Tuesday, July 14, 2009


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.

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