Sunday, July 26, 2009

THE GYPSY ROVER

Constructed from the same awkward framework as COLLEGE DAYS, THE GYPSY ROVER (1919), by May Hewes Dodge and John Wilson Dodge, seems to underscore that the mindless charm and fun of CRIMSON EYEBROWS was indeed something of a fluke.

It's the late 18th century, in a gypsy encampment on the outskirts of a country estate held by Sir George Martendale. Rob, our gypsy hero, proclaims to one and all that the gypsy life is for him... which is a pity because he's actually Sir Gilbert Howe, heir to the Howe estate, stolen in infancy by his nurse Meg, who now lives with Marto, the head gypsy. Rob has been raised with the understanding that Meg and Marto are his parents, even though they have typically swarthy gypsy skin tone while he's a typically pale English gentrymen, but we wont bother with the little detail for the moment.

His days are spent going to town and getting the best deals he can in trade, but it seems he's not the best at this. But no matter: the children in the camp love him, particularly for his stories and songs about Fairyland. His best friend is Sinfo, who's in love with Zara, the camp tease. Sinfo's incessantly frustrated by her convenient attentions, but we get that sorted out in good time before the arrival of Lady Constance, daughter of Sir George Martendale, and her fiancé, Lord Craven, who's a bit of a fop. They left the highway to pick some flowers and promptly got lost (well, no one ever said English nobility was especially bright). Craven's a nervous wreck about being in an actual gypsy camp, but Constance relishes the idea of a life without social whirls.

She meets Rob, and, of course, it's love at first sight. Their romance is interrupted by the arrival of Sir George and his guests out on a fox hunt. There's the pesky little problem of Lord Craven, but Sinfo and Marto take that issue in hand, threatening (subtly, of course) Craven at knife point that he should tell Sir George what a swell guy Rob is. Sir George thanks Rob for his kindness to his daughter, and with much happy singing about the return of the prodigal daughter, the first act ends.

The second act takes place in Constance's bedroom, two nights later. Craven, in a jealous snit, has forced the marriage to take place the following morning, and you can imagine what Constance thinks of that. Her misery is transformed to joy when Rob climbs up the ivy outside her window. They plot to run off together, but Sir George and Lord Craven intercept them at the last minute. Rob is sent to prison (for presumption, I suppose). And the second act ends.

Okay, bear in mind that we're 113 pages in on a script that's 134 pages, so you can imagine what Act Three is like. It's two years later. Rob has escaped from prison and been restored to his proper title and lands but has refused to date to set foot on English soil. While in Paris, he fended off an assassination attempt on the Prince and has become his best friend and constant companion. His singing is the hit of the continent, especially his song "Fairyland". For her part, Constance broke off her engagement to Craven and has sworn eternal love to her gypsy and has never married. Finally, the Prince has persuaded Rob — now Sir Gilbert again — to return home to England that very night for a soirée at Sir George's country mansion.

Yes, the same Sir George who threw him into a "bottomless pit".

And we find all this out in about two pages of dialogue between two tertiary characters. As they did in COLLEGE DAYS, the Dodges seemed to realize they only had a little time left and slammed everything they could in the way of necessary exposition in with the speed of a professional baseball pitcher going for a perfect speed ball game. They manage to get it all in just before Sir Gilbert makes his entrance. He's greeted by Sir George as a fellow aristocrat, even though Sir Gilbert, in an aside, remembers (for our benefit) his treatment in George's dungeon.

Constance appears and is introduced to Sir Gilbert, whom she doesnt remember. She fends off his approaches by telling him she's still in love with her gypsy boy — and of course, all he has to do is sing one line from his hit song "Fairyland" to jog her foggy memory. And they live happily ever after.

Now, as with COLLEGE DAYS, there's so much wrong in the plotting. Characters like Sinfo and Zara appear, sing their song, and then are seemingly forgotten. In fact, there's a parallel relationship in the third act between a Captain Jerome and Sir George's other daughter Nina, and that one's no more developed than the earlier one. We have no idea what happened to Meg after Act One; I gather she and Marto pulled up camp and went someplace else, because they're never mentioned again. Craven hangs in there for Acts One and Two, and you'd think he'd be there for Act Three for some final dramatic tension.... but he's not. Instead, he's written out with a casual and convenient knotting of that particular plot thread. It's also left uncertain whether Constance's two years of enforced celibacy are because she really loves Rob or because she's gonna show Daddy who's boss.

Lyrically, it's not very impressive (again, what happened to the wit we saw in CRIMSON EYEBROWS?), with songs that seem shoe-horned with no respect for the character singing. One love song is much like any other, which is sad considering what could have been done with characters like Sinfo, whose easily-threatened masculinity would have made for an amusingly sweet (if awkward) love song to Zara. Instead, it's easily tossed off lines about "sailing hand in hand across our gypsy land". The music too aspires to grand operetta in the Lehar vein, but it just doesnt quite make it: despite some well-intended parts work for each act's finale (Act Two's finale boasts ten vocal lines), the rest is just as treacly as the lyrics — and, for that matter, the script itself.

Again, it's almost bewildering to set this next to CRIMSON EYEBROWS and imagine they came from the same source. EYEBROWS showed wit and style as it poked fun at the conventions of the juvenile operetta. ROVER, on the other hand, ably demonstrates what was so very wrong with the format: shallow characterizations, clumsy plotting, awkward lyrics and music. Granted, ROVER comes from the early years of the high school operetta, and we've already seen numerous examples of works that succeeded where those like ROVER failed. If anything, ROVER demonstrates what we were coming from: the European model of Strauss and Lecoq. It would be a few more years before we would see the transition to what would be more properly described as a musical comedy, as the influences of composers such as Kern and Monckton made their impression on the professional operetta.

The cover art, by the way, is unsigned, but it smacks of the style of "C. Dodge", who provided the illustration work for COLLEGE DAYS and the not-yet-discussed WISHING WELL, also by John and May. I havent been able to find out what his/her relationship is to the authors, but it's clear it was all done in the family. There is the possibility that this is Cynthia Dodge, who wrote WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH SALLY, but I havent found anything yet to confirm that.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

YOKOHAMA MAID

YOKOHAMA MAID (1915) simply adds to my theory that the legacy of Arthur Penn is one of musical theatre's lost treasures. A wonderfully demented work, the play (which precedes CAPTAIN CROSSBONES by a few years) chronicles the results of a social experiment gone very, very wrong.

After an opening number in which a herald fills us in on some completely unnecessary backstory, we're in the garden of Sing-a-Song's house, where everyone has gathered to fete her sixteenth birthday. Unfortunately, the celebrantee isnt quite ready, but that leaves time for the mayor Fateddo to arrive and put everyone in their proper place... on the ground, eating dirt.

Once that's out of the way, Sing-a-Song appears, not caring tuppence that everyone knows she's sixteen. Her enjoyment of the moment is cut short when Fateddo tells her she's his betrothed, thanks to her father's will, which requests that she marry "a real live mayor", and Fateddo is the only single mayor her father knew.

Needless to say, this doesnt go over well with Sing-a-Song, but her misgivings are meliorated by Fateddo's announcement that she's to go to America for two years to become an acceptable, accomplished wife. She will be accompanied by Kissimee, her companion, and Tung-Waga, her nurse. And with a proper Donizettian sextet, the curtain falls in Act One.

Act Two takes us to the Mayor's garden. It's been two years, and he's anxious to see Sing-a-Song again (although he seems slightly more interested in the money and lands her father left her). The three women appear, now dressed in extravagant "American" style, and Fateddo is surprised to see the change in Sing-a-Song: rather than a quiet, demure little maiden, now she's a controlled, "sophisticated" American lady who has a few ideas all her own about this supposed marriage. But the Mayor sets all her objections to the side and starts the ceremony...

... only to be stopped by Harry Cortcase, a lawyer, and his associates Hilda and Stella, because it seems Sing-a-Song has married him. Fateddo dismisses it, pointing out the statements in the will that she "be willing to marry Fateddo" and, of course, the notes about her marrying a "real live mayor". Harry elegantly sidesteps the former by stating that of course she was "willing". The fact that she's married now simply makes it "impossible", which of course the will doesnt address. And as for marrying a real live mayor, Harry throws out the information bomb that he is indeed a mayor, of a town called Dollarsville, and had been a full month before marrying Sing-a-Song. As such, all of the requirements of the will have been met, so Sing-a-Song gets her father's estate. Unable to do anything now, Fateddo decides to commit "social hari-kari" by marrying Tung-Waga instead. And with another sextette, the curtain falls.

As noted, this was written prior to CAPTAIN CROSSBONES, and in some respects it shows. It's not quite as mature a work as CAPTAIN: the humour is a great deal broader, dependent on groaning puns — especially in the character names: Muvon Yu is the policeman, Knogudi is the mayor's secretary, Ah No a laundryman, and so on. Nevertheless, Penn's libretto allows for some great star turns for its secondary characters. For example, Tung Waga's song in Act One on the agonies of growing old:

Dim is my eye and grey my hair
For which misfortunes I hardly care
But had I been born at a later date
No doubt I could have controlled my fate

O powder puff
O sweet cold cream
Without your help
Life a curse would seem
O dainty rouge
O fifty cent massage
Had I but known
The powers you own
I would have begged my parents to
Postpone their marriage a decade or two

Like the libretto, the score is also not quite up to CROSSBONES' virtuosity, but it comes close. In some respects, this is because CROSSBONES is scored more as a full-bolt opera, with more complex choral work, while YOKOHAMA MAID is a chamber work with a smaller cast and therefore lower expectations. Still, there are some dazzling pieces of choral work and two finales that put the singers to their best advantage. It's a very clean work, with no obvious diversions for the sake of adding a musical number: everything builds, which is fairly rare for works of the period. Surprisingly enough, there are no dance numbers, although a few of the songs would lend themselves to adding one.

But Penn's larger goal seems to be in the singing: he arranges his score so that everyone gets an equal amount of face time, whether solo or as part of one of those sextet finales. The chorus works in complete subservience to the soloists: they sing more as an extension of the orchestra, not as a part of the acting company.

Nevertheless, like CROSSBONES, the Gilbert-and-Sullivan antecedents are clearly on display, with wry rhyming schemes and a storyline that speaks to cultural differences in a broadly comic way. While G&S's satire is more pointed and specific, YOKOHAMA MAID is a bit more scattershot, even with its smaller scale approach. Still, it shows Penn's slightly absurdist sense of humour in development, with all the groundwork in place for the more mature works such as CROSSBONES and THE CHINA SHOP.

Note: while in NY this past weekend, I hoped to finally secure the libretto to MAM'ZELLE TAPS, also by Penn. The Library of Performing Arts' computer database said they had one, but no one could locate it. Very frustrating, as you might think. Still, I have a few more options before throwing in the towel on ever finding one for that particular work.

To balance that frustration, I also put in a request for the libretto to PINK LADY, by Ivan Caryll. A hit when it opened in NY in 1911, it too has been almost completely forgotten. But we'll do our part to revive a bit of interest in this utterly charming little show.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

THE LADY SAYS YES

We should never forget that one of the purposes of the high school musical was not only to entertain but also to educate. Now normally that education came in the form of learning how to build scenery or run the mimeograph machine or play second-chair violin (when you should have had first, gosh darn it!). However, running with stories of Dutch flowergirls and Japanese shopowners came the occasional script that was taken from something in American history, although using a historical incident was fraught with peril. After all, you had to have a heroine (because girls are more likely to try out for theatre than boys) and there has to be a romance of some kind... which sorta means Lincoln's assassination probably wouldnt be high on folks' lists of stories that would translate well to the high school musical stage.

Nevertheless, there are a few — amoung them, THE LADY SAYS YES (1936) by Phyllis McGinley and Gladys Rich. I confess that when I first say the title, I expected some kind of Gershwin pastiche — certainly not the triangle of Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. Nevetheless, THE LADY SAYS YES does indeed treat us to a quick (very quick, actually) musical retelling of one of America's most famous botched proposals.

We're in Priscilla's living room (which is large enough to accommodate the authors' request for a chorus of 80!). The Maidens of Plymouth are having a little sewing bee, interrupted by the Men of Plymouth, led by local braggart Goodheart Manning, who has come to present Priscilla with a rabbit he shot in her honour. The Men (the italics are all Phyllis' idea, but I'm going to stop now) retire to the Council Room (which, since they dont really leave, I gather is just down the hall), leaving only Miles Standish and John Alden. Standish tells John that he's tired of being a lonely soldier: he'd really like to have someone like Priscilla around. But he's terrible with words, so could John be a really great friend and ask her for him?

Problem is, John really likes Priscilla himself. For her part, Priscilla is pretty gosh darn fond of John as well, and she cant understand why he wont take a little initiative. Still, love comes and goes, but friends are for, like, forever, so John agrees to deliver the message... even though he's none too happy about doing so. Standish is thrilled, so he arranges for John and Priscilla to be alone.

John delivers the message.

Priscilla delivers the classic line.

And we're at the end of Act One.

Act Two is still in the living room. Everyone's gathered for a little bon voyage party for the Mayflower, which sails back to England at high tide tomorrow. Standish is, of course, furious with John, so things are a bit strained. But the tension is broken by the arrival of a bunch of savage heathen Indians, who do a little dance and then tell Standish that we're all going to war. Standish, already pretty POd about the whole Priscilla thing, tells them that if they want a fight, just bring it, after which he launches into a song:

The man with ambition
Owns no inhibition
He need not petition
His friends or the Lord
He's servant, he's master
He mocks at disaster
And goes his own way
With his hand on his sword

Make a thing yourself
If you want it made correctly
Do a task yourself
If you want it done directly
Prime your own musket, boys
Build your own shelf
And this let me advise
Be very, very wise
If you would make love
Do it yourself!

No bitterness there, uh-uh.

At this point, Priscilla none too gently tells him to get a life, that if he wanted her, he should have said so instead of sending a messenger boy. Chagrined, Standish says yeah, maybe he should have — and he decides to be Mister Nice Guy by appointing Alden to be his deputy and take care of the town while he goes off to mix it up with Indians. But he'll be back in time for their wedding...

And on that somewhat alarming note, we end. Now, all things considered, THE LADY SAYS YES is actually a rather sweet little work about a woman who owns a house with a Great Big and Very Busy Room. I suspect that everyone in Plymouth actually lives with her, because everything seems to happen in this lady's living room. Women bring over their spinning wheels and gossip. Men show up with fresh kill. City government is operated from its settees, and Indians use it to call out these rude English people who dont seem to understand the concept of personal boundaries. I wonder how the poor woman sleeps at night, knowing that, even as she blows out the candle in her little bedroom, someone's still using that living room as Community Central, even at two in the morning.

But no matter. THE LADY SAYS YES really is a sweet little work, long on musical charm and just long enough to be entertaining. Ms. Rich's music commands a lot from her young performers, including some fun little pieces of parts work, while Ms. McGinley's script has opportunities for a couple of actors in secondary roles to do a bit of serious scenery chewing. My copy was apparently used by the actor who played Goodheart Manning, and it's quite the treat to see his carefully written notations about blocking and inflections.

THE MERRY WIDOW

By the 1950s, it seems, we were seeing the demise of the high school operetta: the scripts were for the most part highly abridged (and poorly re-written) classics... such as THE MERRY WIDOW (1952), by Charles George and that musical upstart Franz Lehar. Pronouncing itself "the Greatest Operetta Success in the World", this version takes Lehar's sweeping melody and joie de vivre and reduces it to almost an unrecognizable mess.

The basic story is still the same: a young widow is romanced by a handsome prince. But that's about all that one would recognize from the original. Under Mr. George's guidance, the setting is a seaside resort that smacks of the Jersey coast. Gathered for the season is a relentless crew of Very Rich People and Their Assorted Hangers-On, not to mention a society reporter only thinly disguised as Dorothy Kilgallen, a quartet of Maxim showgirls, a prince from one of those small yet terribly romantic European countries that one can never quite find on a map... and some guy from Chicago. Something on him later.

For now, we are told in the opening chorus that:

I say to all here assembled
That the season is under way
If for your position you've trembled
You need have no further dismay
For in the Blue Book's new edition
There is no one on condition
E'ry one has been approved to date
Which makes you rate in the social state

With that out of the way, it's time to lay on the exposition... with a shovel.

CLARISSA. Well, Mrs. Talbot's name has figured prominently in several of Miss Killgarden's columns. And Mrs. Talbot is newly arrived.

MRS. R. Which Mrs. Talbot?

CLARISSA. The widow of the fabulously wealthy Ellsworth Talbot.

MRS. R. You mean the late butcher of Chicago?

MRS. VAN. One would scarcely refer to Ellsworth Talbot as a butcher. He founded the great meat-packing concerns.

MRS. R. He dealt in meat, therefore I should classify this Mrs. Talbot as the butcher's widow. Nouveau riche. No background. (stiffen haughtily)

... and so on and so on, through a litany of the play's main characters. Monty Nelson (the guy from Chicago), who's also supremely rich. The mysterious Mr. Popenstein, who's been here for exactly eleven days. And of course, much talk about Adele Talbot, who's not only fabulously wealthy but incredibly young (25) and gorgeous (of course) and charming (natch) and... well, everything these society matrons arent. Therefore, they cant stand her.

Adele finally makes her entrance, encircled by every single man in the place.. and even a couple that arent. She tells them how much she misses Chicago, and I'm sure every single one would drive her there that night had it not been for the inopertune entrance of Monty Nelson, who dashes all their plans by escorting her by himself to the balcony. He makes yet another pass at her, which she pointedly (but charmingly) deflects, telling Monty that there's another man she's interested in... then quickly assuaging his crushed ego by saying Monty's "everything a woman should desire... and yet -- "

The woman just doesnt know when to keep her mouth shut.

... particularly when she finally shares the mysterious man of her dreams is a prince that she met...

... while she and her late husband were on their honeymoon.

Class act, eh? Mooning like a love-sick calf, Adele was apparently only one or two steps from ditching her husband and running off with this guy. Still, she insists nothing happened, that she stayed true to her husband (whom she didnt love: "Marriage to a man you do not love is like buying a napkin when what you want is a tablecloth.") until he conveniently died. Now she's off to find Mr. Mystery Date.

Well, she's no sooner gone than Popenstien appears, "the epitome of all masculine charms". It doesnt take long to figure out that it's Adele's prince, in disguise, on a little getaway. He's all suave charm, a bounder who can draw in women as adroitly as she can men. At this point, the story becomes achingly obvious, save for one plot twist late in the second act when it seems the Prince has a pre-arranged fiancée he sorta forgot to mention to Adele. In tears, she runs to the arms of the happily surprised Monty, who thinks maybe he's gonna get her after all. But only a few pages later, she goes back to the Prince, who decides that, for her, he'll give up his throne and go with her back to Chicago to help her run her late husband's meat packing plants. With one more sniff from the social arbiters at this shocking development, we have a merry celebratory finale, and the curtain falls.

There are so many, many things wrong with this adaption that it's difficult to know where to start. The characterizations are broadly painted with an eight-inch brush, and some of the motivations are... well, it would be less than charitable to call them appropriate. Adele comes across as a Slave to Duty who apparently hated life with her husband. That, coupled with the way Monty comes on to her, makes you wonder just how faithful she really was to the old guy. Then there's her schoolgirl passion for this prince: something she started, as noted, on her European tour honeymoon. Given her apparent treatment of Ellsworth and the Prince's widely publicized reputation as a bon vivant at all the right places in Paris (I mean, when does he rule his little country?), one almost thinks these two are right for each other... for all the wonderfully wrong reasons. Ah, and if you need any more evidence, there's the scene between him and Carlo, his minister in charge of the country's finances. His country is going broke... and he just cant bear to bring himself to return to deal with it, without having seen Chicago first.

Well, no one ever said operetta heroes were all that bright.

Buried somewhere under this mess is Lehar's score, which has been slashed to the point where many of the numbers are completely unrecognizable from their original settings. The combined script and vocal score runs about 150 pages, but the bulk of that is George's tedious, overwritten script. Most of the numbers are a scant few pages, reducing this almost a Coles Notes version. Indeed, Mr. George does to this what he did to the waltz in the previously discussed WALTZ TIME, and you want to throttle him, hard, on both counts.

The "greatest operetta success in the world"? Please. This MERRY WIDOW is a mere pretender, one that aspires to greatness on the coattails of its much more sophisticated ancestor. Pardon me while I sniff... hautily.