure. He was to talk sometime, doesnt he?

... interspersed with numbers such as "I Want to Sing in Opera", performed to a riff on the "William Tell" overture:

SOLO. Old William Tell in the long ago
Made quite a hit with his crossbow
He put an apple on his kid's bean
And shot it off so nice and clean

CHORUS. When people saw what he had done
They all went wild and loudly cheered
Their crabby king was a grouchy thing
He got so mad he chewed his beard.

In the classic minstrel shows, the end men made occasional fun of the Interlocutor, and GEORGIA JUBILEE holds to that, albeit in a much gentler way. We also get the proscribed depreciating interplay between the End Men themselves. Women are portrayed in the jokes as flippant and flighty, while men are generally dense -- one End Man complains his girlfriend has been out seeing other men for the past week, but at least in the process he saved nineteen dollars and eighty-five cents. But by and large, the hunour throughout is simple and remarkably innocent, even for a group that would have acted blackface characters far more egregious in past productions. The script has little transcribed dialect, leaving it open, I suppose, for none at all. In the Suggestions at the beginning of the script, it's emphasized that the "subject matter has been selected that it will prove suitable for juvenile talent as for adult performers". In other words, it's pretty watered down, which I have to admit surprised me. After all, actual touring minstrel shows wouldnt have been unknown to these young performers, and those were pretty blatant about their racism.

For their part, the songs are standard high school operetta fare: a waltz or two, a couple of ballads, a few big numbers for the entire company, all with a not-quite-Southern sensibility, as though Johnson wasnt really familiar with the genre and faked it. He was primarily a composer (He wrote the earlier-mentioned BELLE OF BAGHDAD, which was also remarkable for its lack of ethnic stereotypes), so it's not surprising that he looks to old time standards and college songs for most of his lyrics.

Taken in total, GEORGIA JUBILEE isnt as offensive as it very well might have been; instead, it's a slight entertainment with a few decent vocal challenges. There's a great deal to suggest that Johnson looked at the basic outline and went his own way, creating something that was "age-appropriate" while still being his own take on a somewhat foreign theatrical convention. Discard the name and the makeup and change a few lyrics as well as other minor things, and the musicale could be performed today as a variety show, and I doubt anyone would blink an eye.

----------------------------------------------

By contrast, THE ENTERTAINER (1935) is a compendium of songs, skits, a complete operetta (The publisher says it runs two hours; I'm betting an hour and a bit), and "over 200 jokes, toasts, and gags", all designed for the needs of the amateur performer. Fully half of the book, however, is devoted to minstrel shows: a fairly comprehensive history, how to properly rehearse them, how to properly apply makeup, and a not-so-tiny nod in the direction of the defenders of the art form:

In every town and hamlet in these United States are those who will cherish and defend their unalienable right annually to apply burnt cork to their faces and hold forth in the old town hall for the benefit of the local fire company or some other deserving cause.

That's a little heavy-handed, but given the era, I'm not surprised. What follows are five scenarios, with notations for where songs are to be inserted, and all built around the usual cascade of bad jokes, save that here they're far, far worse, even by 1935 standards. These are followed by four one-act "playlets", all pretty much standard vaudeville fare from the 1920s, except that now they've been re-written for blackface-style entertainment: the unfaithful wife with too many sweethearts, the emergency visit to the doctor with the HelloNurse. There's a "plantation sketch" called LOUSIANA, that draws on every ante-bellum stereotype of the happy mammies and cotton-pickin' negroes. It's probably worth mentioning that all roles are to be played by men. In it, there's a shotgun wedding (in which the groom wears a plug hat and the bride has bright red "long drawers" under her mosquito-net veiling and white-paper gown). The reception is a big dance number, interrupted by a white man who's hellbent on shooting everyone onstage and thereby reducing everyone to shaking in terror -- but it's all in fun, you see.

Somehow.

Still, reading it made me wonder how the same material would play were it done by black performers before a black audience. In their hands, the humour would probably be as self-mocking as any seen on an all-black sitcom written by the Wayne brothers... which makes it difficult to put these in any modern-day context. "Funny" is certainly in the eye of the beholder — which will be even more apparent in a forthcoming post in which gays are lampooned in a high school operetta... and trust me, it's far merciless than GEORGIA JUBILEE could ever be in its treatment of blacks.

I have to admit: I'm of a mixed mind when it comes to these things. They're part of our theatre history, and we should see them as the cultural oddities they were. Offensive? You bet. Insulting? Sure thing. But when you look at how other minorities are portrayed in the high school musical genre, GEORGIA JUBILEE is positively benign in its treatment, while THE ENTERTAINER is simply a mirror of the harsh cultural realities of its time -- and should be seen as such. Face it: every epoch of American history has seen its maxed-out stereotypes, and about the best we can hope is that we learn from the experience and move on.

And there's a certain sadness when you read something like THE ENTERTAINER. There's a level of desperation in its recycling material from the decade prior. Even the illustrations and page borders are clearly based on a mid-1920s sense of the people who would be performing this stuff: everyone's rich and elegantly dressed in bias-cut gowns and satin-lapeled tuxedos. Vaudeville and traveling minstrel shows were well on their way out by 1935, and THE ENTERTAINER is a final, death-bed gasp at keeping the artforms alive.

Monday, March 16, 2009

THE CRIMSON EYEBROWS

THE CRIMSON EYEBROWS (1922), by May Hewes Dodge and John Wilson Dodge, is arguably the "Springtime for Hitler" for the juvenile operetta set.

Yes, that sounds pretty extreme. Let me explain.

The Crimson Eyebrows refers to a historical event in China, back around the beginning of the Christian Era. A usurper by the name of Wang Mang, who'd been a powerful official during the reign of Emperor Gaiti, ascended the throne at the death of Gaiti and proclaimed himself emperor. A conspiracy was formed to overthrow him, but he crushed their efforts until a rebel chief named Fanchong gathered a huge army and opposed Wang Mang. Fanchong had his followers paint their eyebrows red to show they would be faithful until the very last drop of their blood -- hence, the Crimson Eyebrows.

Now, this is fairly heavy duty stuff -- but what does it become under the hands of the Dodges? Well, to quote them: " our only object has been to amuse". And indeed they do — by throwing out everything but the names and only the slightest amount of motivation for these two men. In the Dodges' version, Wang Mang is Emperor, and he's afraid he'll lose the throne to Ting Ling, one of Gaiti's daughters. So he plots to have her married off to one of his fellow conspirators by telling her that Star Eye, the court astrologer, has read in the stars that she is a reincarnation of Venus, beloved by Neptune, whose reincarnated self is on the way to marry her.

Unfortunately for Wang, Ting Ling meets Fanchong and, believing him to be Neptune, falls in love with him. Accordingly, when Wang presents his accomplice as "Neptune", Ting Ling promptly refuses to marry him. Needless to say, Wang doesnt take well to this news. And it gets even worse for him when Hing Lee, a spy of Fanchong's, learns of the conspiracy. He warns Fanchong who in turn warns Ting Ling, and they decide to elope.

Well, of course they're discovered, and Fanchong's sent to prison. Wang tries to hasten his planned marriage and is about to order Fanchong's execution, when Hing Lee opens the palace gates to the Crimson Eyebrows. Fanchong is saved. Ting Ling gets her throne. She's proclaimed Empress. Fanchong gets to be Emperor. Wang, inexplicably, is punished by marrying "Buddha", Gaiti's widow. And the curtain falls.

Okay, let's back up a bit. Venus? Neptune? In China? Ooo-kay. But that's not what makes this work so mind-spinning. No, you have to look at the characterization given to Wang Mang, who's been transformed from a vicious, bloodthirsty emperor wanna-be to a Borscht Belt comedian.

WANG (to the girls' chorus, which is prostate before him) Get up, anteaters. Your position gives me a backache, and I'm all out of Omega oil.

His subsequent scene with the amazingly scatter-brained Ting Ling:

WANG. One day, during your annual frolic on the beach with the mermaids, none other than Neptune met and fell in love with you.

TING. How sweet.

WANG. Neptune wished to give up his command of the navy and join the air force.

TING. Think of it. I, a star!

WANG. Yes, indeed, you were a pretty picture.

TING. Then I was a picture star?

WANG. Yes, appearing exclusively in terrestial dramas under the solar system.

... and so on and so on, with one relentlessly bad joke after another, culminating with:

TING. My ancestors will rejoice with me, wont they, good kind Wangy?

WANG. Before I get through with you, I promise you'll be able to talk it over with them personally.

Or, from Fanchong's first meeting Ting Ling:

FANCHONG. May I venture in then?

TING. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

FANCHONG. Thanks. I'll just drop in on you.

TING. Not on me, please. You'd make too much an impression for your first call.

CRIMSON EYEBROWS mixes a few shreds of history with a whole lot of slapstick, and the result is... well, fun, but in that strange, perverse "Producers" kind of way. It's almost like the Dodges set out to write this vaudeville (which is pretty much what it is) as a sort of Hellzapoppin' mosh of... well, everything in general and nothing in particular. 1920s movies, international politics, even the nascent Red Threat were fodder for a seemingly endless string of groaners, as though the Dodges meant this as a star turn for the Marx Brothers -- athough 1922 seems a little early for that: perhaps the inspiration was some other comedy team since so much of the humour comes from Wang and Star Eye's scenes. Still, it doesnt take much to see Groucho playing Wang with Chico as the astrologer and Margaret Dumont as Buddha.

Lyrically, it's just as much a mix:

Ting Ling marries with Neptune
We'll have a jubilee
The stars will flirt with the mermaids
There'll be scandal in the sea
The mermaids will fall for the octopus
For he has arms galore
He can make love to lots of them
With plenty of room for more

... and when the imposter Neptune arrives:

I am Neptune from the ocean
There's no seaweed in my queue
I've a scale tho in my octave
That I'll demonstrate for you
See my retinue of lobsters
And at home I've mermaids cute
All dressed up so nice and nifty
In their one-piece bathing suit

There's an especially head-wrenching quintet, "When December marries with May", and a hysterically awful trio for the "Three Gay Conspirators":

Three gay conspirators are we
Deal death in cups of tea
Fill food with ground up glass
Inspection it would pass
Trap doors right in the floor
Thru them you'll rise no more
Cut throats of every band
Wait for our command

... at which point the chorus just... stops. There's no real resolution to the song, which is a pity because in more accomplished hands it could have gone on to a wonderfully black conclusion. But that seems the case more often than not with the songs in CRIMSON EYEBROWS. Few of them are really developed but merely page and a half themes with lyrics attached. The quintet and Neptune's entrance music certainly pound it all home, but anything in the way of a solo or even a duet just rambles until it gets tired, then it stops and takes a little nap while the play soldiers on.

Nevertheless, bottom line time. Is it fun? Yes, in a spectacularly terrible way. It's a comedy skit that runs the jokes way too long but makes up for it with relentlessness: "You think that joke's bad? Just wait! We got a million of 'em!" There's no doubt it was inspired by vaudeville comedians of the time and, with a little cleanup to remove the more dated and somewhat obscure references, would still amuse audiences in a baggy-pants, seltzer-water way.

Yes, it's troubling that the Dodges took a dark moment of China's history and made it a grab-bag of bad one-liners and near absurdist puns. Wang Mang was a pretty terrible guy who wouldnt think twice about murdering his own mother if it got him the throne -- and yet, in the Dodges' careful hands, he's a laugh machine with a Snidely Whiplash moustache. Fanchong is reduced from a real hero to an Errol Flynn parody, with a sparkling smile and a ready kiss as he leaps over the garden wall.

And what makes it all the more disturbing is that the damn thing still reads and would no doubt play onstage very, very well.