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:
Will you listen well?
I have something to tell
I'm a singer of songs
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?
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.