Wednesday, April 29, 2009

AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE

This has been a week of kiddie shows, it seems: all three of the new acquisitions are aimed squarely at the lower grades, and so you get things that are simple to stage and easy to sing. These rarely have any real star turns but rather implement choruses that can range from a few to a few hundred.

At the same time, as with LAZY TOWN, there's something a little disorienting about them when you read them, as if even though the authors' intent is clear as glass, the work still lends itself for productions that meander into the somewhat bizarre.

For example, AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE (1931), by Douglass and Virginia Whitehead, with music by G. A. Grant-Schaefer (who, incidently, also wrote the score for LAZY TOWN). I should mention at the outset that the title page assures you that these three are indeed more than qualified to write this — Douglass, at the time of publication, held an MA from Columbia and worked as the Supervisor of Drama at San Francisco's State Teachers' College, while his wife Virginia, not to be outdone, got her BS from the University of California, with subsequent graduate work at Columbia, and (at the time) served as director of rhythm at the Brantwood Hall School and Payson School and was formerly the head of Physical Education at the same State Teachers' College.

Poor Grant-Schaeffer was just the Head of the Voice Department at Northwestern, but he made up for it by writing tons of stuff — operettas, cantatae, and "musical plays" — for grade schools, published mostly by the Arthur P. Schmidt Company, which seemed to have specialized in this sub-genre.

Now, with resumes as impressive as this, you'd think, Wow! These guys really know their game! This is gonna seriously rock! — and then you'd be severely disappointed. A celebration of spring, AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE is an interesting, almost psychedelic mosh of unborn flowers, polar bears, and Aunt Jemima. The story in brief:

We're in some kind of cave, where the unborn flowers blissfully sleep as they wait for the call of Spring. Guarding them are Nurse Nature (who's to be costumed as a "mammy" for absolutely no reason whatsoever), her faithful dog Bow Wow, and the Dream Fairy. The Rainbow Elves come to tint the flowers' new dresses, then depart, leaving behind the rainbow colours. But, dont you know it, that night Jack Frost and the Snow Flakes steal the rainbow colours and the new dresses — and, thanks to information from Robin Red Breast and a very doleful Raven, we find out that the Frost King plans on stealing the flowers as well. The Brown Bears are roused from their hibernation to help Nurse Nature, but the Frost King is prepared for that and brings his Polar Bears, and the Brown Bears get their rear ends handed to them.

The Frost people are just about to depart with their prisoners for the Ice Palace when "conquering Sunbeams" arrive and turn back the Frost People, thus saving the flowers. Bow Wow then clues everyone in on where to find the Rainbow Colours and the flowers' new dresses. And it all wraps up with a huge finale that reprises everything in the score, with a final chorale welcoming Spring.

Wow. It sounds pretty straight-forward, but when you read it, it moves with lurching rapidity: elves and fairy folk and bears appear and disappear with near-bewildering speed. You can tell that the pacing on this is meant to be fast and pointed: fully half the score is allegro, while the rest moves from a smattering of andante to a whole whack of vivace and animato. The fact that this was intended for kids in early grades makes you wonder how much the authors pre-supposed about their little performers. It didnt stop onstage, by the way: in addition to the piano, the orchestra consists of several rhythm instruments, such as drums and a triangle and two kinds of tambourines. This was no doubt intended to be the school's Big Spring Production, involving as many students from as many grades as possible, with fanciful, relatively orate costumes (This was written during the Depression, remember) and a somewhat involved set. For the most part, the ensemble numbers are written in two-part harmony, which is a little surprising, considering most lower-grade works are written with unison singing in mind. There's also opportunities for the little ballerinas to show their burgeoning talents, while everyone else's dance opportunities seem to consist of marching in line or in a circle.

But it's the speed at which the involved plot moves through this hour-long work. With so many characters and so many ensemble groups, the Whiteheads knew they had to get everything moving if Mom and Dad were going to see their little darling perform Third Rainbow Elf from the Right. As such, the songs are short and to the point. For example, the Snow Flakes' opening number, given here in toto:

Dart dart
Whirl
Dart dart dart
Whirl
Dart dart
Dart dart dart
Whirl

— or Jack Frost's "slumber spell":

The spell of the ice
The spell of the snow
Into the dreams of flowers we throw

Then sleep you deep
And do not wake
Sleep you deep
And do not wake

Granted, you cant have anything too complex for the kids to memorize, so it's not surprising that any one song runs longer than 24 bars. But with 33 music cues in 54 pages, the Whiteheads simply dont give you enough time to think beyond 24 bars, not when there's six or seven lines of dialogue and another music cue coming right on their heels.

With its myriad posses of performers, AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE must have been exhausting to stage. But it also has this undeniable weirdness that seems tailor-made for a high-concept approach for a modern-day performance. As I was reading it, I kept flashing on the thought, "What would Julie Taymor do with this material?" — and the response was something big and bright and colourful and strange, with puppets and gigantic props and all the other signature parts of a Taymor production, perhaps even production design inspired by Peter Max. There arent many works in the high school operetta canon that suggest Ritual Theatre, but AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE comes damn close.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

IN GAY HAVANA

Revolution, gunfire, and officials out looking for bribes... it's just another day at the hotel office in IN GAY HAVANA (1942), by Sibyl Evans Baker.

We're in the enclosed patio of the Isla de Cuba, a newly-opened hotel under the management of Señor Alvarez, who's been forced to hire an itinerant troupe of ballet dancers to function as serving girls and maids. His first guests, all from the US, consist of the Beadle sisters (one of whom is there to do a study "the life of the Cuban natives"), the newlyweds George and Luella Potter (of Potter's Plumbing and Pipes), and a group of college boys from Alma Mater on spring break. Later, they're joined by Margot and her mysterious companion Señora X. Naturally, no sooner has everyone registered than revolution breaks out... yet again... and everyone's confined to the hotel.

Stan, one of the college boys, falls in love with Margot, while Tom zeroes in on Carmen, the daughter of Señor Alvarez. Problem there is that she's constantly accompanied by her ubiquitous chaperons, a gaggle of ladies "of a certain age" dressed mantilla-to-foot in black.

Valdez, a Cuban patriot, takes refuge in the hotel as he seeks some government documents, the bearer of which is to make himself known by saying "Cuba libre!" Unfortunately, one of the Beadle sisters makes the mistake of saying it and finds herself pursued relentlessly by Valdez, much to her mounting confusion and the consternation of her sister. And if that werent confusion enough, Margot disappears and George Potter is kidnapped.

In due time, we find out that (1) Margot is a double-agent, (2) Señora X is actually her father and the real bearer of the documents Valdez wants, (3) George was kidnapped because the patriots thought he was a spy, (4) Sister Beadle likes what she sees in Valdez, (5) Carmen's chaperons win the lottery and buy a house in the suburbs, (6) Margot and Carmen are to be sent to the States to be educated, which makes Tom and Stan pretty happy, and (7)... no, wait, I think I got everything.

IN GAY HAVANA is almost surreal in its combination of things: as noted, there is a revolution going on, but it breaks periodically so everyone can party down a bit. Then, just as quickly, the police show up and arrest the band, there's gunfire in the streets, and someone sings a love song, all within a very few pages. But everything is so highly absurd: the ballet troupe is constantly on the lookout for a way out of their contracts, the joined-at-the-hips duennas that make up Carmen's chaperons break into an "eccentric dance" when they come to retrieve their wayward charge, Señor Alvarez's operating licence is valid one minute and not the next, depending on which government is in control. And, if you needed more, there's a Chinaman who sells lottery tickets. It's very much in tone like LES MAMMELLES DE TIRESIAS by Satie, where absurdist incident piles on absurdist incident to the point where revelations that one of the women is a man seems perfectly ordinary. The romances that usual propel the plots are swamped by all the manic exchanges that should be relegated to subplots: after a while you really dont care about Tom and Stan and Margot and Carmen, because they're just not as much fun to watch as Valdez's nonstop pursuit of Sister or the omni-present ballet troupe's series of auditions that shift out of thin air.

Truly, I'm not sure what to make of this one, because it's so much at odds with itself. Baker seems to be approaching her material with an almost affectionate humour, but it's also marginally insulting in its depiction of Cuba during a time of turmoil. We're not talking about the blackface-as-slapstick gimmick here: instead, la revolucion is played more for laughs than anything else, as almost a running giggle. The visiting Americans make no bones about being bored, bored, bored when they're confined for their own safety: indeed, the gun battles in the streets are mere inconveniences ruining their vacations.

And what makes this all the more curious is that Baker provides extensive descriptions of how to make Cuban musical instruments like a guiro, as well as an exacting pronunciation guide for the many Spanish words and phrases used throughout the show. Her characters are never maliciously drawn in their humour — granted, Señor Alvarez is a facile stereotype portrait, but it's a gentle one. The crow-like duennas are, in the end, just as happy to be relieved of Carmen as she is of them. The newlyweds are pretty much comic relief and little more, but at the same time there's a wonderfully nervous edge to George, who wants his new wife to see him in all his seemingly-secure, masculine glory. You even find yourself liking the Cuban soldiers who arrive to shake down a few bucks from Alvarez. It's just what you know that's going on outside the walls around all these perfectly nice people that makes IN GAY HAVANA seem not quite so gay after all.

Lyrically and musically, IN GAY HAVANA is thinner than even most of the musicals discussed in this blog. Songs only go on for a page or two, with no real development, although there's a surprising amount of dance music. But for the actual sung pieces, nothing quite prepares you for this ditty in the third act:

Señores
Will you listen well?
Señores
I have something to tell
Señores
I'm a singer of songs
Señores
I'm a vendor of bombs

You will find them good

They go off when they should

I'm a singer of songs
I'm a vendor of bombs
If you like my songs
Please buy my bombs

I suppose that, if anything, "Please Buy My Bombs" crystalizes everything so terribly wrong with this show -- something deadly serious treated as a joke. And it begs the question: were we, as a society, truly this blind?

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This post, by the way, is a bit of milestone in this blog: IN GAY HAVANA is the fiftieth operetta to be discussed here. I hope you're enjoying these as much as I.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

THE GHOST OF LOLLYPOP BAY

The sort of show that would appeal to those who believe that men and women should have no contact until the age of 40, the unfortunately named GHOST OF LOLLYPOP BAY (1926) has, as its sole redeeming quality, music by Charles Wakefield Cadman. And it's frustrating because its authors should have done so much more with this opportunity.

Let's get the minimal story out of the way. On opposite shores of Lollypop Bay are two schools, one for young ladies, one for young gentlemen. The two have a very strict non-fraternization policy that, as you can imagine, is circumvented at every possible chance by its students.

During one summer afternoon, rumours pop up that a ghost has taken up residence at the Bay. It's first been seen by Dinah, a "coloured maid", and, of course no one takes that seriously. But when the headmistress Jemina Steel sees it, then everyone gets real concerned, not the least of whom is Professor Flint, a "bashful bachelor" who runs the boys' school. But the ghost — whatever its origins — serves to allow our minimalist plot to propel forward by pushing Jemina into the protective, semi-manly arms of Flint... as well as give the kids the opportunity to run off in just all directions... some of them in couples... and not same-gender couples at that.

But it's for good reason that no one takes Dinah seriously because, as it turns out, she was the "ghost" seen by Ms. Steel. Why, you ask? Because her boyfriend works for Flint and she and he had a spat which sent her to work for Steel and now she misses him but she cant go back to him until the two schools merge (I'm not sure about why on that one, but whatever...) so she put on this sheet and scared herself and her boss and... Oh, and did I mention that one of the girls thought it would be fun to play ghost and is now running around in her own sheet and winds up scaring Dinah for real?

Now, just as in any good 80s era slasher film, instead of going home and staying there, the various residents of these schools decide, in a moment of blind stupidity, that, even though everyone's scared out of their wits, they're staying for the night. The boys are sent to their school to get blankets, while the girls stay behind to set up camp (an interesting piece of proto-feminist thought, in a weird kind of way). Dinah and Mary, unbeknownst to each other, try to pull off a second scaring, which results in a near-miss of an unmasking by Flint... but before he can do it, a third ghost appears, and the sudddenly-macho Flint runs off in pursuit of this new interloper. In the excitement, Mary and Dinah escape unrecoginzed. They've no sooner done so than our third ectoplastic friend returns, carrying an unconscious Flint. As Steel lovingly "administers restoratives" to our hapless would-be hero, this third ghost unmasks, revealing himself to be Marcus, Dinah's on-again-off-again boyfriend. The whole ghost ruse was to scare her, with the intent that the real Marcus would "rescue" her, thus ensuring she'd come back to him. The headmasters announce their intention to marry and "blend" their schools, and the curtain falls.

Okay, it's the usual high school musical twaddle, which, were it by folks like the Clarks, might be acceptable: the synopsis certainly seems to embrace the nonsensical plots Estelle so dearly loves. But here's the thing: Charles and Juanita Roos were nothing like Palmer and Estelle Clark.

Charles Roos was from Los Angeles, but he'd grown up in the St. Croix River region with a skillset that included not only woodworking and raftmanship but also an intense curiosity about local native tribes. He met Juanita, and the two became professional as well as personal partners: Juanita was a gifted lyricist and composer in her own right. The two wrote several song cycles that spoke from the Native experience, and they also collaborated with composers such as Cadman and Thurlow Lieurance (who himself visited some 30 reservations and made some of the first recordings of Native music), on songs that celebrated Hispanic and Native culture.

I've already written about Cadman's background, which likewise had a strong foundation in Native musical forms... so how did these three enlightened souls come to write something as embarrassingly awful as LOLLYPOP BAY? It's not so much that BAY has the usual nonsense about people falling in love under a full moon and deciding, without so much as day's courtship, to run off and get married. It's that here you have a woman who was Hispanic and Native, her husband who was sensitive to the political realities of the time, and a composer who actively promoted the cultural contributions of other American-based cultures... and the three of them collaborate to create a thin little work that takes all of that and shoves it out the door in favour of something that's just as sexist and racist as anything else the genre produced in the 20s and 30s. In the world of LOLLYPOP BAY, everyone's white and privileged (except for those subservient darkies, of course) and more obsessed with finding a good marriage match than anything else. The people who wrote "Eight Songs from Green Timber", which was roundly hailed by both critics and performers, give us such stirring lyrics as:

It seems that I'm always in the wrong
That I'm bound to be misunderstood
The things that I do
I am quite sure to rue
Try hard as I will to be good

or:

Oh dear oh dear
Can this be real
You know what happens
When Flint meets Steel

or:

I suah feels somethin' in ma bones
Such as ma name is Dinah Jones
Boo! Dis am a spooky place!
Wish it had nebber knowed ma face!
When de dark'nin' shadders fall
"Whoo-oo-oo" I hears an old owl call
Og goodness gracious glory-be
Dis am no place foh a gal lak me

Gads.

Because I write about these as I receive them, it's a little surprising to see the saccharine LOLLYPOP coming after the bleak reality of TWILIGHT ALLEY. As I wrote there: as a general rule, you dont come to these things looking for deep political insight. But it's still saddening to see something that has "sell out" all but written into the cover artwork.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

TWILIGHT ALLEY

Once you left the object lessons of the works for primary grade, the high school operetta, as you've probably figured out by now, wasnt really long on social consciousness. National politics, even for satire, rarely entered into the plot lines. Women's suffrage — as demonstrated in WILD ROSE and COLLEGE DAYS — was something more to be laughed at than anything else, and racial inequity... well, you've seen plenty here to know how that was handled. That's why TWILIGHT ALLEY (1919) by Mrs. Henry Backus and Paul Bliss (unsigned cover art, but something on that below) is a bit of a shocker. Surprisingly enough, TWILIGHT ALLEY is concerned with the plight of the poor, particularly those living in the crowded tenements of big cities like New York, and it approaches the problem with sensitivity and grace.

The story deals with Dame Needy, who, with her eight daughters and one son, lives in a run-down tenement building called "The Old Shoe". The kids are taught from an early age to work and work hard, and not to expect anything more from life. We see the daughters put through their paces of cleaning the Old Shoe, which is a near daily task because of the choking smoke (also known as the Black Bogie). The air is rarely clear; hence the neighbourhood is known as "Twilight Alley".Into this comes Lily, daughter of the rich property owner who holds the deed on virtually all of Twilight Alley. She's wandered there by mistake but takes pity on the daughters and invites them all to her home out in the country. So while Mom is asleep, the girls steal away for a party.

They're no sooner gone than the boys, who've finally had enough of life in the tenements, resolve to burn it down, but they're stopped just in time by Lily and the girls. Instead, the boys turn their wrath on the Black Bogie. After a furious play-battle (paralleled with an offstage action on the part of the residents involving an airplane that I gather seeds the clouds to make it rain and thus clean the air), they return with his wings (a black umbrella), his tail (an old rope), one of his ribs (a barrel stave), and his armour (a battered old dishpan). To tandem with their achievement, the city council passes a law that mandates a smoke consumer on every chimney, thus ensuring that Twilight Alley will see the sunlight yet again. Lily invites everyone back to her house to celebrate, and we're done.

The opening chorus sets us straight about the characters and exactly who and what they are:

Cleaning and sweeping
Oh the weary work

Must we ever be cleaning up

Then do it all again?

This is all we remember

This is all we remember

Every day, every day

Every day the same...


Dame Needy has little patience for her daughters' wish to see something green during the springtime:

Where do you see any green? I dont! Everything's grey, grey like the clouds, black like the smoke. No wonder they call this Twilight Alley.

Taken in all, it's a pretty sad (but never cloying) portrait of a family forced to move into such desperate conditions because of an unspecified financial problem. The father is no longer with the family, which just heightens Dame Needy's desperation and concern for her children, but she also helps other single mothers in the neighbourhood by taking some of them in while their parents are at work. One, Angelina, is apparently sick with a lung infection from the incessant smoky air; it's too dangerous to let her run around outside, so she's transfered that concern to her dolly.

My dolly is sick, my dolly is sick
It makes her cry
She comes from the land where sunshine is bright
And so, so do I

Hush little baby, dont cry
Hush little baby, dont cry
We will go out where the sun shines bright
You will be well by and by

But frankly, I cant imagine that TWILIGHT ALLEY was a big seller for Willis: it is so relentlessly bleak: almost every song until the finale is a sad commentary of some kind -- little Angelina only wants to see a butterfly once more. Eldest daughter Meg only wants to breathe clean air. The boys see their lives as living in a cave to hide from robbers; their best solution is to just burn down the whole filthy mess. And lurking in the background of the piece is a second, very big reason why this probably didnt do well: fear and suspicion between the rich and the poor. The kids are innocently past that, as you might expect — when Lily invites the girls up for the afternoon, they dont worry about the consequences. But, on their return, Dame Needy reminds them of who they are and who the rich people are and why the two should never meet.

In some respects, TWILIGHT ALLEY is arguably the RENT of its day, a musical snapshot of people that you dont even see as they pass you on the street, people that you probably would prefer not to see. So that would leave the question: who was this written for? The early 20th century was still a time of regimented class structure, with no real middle class to speak of. You were either rich or poor. And I can easily see parents from both social worlds up in arms about presenting a play like this, either out of shame or guilt or both.

The cover art artfully plays with the look of the "Old Shoe". As noted, it's unsigned, but the style smacks of the work of Percy Crosby, the artist behind the "Skippy" series of books, about a young boy who was, coincidentally enough, from the slums of New York. Crosby was quite the celebrated artist in his day — "Skippy" made him as much as $2400 per week (in 1921!) — but his work was out and out stolen by Rosefield Packaging Company, the originators of... (wait for it)... Skippy Peanut Butter, in 1933. Crosby tried to have the trademark annulled in 1934, but the courts have consistently continued to grant it to whomever manufactures the peanut butter. The litigation continues to this day.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

COLLEGE DAYS

Okay, now that I had my April Fool's Day fun (You didnt really think SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER was a real operetta, did you?), it's time to get back to the real thing.

COLLEGE DAYS (1921), by May Hewes Dodge and John Wilson Dodge, is interesting in the fact that it has a bit of an odd construction and it's one of the first I've come across that deals with the First World War and its impact on the young people of the time.

Set (initially) in 1917, COLLEGE DAYS starts with a school baseball game. It's the bottom of the ninth in a real nail-biter, and fortunately for Brinkdale, the star player, Davey Carson, slams in a home run that puts the college in the lead and wins the game. After celebrating his win. Davey gets some "quality time" with his girlfriend, Dot, who's also the daughter of the college president.

But it seems that someone else is after Dot's affections: Chauncy de Forest (also known as "Dude", although I'm not sure why). Chauncy's a local bad boy who, through a somewhat complicated plot, manages to frame Davey as the player who throws the next game with archrival Fairfield College. Because (1) he gave his word and (2) he's apparently not very bright, Davey leaves Brinkdale at the end of Act Two with his head still high -- even though he's been thrown out of school. Instead, he's going to prove his worth to Brinkdale by going off to war.

Oddly, no one seems to care. Dot breaks their engagement, the college president acts like he's scum -- even his old teammates abandon him.

Act Three is 1919, and Davey returns a war hero. But before he can, Dot's best friend Helen gives us a full page of exposition:

As sure as you're sitting there, he's coming back a hero, First Lieutenant, medals and everything, and all cleared of that old affair. This letter and telegram came from Tubby today. I'll read you part of the letter first. "Dude de Forest dies in my arms at Chateau Thierry - he may have been a four-flusher back in school days but he fought and died like a hero. Before he "went West", he confessed he framed Davey because he couldnt bear the thought of Dot's marrying him. Davey didnt even tell me, his best pal, why he kept silent until after Dude died. Davey said Dude told him that his aunt had heart trouble and if she should learn of his connection with Foxy and he should be expelled from school it would kill her, so Davey like the hero he is took the blame. There's lots more but you can read it later.

It's actually even more complicated than that, with money going one way and then coming back from somewhere else -- but I gather the Dodges hoped the audience was taking notes. At any rate, Davey comes in, Dot forgives him (Huh?), and we move into the finale, a sprightly four-part, twelve-page hymn to Brinkdale and college and being in love.

The biggest problem with COLLEGE DAYS is the third act, which really just slams on the exposition so the story is trapped with nowhere to go. Reduced to a mere three pages of dialogue, there's no time for development, because the authors seemed almost rushed to resolve the plotlines. As a result, everything's top heavy with Act One (which is fully half the script), leaving Act Three to be nothing more than a coda at best. And that's a pity, because certainly enough would have happened to these folks (especially the ones that went off to war) to give the proceedings a bit more depth. But as it is, there's no time: Davey's the same guy we saw in Act One. If the death and destruction that was World War One impacted him at all, you'd never know it. For her part, Dot never seems much concerned about his safety as much as what he'll think of her when he returns.

The characters are the usual two-dimensional creations of the time: Dot, her father, her best friend Helen, Tubby (Davey's pal and Helen's boyfriend) are all easily sketched-out and march through their paces with no surprises. But Davey is a frustrating quandry -- he just never seems to get it that he's being had, even though it's pretty obvious from the outset. Between Chancey suddenly becoming his best friend in the whole world and the preposterous story about the aunt, not to mention the money that somehow moves out of his hands and back in in the space of fifteen minutes without him having the slightest clue what's going on... well, truly, it's a wonder the boy can tie his shoes without assistance. He's very much the epitome of the "dumb jock" in a self-sacrificing, heroic way. The fact that he makes it to First Lieutenant in two years is... well, pretty scary on one hand and not terribly surprising on the other.

Musically, there's a lot to like about COLLEGE DAYS. The first act has some fun little numbers for the secondary characters, including a barbershop quartet with a jazz gloss called "The Old Tom Cat".

There was an old cat sat on a fence
And howled the whole night long
He sang to his love neath the moon
What he thought was a tender song

Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow
Oh tabby cat I love but you
Please come down from yonder tree
Down to the ground and stroll with me
I will build you a little house
Every day I'll catch a little mouse
Every night beneath the moon
Tabby cat we'll sit and spoon.

Upon finding out that Helen likes him as much as he likes her, Tubby gets "Tis a Grand Old World", a love song that's surprisingly celebratory and fitting for the guy who thought he'd never get the girl of his dreams.

Tis a good old world, tis a jolly place
Tis a kind old world with a smiling face
Tis a dear old world, tis a dream come true
Tis a paradise where I'll be with you

The college president and his dean of women (who, despite the fact that she loves romance, is actually more modern in thought than her students) have two charming turns about growing old and missed opportunities. These more than make up for the contrastingly flat (albeit typical) love songs our main characters get to sing.

It's difficult to believe this is from the same team that wrote CRIMSON EYEBROWS, which was the work of people who know the format well enough to take a few shots at it with tongue firmly locked into cheek. That earlier piece may be a string of bad jokes, but it never takes itself seriously: everything from the characters to the script to the music seems purposely written as vaudeville-esque as possible. On the other hand, COLLEGE DAYS, while purporting to be a "musical comedy", is an all-too-typical example of the very thing they were lampooning.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

FRUHJAHR FUR DER FUHRER

Now this, gentle reader, was a find.

I think you can imagine my amazement when I tripped over a copy of FRUHJAHR FUR DER FUHRER (1938) by Eduard Klen (possibly Kley, I cant quite make out the pencil notation), from a European used book site I sometimes frequent. The title roughly translates as "A Spring Day for the Fuhrer".

A Germen operetta for upper grade schoolchildren, this admittedly-now-flabbergasting piece of work attempts to cast the Third Reich in the same mode as we've seen with Holland and England and even ancient China: a magical Bavarian Neverland where folks in brown shirts and leiderhosen sing songs about love and animals on parade, as well as going to South America and dancing the tango.

The story is typical thin operetta fare: "Adolph", a very transparent portrait of Hitler, decides on a spring walk about the countryside and meets "Eva", the daughter of a rich landowner. She doesnt realize he's the Furher, so most of the complications (many of which would have served Estelle Clark well, by the way) arise when his friends from Berlin arrive to join him in a merrymaking time. By the end of the second act, it's all been sorted out, and it appears wedding bells are in Adolph and Eva's future, leaving Act Three to be a series of musical numbers provided as some kind of festival entertainment. I say "some kind of entertainment" because, to be honest, my German isnt very good, so I'm guessing a lot. There doesnt seem to be any sort of online translation for FRUHJAHR, and, as usual with these ephemera, not much information period. Nevertheless, Act Three has eight musical sequences, fully half the score. None are sung by the main characters until the finale, which brings everyone back on (with one exception, noted below) for something called "Eva, My Beautiful Eva":

Eva, my beautiful Eva
Let my arms enfold you
Like the mist around the mountain

However, what's somewhat surprising about FRUHJAHR is two fold. First, it features a strong leading role for a male, a rarity in this format. Then we also get its rather sensitive portrayal of Hitler as a young man. His anguish over whether or not to tell Eva who he really is actually comes across as the genuine plight of a lovelorn young man, even though his biggest concern seems to be her background rather than how to share his own. One of the secondary characters, a school chum named Beni (Mussolini, maybe? He's not given a last name, but it seems expected that the audience would recognize him), offers to check her out, so to speak, and proceeds to do so in a comic scene that's almost shocking, considering the times, in its suggestive bawdiness. But whatever test he gave her, she apparently passes, thus removing any roadblocks for her and Adolph's union.

The songs in FRUHJAHR are not particularly rich, although you can definitely see Klen's antecedents: the obligatory waltz is in a Strauss mode, and the second act finale has ever-so-gentle hints of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. I imagine the orchestrations were especially daunting for schoolchildren musicians, because the piano reduction is fierce. As with most of these works, songs come pretty much out of nowhere, with production numbers introduced at the drop of a helmet. For example, the tango mentioned above (and please forgive my translation):

The gentle breezes go through the palms
As you and I watch the waves
The sun winks goodnight as it sets beneath the horizon
And a thousand stars wink good day

Not especially inspired, but not as terrible as it could have been, I'm sure. There's also an anthem to the Fatherland that matches any of the patriotic verve of LIBERTY LANE, a rousing six-part chorus in a fervent martial beat that I'm sure was a real showstopper.

And just as US operettas had their blackface characters, so does FRUHJAHR have its own stereotype, and yes, it's a little Jewish man who works in the employ of Eva's father as (what else?) an accountant. I wont even try to translate his song, because it seems to be written in some mock Jewish accent, but it looks to be something about how much he loves money, complete with a little jig-like dance. His scenes are mercifully brief, with his last halfway through Act Two when he discovers who Eva's beau is. But it's a soft-focus caricature, much like his counterpart in THE PENNANT, one that was probably tamed down for schoolchildren performances. Inexplicably, he's led about on a chain, like some kind of dancing bear, and his song does have a slightly Russian flavour.

I've read enough of these now to see that Klen was trying to go for a German styling of the show's American counterparts, almost to the point where it looks like he might have ripped some of them off wholecloth. I havent done any note-by-note or line-by-line comparisons, but it appears Klen had no problem "appropriating" from other countries' works when he felt it necessary.

Perhaps one of these days I'll find someone who can provide a good translation of FRUHJAHR FUR DER FUHRER. If anyone else has come across this strange little work, please let me know.