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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

How fun to read this. May and John were my great grand parents. Cynthia, their only child was my grandmother.

Sean Martin said...

Wait. They were your grandmother and great-grandparents???

Please contact me. I have all sorts of questions about them.

Anonymous said...

I have tons of info. Cynthia Dodge Crawford wrote a book (self published) she titled A Long Look Back. She was an only child and very devoted to and enamored by her parents. Cynthia lived to be one hundred. If you can find a copy of A Long Look Back, that might be a good place for you to start. Let me know how I can help you.
Bonnie

Anonymous said...

I was delighted to see this post and the comments that followed. The Gypsy Rover was the show that started off Rotorua Operatic Society in New Zealand in 1945. We had little information about it and on our programme there was no composer listed.
So we are thrilled to see this original programme and to know some of it's history. Our Society is 71 years old this year and all thanks to this little show which was well received here. I am glad Bonnie has seen all this and can now know that her relatives started it off!!!
Ursula Schraa (archivist for Rotorua Musical Theatre, New Zealand)