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.

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