Wednesday, June 17, 2009

THE MAGIC PIPER

Based on Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", THE MAGIC PIPER (1931), by N. Mitchell Hubrich and Carol Christopher (with beautifully designed cover art by Corina Melder-Collier), is like AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE in that it's a relatively short work meant to be performed by everyone from first graders through those in middle school.

It's 1225, in the small German town of Hamelin. A town crier starts the proceedings by telling us that he relays all the really important news, like the fact that the mayor has lost his snuff box. Katrina Van Winkle returns from a visit to Hanover to the competing attentions of Hans and Peter. Little Yacob has learned a song about a goat. And Frieda has a new doll.

But the biggest news in town has to deal with, of course, the rats. They're everywhere, even so far as stealing babies from their cradles and dolls from their beds. The mayor (who, by now, has successfully found his snuff box) and the town council are beseiged by everyone to find a solution... and who should appear by a mysterious piper. He tells everyone he'll take care of the problem for the fee of a thousand guilders.

"A thousand?" says the mayor. "Do it and we'll give you fifty thousand!"

The Piper nods his head, takes up his flute, and lures the rats into the river, where they're all drowned. The Piper returns for his fee, but the mayor laughs him off. Furious, the Piper takes up his flute again and charms the children to follow him into a cave at the base of a mountain. The mountain then slams shut.

Now this is where Browning's poem ends, but given that we're dealing with the juvenile operetta here, we cant leave good enough alone... so the story continues. Or, as noted in the script:

In order that the story may have a more pleasing ending, the librettist has added two more short scenes, bringing the children back.

...
which, in effect, is like those late-Victorian adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in which the star-crossed lovers dont quite die. At any rate, during the very brief Act Two, we're inside the mountain. The Piper entertains his little captives by providing them with music so they can dance. The Town Crier appears, with a bag of money, and the Piper, his honour assuaged, convinces the kids it's time to go home. The even briefer Act Three shows their return and the general rejoicing as the curtain falls.

As with RAINBOW'S EDGE, this is one of those playlets where the twenty-three musical numbers (over 44 pages!) are connected by the most minimal of dialogue, two or three lines maximum. Whatever side stories there may be, such as Katrina's return, are presented, then immediately forgotten, so we can move on to the next scene, which more or less turns the whole show into a series of star turns: a dramatic reading, a choral intro, a specialty dance, a comic number, a short dramatic ballet, and so on, all thrown together around the most minimal of adaptations of Browning's work.

Granted, you dont come to productions like this looking for depth of character. There's never enough time, after all, not when you have so many musical numbers to drive through. But the Piper is a bit of an odd comedy role here. Remember: the town has ripped him off, so he takes their children as revenge. But he soon finds out that babysitting this pack aint what it's cracked up to be, because only a day or two in, and he's run out of stories to tell them. And they're bored. Mightily, mightily bored. When the Town Crier appears (conveniently through the audience, so no one questions how he got inside the mountain when no one else could) with cash in hand, the Piper cant convince these urchins fast enough that it's time to go home and see Momma. It's interesting that he doesnt even appear during Act Three, save by a distant, off-stage flute solo. Instead, the children run on, everyone sings the finale

Oh we are all happy
Our children have come home
And from our city Hamelin
They never more will roam

... and that's it.

Thing is, the original poem (and the folklore on which it was based) was an object lesson: follow through on your promises. In THE MAGIC PIPER, that lesson disappears into thin air; no one in Hamelin has really learned anything by the theft and subsequent return of their kids, which sorta defeats the purpose of the story.

That's not to suggest that the audience couldnt figure out the message here. When you walk into an adaptation of well-trod material, you're going to bring along whatever moral lesson you obtained with it, so I gather Christopher and Hubrich felt they could just blunder along, provide a "more pleasing" ending, and let the audience do all the moral heavy lifting...

... which feels like even more of a rip-off than the Mayor's bait-and-switch payment for services rendered.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MUSICO-DRAMATIC PRODUCING

This "manual for stage and musical directors" (1930) by Charles T. H. Jones and Don Wilson (yep, the same Don Wilson) covers much of the same ground as the handbook by Frank Beach discussed earlier in this blog. But while Beach's book goes into a great deal more detail about the specifics of production, Jones and Wilson's has the advantage of photographs and illustrations that give us a real opportunity to see these shows as they were presented during the Depression era.

Wilson (seen here) commands much of the space in the later chapters with discussions about a production of PURPLE TOWERS at the University of Washington. Page after page is devoted to the publicity of the show, in which it seems every single day, from the first rehearsal to opening night, had an article of some kind in the local paper as well the university newspaper. Prior to that, tho, we get to see pictures of CARRIE COMES TO COLLEGE, IN OLD VIENNA (performed by a company in Japan!), THE LUCKY JADE, and countless others as given by high schools, colleges, and community groups — not to mention a score or so of photos of mostly unidentified productions from the Chicago Civic Opera... as, I gather, examples of how the pros do it.

The book carries you through the entire process, from casting ("For the leading lady, an attractive girl with a small voice is preferable to an adipose type with grand opera aspirations.") to vocal coaching ("Singing by people absolutely devoid of vocal prowess is torture for the performer and audience alike."), through the rehearsal period, first dress, and finally opening night, as well as what to do with everything afterwards. As a composer, Wilson puts almost undue emphasis on the music, with page after page of tips and tricks for nascent conductors, chorus masters, rehearsal pianists, and vocal directors, while actual stage direction is relegated to a few common sense points about "creating a pretty stage picture". The sections on building scenery and costumes are woefully thin compared to the Beach book, but Jones and Wilson do have some interesting ideas about lighting, both in colour theory and how to construct the lighting stands themselves. For example, in the discussion about "bunch lights", which are essentially a bunch of lightbulbs inside a wooden box, the authors note the use of coloured gel sheets to create mood:

To change color frame without turning off the lights, place the new frame in front of the old one, then withdraw the latter. If this is not carefully done, there will be an instant of plain white light which spoils the effect.

Note: they're talking about doing this during a performance. Not at intermission or at a scene break. I can only imagine what that pressure must have been like for the kid who got stuck changing the light gels because he couldnt sing or act or dance.

Nevertheless, again, this book is — now anyways — all about the pictures, showing productions from the days when one had to be imaginative with materials because there wasnt a whole lot around to work with. Unsurprisingly, cardboard shows up a lot as a scenic medium, after it's been sized with something called "calcimine", which I gather is something akin to gesso. There's a great deal of reliance on existing stage drapes, such that the scenic design is reduced to a few platforms, some well-placed props, and little more. Butcher paper is another preferred skin for flats. Inexplicably, the authors seem to think exteriors are easier to build and paint by amateurs than interiors.

In the costume section, there's some fun little costume drawings. devoted to various nationalities and "ethnics", from the usual gypsies and omnipresent Dutch to (of all things) apache dancers (Should you not know what "apache dancing" is, this was an "entertainment" craze of the late 20s in which the woman is pretty well assaulted in every way imaginable by her sadistic partner, including being dragged across the dance floor by her hair). The costume notes are just as simplistic as those given scenery: to Jones and Wilson, with the right accessories, virtually everything can come out of the downstairs closet. Unlike the costume book I wrote about earlier, it's almost painfully obvious that in this area, Jones and Wilson are at the mercy of strangers, that they really have no idea what they're talking about. But that's okay, I suppose: one cant be expected to be a master of everything theatrical, right?

All in all, MUSICO-DRAMATIC PRODUCING is worth it solely for the imagery, not the tips and advice (although some of the casting suggestions are howlingly sexist). I get the impression that this book was published as a giveaway (The jacket has no price.), something enclosed for preferred clients at places like Willis or Hoffman. It's an enjoyable read as a period piece, but I honestly wonder how it was viewed at the time. I suspect that the publishers thought Wilson's name would be enough to carry it — and had he restrained himself to talking solely about music, it might have made a difference.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Eccentric dances

You'll notice that, from time to time, these scripts indicate something called an "eccentric dance". From streetswing.com:

Eccentric dancing was basically anything weird, grotesque or out of the ordinary type of dancing or routine. Earl "Snakehips" Tucker was a very famous eccentric dancer, many people copied his style of moving his hips. Jigsaw Jackson was a contortionist who would dance excellently while doing contortions with his body, he had no imitators.

Eccentric dancers would do things such as the Snake Hips Dance, the Shimmy, dancing on a ball, dancing on your head, Legomania (aka rubberlegs), using whips, doing contortionist movements, dance in a handstand, balancing acts, and some acrobatic dance acts etc. Sometimes when new or unknown dance was being created or introduced, the reporters and critics would list it as an eccentric dance for lack of a proper name.

Today's modern "Hip Hop, The Robot and Vogue" type dancers would be considered eccentric back then as many movements in Hip-Hop actually came from this time. As an example, in 1923, Foots Robinson (Green and Robinson) did a dance where he would drop to the ground while dancing, spin on his back to the music and end in a pose. Usually these dances would be performed in medicine shows, Gille's, Circus, vaudeville and burlesque acts on the stage, or maybe a theme dance for the show.

Many dancers would be labled as Eccentric dancers at sometime during their career. Dancers like George M. Cohan, Leon Errol, George White, Joe Frisco, Harland Dixon, Ray Bolger, James Barton, Hal Leroy, Buddy Ebsen, and many more would carry this label, but most of them were so much more.

Later the category Eccentric dance name would change to Cabaret dance.

Friday, June 5, 2009

AND IT RAINED

Okay, deep breath, everyone. It's another one of those works by you know who...

AND IT RAINED (1934) comes from the inestimable Estelle Merrymon Clark, so be prepared. Music for this venture comes from Adele Bohling Lee (edited by Estelle's husband, Palmer John Clark), but when approaching something by the Clarks, the music is about the last thing you think about. These shows are all about Estelle's rambunctious plots, and truly AND IT RAINED is no exception.

We start with a storm, a real whopper that left "Lightning flashing/Tall trees crashing/Rent by unseen hands!", as the opening chorus sings while everyone dries out on the lawn of the not-quite-ready-for-business Wise Hotel "somewhere out West". People have arrived on the local train, the last one to make it before the storm hit — including the cabaret performer Mademoiselle Caráy, her small dog Mitzi, and her tap dancing chorus... although Mlle. Caráy's accent has a way of sliding in and out in a rather suspicious way. Because Mr. Wise's wife doesnt approve of "actors", he tells them that the troupe will have to assume the roles of teacher and students.

They're no sooner sorted out than we see Dennis Black and his sister Maizie. Dennis is furious Maizie is there, because apparently she risked life and limb to get across a bridge that connects the hotel with the mainland... and, thanks to the storm, the bridge no longer exists. For some reason, Dennis insists that they not even acknowledge that they're brother and sister, because he was on board the very same train and overheard a girl and her father talking in a not-very-nice way about his father, and he wants to know who she is and why these two have it in for Dad.

Now, you're probably wondering what this has to do with him and Maizie deciding not to act like brother and sister. Not much. We go on.

The chorus rushes back on, demanding service, and we now get to meet the overbearing and linguistically-challenged Mrs. Wise:

Please have patience, you are more than welcome to my hostility. Now that the storm is over and the humidity cleared up, the bridge will soon be assimilated, and I shall be glad to speed the parting guest.

Yep, virtually every line the woman has contains a malapropism. And some are true groaners. The rest are even worse. At any rate, while she's becalming the assembled guests, John Rich, his daughter Maibelle, and his son Curly arrive. John and Maibelle are the two that Dennis overheard last night on the train, so he immediately sidles up to them and introduces himself as Dennis White.

His real last name is Black, remember? Yuk-yuk-yuk.

John says he's there to meet a man named Steele Black, an old boyhood friend (This is Dennis' father, remember). Maizie, who's been eavesdropping over by the ornamental peonies, interrupts:

Black? Oh isnt that funny? Your name is White, his name is Black, black and white make gray and that is my name. Grey, Maizie Grey.

What a colourful family. She then continues on, telling John that she knows Steele Black:

I know all about him. He has the fiercest temper you ever saw: cant keep a bit of help on the place, and he uses a gun like a bandit. Why, his only son wouldnt stay at home, and his only daughter ran away one dark and stormy night, and he hasnt heard from her since. Oh, he's terrible, Mr. Rich. I wouldnt waste my time on him if I were you.

Mlle. Caráy (whom John seems to know as Mary Carey from back in the day) and her troupe rush in and perform an "allegory". It seems to have something to do with a king and features a slave dance, and then some war is over, and everyone dances a victory dance, after which they leave and the play proper continues.

Now you're probably asking, Okay, just what the Hades was that? That, dear reader, is just another of Estelle's surreally inconsequential little scenes, usually indicative of nothing whatsoever. It's just her way of making sure everyone gets plenty of face time onstage, even if it has zero to do with the plot. While she doesnt layer them on quite as heavily as she did in LAZY TOWN, Estelle made sure that AND IT RAINED has its own bloated share.

Back in the play, Dennis tries to find out why Maibelle has it in for his father, but she wants to keep her peace about it: after all, she's just met Dennis, which is hardly enough time for a young lady's future ex-beau to know all her secrets. Still, he perseveres, and we find out that this has to do with a looking glass, an heirloom given Maibelle by her great-great-great grandmother (longevity apparently runs rampant in the Rich family). Steele had at one time borrowed it and never returned it, the cad. But no matter, Dennis and Maibelle have found each other as a result, and for our immediate purposes, that's all that matters, because it gives them an opportunity to sing a little love song and then clear out just as Curly and Maizie come on with Mr. Wise and cajole him into loaning them his car so they can go see what's going on with the bridge. He agrees (ah, such a different time), but tells them that his wife can never know. He goes to get the keys. Curly and Maizie dance a tango (dont ask, just remember who wrote this).

They sorta kinda make it to the still-down bridge in time to see Maizie's father coming across the river in a flying machine. A glider? A small aeroplane? An early helicopter? Estelle, that woman of mystery, never says for certain. Steele and John have a slightly awkward reunion, Dennis's issues with his last name are revealed, Maibelle becomes absolutely furious with Dennis for his little colour switch, Curly is arrested and thrown into jail for speeding (at 25 mph!), Mlle. Caráy's dog has gone missing, and... no, I think that's everything — as the curtain falls on Act One.

Act Two is later that night. There's a big festive dinner to celebrate Opening Day, even though the menu is limited to beans and cod fish balls. The tap dancers perform an "air de ballet". Maibelle is still mad at Dennis, and he tries to calm her down by telling her the story of the Moonflower, an old legend that seems to work just fine for the purpose of cuing up a Native-style dance. Curly, who seems to have escaped from jail, appears with the boys' glee club, and everyone performs an "eccentric dance" before he decides to make himself scarce...

... and so it goes, on and on and on. Inside the next few pages, previously wimpy Curly stands up to his father so he can help rebuild the bridge and returns not ten lines later with a broken arm; Mlle. Caráy is revealed to have been fond of both John Rich and Steele Black when they were all younger; and the fathers decide they've done enough meddling in the lives of their children and from now on are going to sit on the sidelines while Dennis and Maibelle do some serious courtin'. Mrs. Wise is tricked into believing that her keys (and her car) never left the property, and Maizie and Curly... well, you know: usual operetta ending, with everyone getting paired off somehow.

Oh, the mirror? Mentioned in passing at the very end. We wrap up this little work still not knowing what the big fuss was about with the mirror, but given how Estelle writes her plays, that probably shouldnt be surprising. Still, AND IT RAINED, with its ten — count 'em, ten! — story lines that interweave around and through each other, is relatively sanguine for Ms. Clark: if she doesnt quite get around to finishing them all neat and tidy, well, she just ran out of time, probably.

Lyrically, it's down there with her usual efforts:

Oh little Mary Carey
She went away one day
She went to France
To learn to dance
And speak the French they say
But no amount of coaching
Could change the brogue of Mary
She's still the same little Irish girl
And her name is Mary Carey.

I honestly cannot explain why the Clarks got so much work published, save that possibly it was because the scripts were so big that they guaranteed everyone in class a pretty decent part. Or more likely the publishers were more interested in Palmer's musical skills as composer and editor than they were in Estelle as an author. It must have been a package deal, from what I can figure, because her work is arguably some of the overdone out there, with so many plots running at the same time that the audience had to have taken notes just to keep everyone's storylines straight. Her model seems to have been the mechanical farces of writers like Feydeau, except she's not manic enough. And she never quite figured out that Feydeau works because he treats the utterly implausible as completely acceptable: Estelle, on the other hand, has to underscore it all with page after page of let's-shove-it-in-at-the-last-minute exposition to explain everything in the smallest detail... even if it means forgetting about the thing that started it all — like, in this case, the mirror.

The cover art, by the way, is a stunning piece of post-Deco, pre-Moderne-era styling. Shamefully, it's uncredited.