Tuesday, July 14, 2009

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.

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