Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sadly...

... it seems that Willlis Music, one of the last publishers and distributors of these little shows, has moved its sheet music inventory to Hal Leonard, and the latter has decided not to carry them.

Not unexpected, of course, but still... very sad.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Orphans

For a while, some educational publishers chose to release the script and the vocal score separately, even though you bought them as a set. While I'm sure that was a great idea in 1930, it's left some major holes today, mostly because the scores had longer lives as antiques than the libretti. As such, I have a few that are songs only, leaving the actual storylines a mystery.

It's not surprising, actually. Most operetta librettists, even the professionals, didnt intend for their work to last beyond the final performance. They knew that all they were providing was a verbal clothesline for the music to hang onto. In some cases, what materials we do have conflict with the published scores, which themselves have been revised and changed, mostly just to retain copyright control. For example, THE QUAKER GIRL (1910), by Lionel Monckton, James Tanner, Adrian Ross, and Percy Greenback, saw the removal of a single song from Act Two, which seemed sufficient for Chappell to put in a new copyright claim in 1956, which allows them to retain control of this rarely performed work until apparently... oh... sometime in the 23rd century. Interestingly, the score available at the Internet Archive is earlier than the '56 version and has all of Monckton's work. So would Chappell get all bent out of shape if one performed the 1910 version, even though some of the music is now contained in the "re-edited" score? Probably so.

But the script? We're actually lucky in this case, because the script is available pretty readily online, both the original 1910 version and a pared-down one prepared in the 1980s. Still, there are areas where both conflict with the published vocal scores... granted, in small ways, but enough to be a bit of a headache. Traditionally, the published scores had "extra songs", added to the end, numbers that were cut during rehearsal — or even after opening night — or written when a new performer came into the production. The fact that the available scripts werent likewise updated is cast aside, because the librettists never seriously thought their work merited preserving. These were cast-off plots, built to order around a series of songs... and it was the songs the audience wanted, not the story.

Still, at least in this case, the script exists, and with a little rewrite, it can be adapted to fit the existing score, so I suppose we should be happy to have at least that much. Not so for some of the works in my collection. So we'll muddle through, as best we can, with what materials as they do exist.

EVERYSOUL (1912), by the Reverend J.F.X. O'Conor, is a religious pageant, not to be confused with the morality play of (almost) the same name. In this one, Everysoul is seeking the Land of the Sunrise Sea, where he will find happiness. He's guided by an Angel, who shows him how to distinguish between the voices of nature and the Evil Spirits that sow only confusion. The powers of Darkness are defeated by the Angel and her Good Spirits, and Everysoul finds he can communicate with the flowers and birds. Sorrow comes to Everysoul, but she's pushed back by Gladness and Hope. A few more metaphorical scenes later, and he arrives at the Golden Shore, where the gleaming waves "light up the vision of glory".

I have no idea what the libretto must have been like, but it appears that, were it staged, this would have been a major production, with no less than nine choruses required on top of a score of named characters. O'Conor is very specific that this is not to be performed as a cantata but as a fully staged work. As such, with a complete cast, this would have run close to 100, minimum, not including the orchestra.

Musically, it's... well, very Jesuit. O'Conor was no doubt a man of very deep faith but almost negligible musicianship. The songs are all almost relentlessly cut time, save for the occasional (and very brief) foray into 6/8. But beyond that, virtually the entire score is written, enigmatically enough, in b-flat major. I'm not that well-versed in church music to know if there was some particular symbolism attached to that particular key, but it was a bit surprising.

So, right off the bat, is this something where the libretto even deserves to be preserved after almost a century? Probably not — it was no doubt didactic as all get-out, filled with its own smug religious superiority. But the problem is, we'll never know. And one more little gap appears in our theatre history.

A NAUTICAL KNOT (1909) (no cover available), by Maude Elizabeth Inch and W. Rhys-Herbert (who gave us the painfully dreadful WILD ROSE) has at least a bit more information available, from professional productions in London of the time. Also known as "The Belle of Barnstapoole", it appears to have been a romantic comedy in which the haughty belle of Barnstapoole finds herself serving Her Majesty as a tar on a sailing ship. She gets involved with the first mate of the HMS Bounding Billow, and (somehow) hilarity ensues. Think TWELFTH NIGHT on the high seas, I suppose. Running counterpoint to their naval infatuations is the story of a young village girl and a wandering artist, but it's difficult to know exactly how that one sorts out because the score gives no real indication.

Musically, KNOT is much more interesting than WILD ROSE, possibly because Rhys-Herbert could focus on just the music in this case. Rather than the typical operetta fare, he's filled the score with hornpipes and jigs and country songs, but each has been given a little musical push. The finale, with its nine vocal lines, is almost ravishingly beautiful, but the rest are lovely simply unto themselves, with no specific purpose than just being lovely (Again, shades of WILD ROSE). I have a vague suspicion this was a lot more comic a show than the score will admit.

Finally, THE COUNT AND THE CO-ED (1930), by Geoffrey Morgan and Geoffrey O'Hara, is in many respects, the greatest loss of all. Yes, it's a simple college musical, but it's Geoffrey Morgan, folks, one of the few librettists in this format who had a consistently off-base take to almost everything he wrote. I'm guessing that the script is fairly straight-forward college material: pretty girl meets rich (pretending to be poor) guy and, after a few totally unnecessary complications, lives happily ever after. Colour me seriously disappointed at this loss.

Still, there are a few fascinating points still be uncovered by just looking at the score. For example, Marjorie (who I think is the titular co-ed) is a soprano, while her love interest Hamilton is a high tenor, not the expected mid-to-high baritone one finds in the shows Morgan wrote with Frederick Johnson. O'Hara reserves the lower male voice for a secondary character who happens to be a motor cop (who, again I think, is part of the secondary romantic couple), which says something, I think, about how he saw voice as a portrayal of masculinity.

There's also a number in the second act, a quartet for Marjorie, Hamilton, and two secondary characters:

It's sad but it's funny
How frequently money
Will furnish us joy and delight
It's awfully handy
For flowers and candy
And for lights that are bright

If you had a nickel
And I had a nickel
Between us we'd both have a dime
But now in our pockets
We've nothing but hands
And we've nothing to spend but time

It's a very charming and sweet lyric, with just the right turn at the end... if only I knew how it fit into the plot! Knowing Morgan's other work, I'm sure it had quite the setting.

Any information any reader might have about these three works would be greatly appreciated.

It's difficult to believe...

... that I've been writing this little blog for over a year now, and yet there we are: the first post was back in June of 08. How time flies.

So I felt it appropriate to stop a moment and just muse a bit about this bunch of lyricists and composers who brought so much consternation and, at the same time, joy to a generation of students. Having worked through enough of these scores, I realize we're talking about music that, quite simply, has not weathered well... at least not in the eyes of the theatre and/or music community. Any apparent value it might have as music has been superceded by the inescapable fact that it was written for a negligible purpose. I recently posted a short bio of Arthur Penn on a board dedicated to classical music, and it was greeted with a collective dismissive roll of the eyes. Never mind that the man was good at his craft -- he's simply not on the invitation list anymore.

And I find that sad. After all, Penn and Frederick Johnson and even the slightly batty Estelle Clark did their part to move high school theatre to a higher level, in essence paving the way for the endless performances we have today of RENT and GREASE and WICKED. Before these folks, there was no real school theatre per se, certainly not at the high school level: theatre, like the other arts, was viewed as a waste of time when there were more serious subjects at hand (The more things change, huh?). I dont know whose idea it might have been to write something original for the educational market, but from whatever humble start it might have had, it grew and developed and, for a while, flourished until it was shoved out of the way by cheap knock-offs of Broadway shows. One has only to look at the debacle that was early 50s MERRY WIDOW by Charles George to see how far we plummeted in such a short period of time.

I started writing these firmly thinking that what we have here deserved to be lost, what with their quaint little plots and thin little music and cardboard little characters... and yes, many of them do deserve to be sent into the dustbin of history. But sixty or seventy of these later, I've developed a real affection for not only the works but the people who put them together. Sure, there're lotsa clunkers in the list, but at the same time there's some highly polished work that merits new attention, rather than being shoved into the back shelves of the musty wing of the library and the bargain basement section of eBay. It's sad, in its way, that no one seems to see fit to give these another try, but then I suppose there's a relatively easy answer to that.

I wrote earlier on that these shows came to you as pretty much just words on a page. There were few indications of how something was to be produced beyond the stage manager's guide — assuming the school thought it necessary to spend the extra cash on one in the first place. No cast albums. No YouTube videos. Just the words on the page, which meant you had to find your own way through the material. You had to find your own sound to the music, your own look to the scenery and costumes, your own rhythms to the choreography, and your own interpretations for the characters. And the result was something uniquely your own, not a bad photocopy of "how they did it in New York".

But you had to work to get it. I suppose it shouldnt be surprising that these little works had their glory days during the Depression, when the national attitude towards solving a problem was to just get in there and work it out for yourself, not look to someone else to solve it for you. These operettas and the accompanying books on how to produce them, as minor and dismissable as they may be now, pushed the students into finding things on their own and, along the way, learning to make the most out of what they had at hand. We would no doubt laugh now at the idea of making a costume from crepe paper, but I'd happily bet that in 1931 the little actress wearing it felt as wonderful as her latter-day equivalent does today in her professionally-sewn, expensive New York rental.

Perhaps it's just my own cynical point of view, but it just feels like we've lost something very precious and magical en route to the Junior version of ANNIE. I might even go far as to say we've lost what it simply means to be involved in theatre as an artform, period, but I suppose that might come across as taking on a bit too much. Nevertheless, like everything else these days, theatre — even school theatre — is now an industry, designed for producers and licensing companies to make a few more bucks off the backs of starry-eyed kids. I guess it's best to just accept it as such and move on.

Monday, August 17, 2009

THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL

Another production handbook along the lines of those by Beach and Wilson, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL, by Katherine Anne Ommaney, gives a pretty decent overview to putting on a show.

Ommaney was an instructor at the North High School in Denver, Colorado, and her experience shows: this is a nearly exhaustive (and exhausting) book that covers the entire production process in enormous detail. Unlike Beach and Wilson's books, Ommaney doesnt limit herself to operetta but instead the entire gamut of the performing arts, from straight plays to musicales to pageants to even dramatic societies and how they should best be organized. Her focus is more on directing and acting -- with one chapter dedicated, in detail, to accents -- but she also inserts guidance on the art of the physical production and the craft of playwriting.

Each chapter provides exercises, some of which are... well, a little unusual (in the chapter on pantomime, she suggests going to the movies to watch George Arliss just for his hands). But her intent is obvious, to get her young actors and directors and playwrights and designers to think well beyond the traditional solution. For example, in the chapter on characterization, "laugh like a giggling schoolgirl in church; a fat man at a vaudeville show; a polite lady at a joke she has heard many times; a minister at a ladies' aid meeting." What's interesting (to me, anyway) about her choices is that they all require second level of thought -- not just a giggling schoolgirl, but one in church, which makes the exercise all the more intruiging.

Another, more complex exercise -- this one for playwrights -- starts with five clippings from the local paper. Each additional step in the exercise takes the nascent playwright deeper into the story-telling process: starting from the essential "what", s/he moves on to adding "who", "how", and "why" by working both in the micro ("write a detailed character sketch of the most interesting person you know") and the macro ("name five problems facing civilized people which you think must be solved by society"), then combining all of these various, seemingly unrelated facets into one working script.

Ommaney has a definite leaning towards the simple and direct yet comprehensive. "The average play written by high school students takes ten minutes to present, although there are sufficient possibilities in the plot for a half hour's action." She has little time for the irrelevant and trite: "the average conversation is too scattered, pointless, and dull to hold the attention of the audience" (David Mamet, take note!).

While not lavishly illustrated, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL has some wonderful black-and-white images of scenic design, created by Ben Kutcher. Kutcher came to the U.S. as a child and studied at the PAFA (1910-15) where he was awarded a traveling scholarship for one year of study in Europe. After serving in WWI, he worked in New York in advertising and theatrical work until 1927 and then moved to southern California. Known as an illustrator of children's books, he was a resident of Hollywood, CA until his death in 1967. His usual illustration style is heavily detailed, but in THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL he abandons that for simpler images that reduce things to mass and shape. Nevertheless, there's a definite whimsey to his approach, even for what he considers "realistic" scenery. The endflaps, images of stylized character costumes, appear to be his work as well.

As with both the Beach and Wilson books, THE STAGE AND THE SCHOOL is an intruiging snapshot of stage production during the Depression. There's a great deal of emphasis on self-reliance and independence of thought, although Ommaney is careful to temper that with mentor-like guidance -- never pointedly pushing in one direction or another, but gently guiding around the traps and potholes.

There's also some fascinating theatre history that could put you on top of your game when it comes to trivia. For example, Ommaney goes into great detail about the Clavilux, devised by Thomas Wilfred as a means of shifting colours of light within the same instrument... a sort of early 30s version of a programmable LED or VariColor today.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

THE SUNBONNET GIRL

Every show, in its way, is a Cinderella story: the heroine (usually) gets her handsome prince after some trial or other, and everyone lives happily ever after. But few embrace the fairy tale as wholeheartedly as THE SUNBONNET GIRL (1929) by the otherwise dependable team of Geoffrey Morgan and Frederick Johnson (with cover artwork by Doris Holt Hauman).

I say "otherwise dependable" because SUNBONNET GIRL is a bit of a mystery. Other Morgan/Johnson shows discussed here, such as CROCODILE ISLAND, display the labours of a team that took a bit of a sideways look at the operetta genre. But SUNBONNET GIRL is either a straight-forward traditional entry into the canon... or a highly subtle parody of one.

We're in the backyard of the Meadows household, where we find all of the local boys and girls gathered for the arrival of Mrs. Coleman, the president of the State Federation of Music Clubs. She's conducting a talent contest for a music scholarship. She's brought with her her son Bob, her daughter Barbara, and Bob's friend Jerry. And it seems everyone in the township will be entering, even the Meadows' daughter Miranda, who's courted by the simple-minded yet devastatingly handsome Reuben (Think Julie Brown's Superman-with-a-lobotomy).

In the midst of the excitement, a shy and poorly dressed girl named Sue timidly approaches and asks if she can participate. Mrs. Coleman is more than happy to add another contestant to the list, but Mrs. Scroggs, Sue's foster mother, adamantly refuses: the girl has plenty to do at home without getting her head all filled with fantasies about getting an education. Sue is of course devastated by this and tells Bob that she knows the Scroggs are holding out on her, that her parents left her a deed to some property, but they wont tell her what it is. Bob decides to enlist the services of the local constable, Ezra McSpavin, to find out the truth of the matter.

The second act is that night, with the contest being staged in the Meadows' yard. There's a couple of singers and a dancing team, and Mrs. Meadows declares the contest complete -- until Mrs. Coleman consults her list and says, No, we have one more, Susan Clifton. No one's really sure who this Susan Clifton is until Sue appears, gorgeously dressed (courtesy her fairy godmother Barbara), sings her solo, and is immediately awarded the prize.

The handsome prince Bob, carried away by the moment, immediately proposes, but Sue refuses, convinced that he's doing this out of pity. The only way she'd seriously entertain marriage, she says, is if she were his equal in wealth and independence. No sooner has she said this than Constanble McSpavin appears, telling her that amoung her affects hidden away by the Scroggs is a deed to a piece of property in Los Angeles (at the corner of Western and Wilshire), which is of course of immense value. This removes any barrier to the match, and the curtain falls on the prospect of a triple wedding.

Now, taken for what it is, this appears to be yeoman's work. The genre is filled with plays such as this, complete with the deus ex machina ending that ever so conveniently wraps up any and all straggling plot threads. But remember: this is Morgan and Johnson we're talking about, guys whose approach was anything but straight-forward. In work either written as a team or with others, they provided some twist that throws the proverbial monkey-wrench into the proceedings. CROCODILE ISLAND and TULIP TIME both have a whacked-out sensibility that made them casually hysterical. ROSE OF THE DANUBE (written with Arthur Penn, who was no comic slouch himself) takes devastatingly accurate pot shots at the film musicals of the day; UP IN THE AIR (with music by Don Wilson) gives us a leading man who was anything but.

So what is it, then, that we should find in SUNBONNET SUE? There are a couple of moments of dead-pan hilarity during the contest sequence, especially Evalina Scrogg's "art song", "Spring is on the Way", sung to an overblown harp accompaniment and a vocal tessitura that rivals that of CANDIDE's "Glitter and Be Gay".

The gentle spring is on the wing
It flies along like anything
The gentle spring is on the wing
The gentle spring is on the wing
So let us sing about the spring

Merrily the birdies sing
Tra la la la la la la
Merrily the notes they fling
Tra la la la la la la
Listen to the birds and bees
Warbling among the trees
Let us sing the livelong day
Spring is on the way

Okay, that's pretty bald. So's "It Aint My Fault", sung by Reuben, the constable's too-hot-for-his-own-good son.

I'm awfuly tired of getting blamed for everything I do
When lots of times it aint my fault as I can prove to you
I never do run after girls as you can plainly see
But then of course the trouble is they all run after me

It aint my fault Im handsome
It aint my fault I'm bold
When I go walking down the street
The girls all say "Aww, aint he sweet"
My fatal gift of beauty
Will haunt me night and day
But it aint my fault I'm handsome
I was born that way

Now, sure, a couple of comic numbers are to be expected, even in the most highly postured operetta. But once you get past the obvious ones like these two, the waters get a little murky. "I'm the Constable" continues the easy laughter, a character study of a self-important "minister of the law", but Mrs. Coleman's "Garden of Old Fashioned Flowers" starts to blur the line a bit between character song and the parody of a character song. It's like listening to something straight out of Hokinson cartoon.

Give me an old fashioned garden
All full of old fashioned flowers

Daisies are dotted all over the lawn
Violets bloom in the hush of the dawn
Roses are shedding their fragrance
Bright with the sun and the showers

There is a balm
In the beauty and calm
Of a garden of old fashioned flowers

Sue's entrance number, "Washing Dishes", outlines her frustration at the apparently endless stream of dirty plates the Scroggs leave in their path, but it's pushed just a bit over the edge, leaving the listener with the image of a kitchen that's filled to bursting as poor Cinderella is denied her night at the ball.

Washing dishes washing dishes
That is all I do it seems
Making wishes making wishes
While my head is full of dreams
Light the fire and scrub the floors
Carry ashes out of doors
And after all my other chores
Then I go back to washing dishes

And that's the thing: everything appears to be mocking the standard traditions of the operetta, but it's an appearance that could be misleading inasmuch as Morgan and Johnson arent so much sending up the conceits of the various song formulas as quite possibly the entire genre itself. Still, I have little doubt these two jokesters submitted this manuscript to Willis with tongue firmly planted in cheek, giggling like schoolgirls at what they got away with. Given their history, it's almost impossible to believe otherwise.

A brief note about Doris Hauman, who provided the cover art: she and her husband George (who illustrated the cover of SAILOR MAIDS) were apparently Willis regulars. It's difficult to know exactly which ones they did, since so many of these covers are left unsigned, but this is the third of hers (the others are HULDA OF HOLLAND and THE BAND WAGON, which she created with George) I've found with a name. I suspect she created the one for SOUTH IN SONORA as well, but it's not signed, so I cant say for sure. This charming cover for FAIRYLAND MUSIC is a truer example of her style: a very open layout, with a nice use of balance and colour. The typography is hand drawn, but it looks like the efforts of a different artist.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

ROBIN HOOD INC.

A bit of a riff on "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", ROBIN HOOD INC. (1928), by Frederick H. Martens and Allan Benedict — as well as cover art by Donn Crane — takes the story of the Merry Men and throws in a little Chicago-style organizing.

It starts off simply enough: the evil Sheriff of Nottingham is surprised in Sherwood Forest by Robin's gang. Inexplicably, Robin lets him go (!) just before Friar Tuck comes in with Ben Booster.

Now Ben here is a curious sort. He's not really described all that well in the script, but I get the impression that he's supposed to be in a suit and bowler hat, even though how he would have gotten into this play is a mystery better left unsolved.

Nevertheless, Ben has come to Robin with an idea: incorporate! That way, the Merry Men dont have to depend on just waiting for rich travelers to come through Sherwood Forest; they can look into such profit-minded activities as bookkeeping and road paving:

BEN. Fellow shareholders, the slogan of Robin Hood Incorporated is "bigger purses and better cuts!" Instead of a corporation of robbers operating for profit, we are a benevolent society acting under Section 43 to deprive malefactors of great wealth of unearned increment... for charitable purposes.

Problem is, they need start-up capital, which sorta bums everyone out until Ben comes up with the scheme of having Robin marry a rich heiress.

But the problem there is that Robin's heart is already promised to a certain Maid Mariam.

Well, no matter, as far as Ben is concerned. There are four very good candidates (none of which are Mariam) for the position of Robin's Wife, so all he has to do is choose one. Robin considers this for a moment, then says, "Sorry, they're all equally fascinating. I'll have to let my friends decide." — which is great, except that when one his friends chooses one of the fair ladies, the other three beat the crap out of him. So Robin tries Stalling Plan B: whoever brings the largest dowry will get his hand, which sets off the four in a mad dash to get their purses... except that Ben has rigged the contest by providing one of the ladies with a bag stuffed with cash. The crossbow marriage is about to begin when Robin suddenly stops everything with a final request:

ROBIN. I am stepping out of my own life. The president of an important corporation cannot leg it about the greenwood cutting purses! In a few minutes Sherwood Forest will be but a name to me. I shall take up golf and manage my wife's estate if the estate survive the working capital it must raise! Yet before I die — I mean, marry — let me see one more gay and rowdy forest dance!

He's hoping to run off in all the rowdy gay-ness, but unfortunately the Sheriff of Nottingham stops by with his archers and arrests everyone.

They're all hauled off to Westminster, where the Sheriff accuses them in front of Prince John of being highwaymen and "woodland yeggs", but they counter that they're merely "honest businessmen pledged to a more equalized distribution of wealth throughout the kingdom".

P. JOHN. Do you deny that you live by robbery?

ROBIN. I would not call it that, your highness. Words are so relative.

FRIAR. Our articles of incorporation prove...

SCARLETT. That we are making a notable practical effort...

L. JOHN. To show folks the beauty of the old ethical law that...

ALL. It is better to give than to receive.

SHERIFF. Bats fly in their belfries, my leige!

FRIAR. Our attorney, as soon as we get in touch with him, shall sue you for libel.

The Sheriff decides this is all nonsense, and to make his point even further, he tells Friar Tuck to get ready for a wedding, that he's going to marry Maid Mariam right there in front of Robin. Needless to say, this doesnt go over well, and within a half page of dialogue, Tuck has cut through everyone's bonds and Robin has the Sheriff in a headlock, promising to detach that same head if anyone comes any closer. The rest of the Merry Men come in, overpower the guards, and the day is saved. Robin leads everyone off, but Mariam and Ben are somehow left behind — and as a result, find themselves held hostage. Prince John is about to lay claim to Mariam himself when...

... suddenly a tall, knightly figure appears from behind his throne, and it's none other than King Richard himself, returned from the Crusades and not at all pleased at what he's seen. Prince John tries to tell him that Robin and his band have all been found guilty of robbery, but Ben intervenes, stating that Robin "is a member of a corporation and hence not responsible individually for its activities". He adds that Robin is also the Earl of Huntingdon, driven into the forest by Prince John and the Sheriff, who wanted his lands.

Oops.

Well, Richard agrees to free Robin and his men, but Ben reminds everyone that Robin still has a fiduciary obligation to marry Lady Lotta, as agreed by RHInc's board of directors. Robin snaps:

I have one message for you all. I will wed no woman others have chosen for me, but the one I have chosen for myself. Not even my king shall tell me where I must love.

The king, surprisingly, agrees but reassures Lady Lotta as well as the other contenders that all shall have mates -- and then proceeds to pair everyone off. One hopes there were enough Maids of Arden to go around for the Archers of Sherwood, but if not... well, what the heck. As Richard says, "Long live Romance!"

RICHARD. I am an old fashioned romantic, twelfth century king, I am content to take my Merry England as I find it.

And to a stirring (and, given the genre, slightly bizarre) song:

Five centuries from now
Is quite far ahead
For no matter how
We'll all be dead
So we'll be ourselves
While knighthood's in flower
We'll keep our romance
While we have the power
We're sitting pretty
On top of our world
It's the only world we know
Then shall we borrow
One bit of sorrow
For a tomorrow?
Nay, not so!

We're sitting pretty
On top of our world
And this being so, somehow
We'll keep on sitting
No one will care
Five hundred years from now!

... we call it quits.

ROBIN HOOD INC comes from the same composer as IN OLD VIENNA, one of the earliest pieces discussed in this blog, and like that work it has the same anachronistic charm and humour. It's surprisingly (and refreshingly) polished, with a fun-filled score and, at points, a laugh-out-loud book. The characters are all, of course, about as two-dimensional as one can get, but that just adds to the enjoyment: Robin is so very, very good, while the Sheriff and Prince John are so very, very bad. Maid Mariam does little more than throw her hands up in alarm and put her lips into a quivering moué of fear when she's not singing eternal devotion to Robin (even when he's looking at being hanged). And in the midst of all this too too traditionalism, we have the Puck-like Ben, styled after every baggy-pants comedian whose schtick was built around the slippery "businessmen" of the day, sending the obvious plot into a couple of delirious trainwrecks. The satire about 20s-era graft and the legal tap-dancing over "incorporation" are sharply pointed, perhaps a bit too much so for a show designed for high schoolers. Nevertheless, it provides a level of comic maturity you dont see very often in these works. Just as VIENNA took great joy with its pot shots at advertising, ROBIN HOOD INC throws the absurdities of Big Quasi-Legal Business out there and shines them up for everyone to see.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

SOUTH IN SONORA

You know you're in serious trouble when your leading actress isnt allowed to sing...

... because she's specifically written to be so ugly that you cant imagine her opening her mouth to anything other than a moan of despair...

... and yet that's the concept, I suppose, behind SOUTH IN SONORA (1932) by Charles and Juanita Roos and Charles Wakefield Cadman. I've mentioned their work before, the rather unfortunate GHOST OF LOLLYPOP BAY, and yet, here, in a work that should be right up their musical theatre alley, we find again that something just isnt quite right.

SOUTH IN SONORA starts with a fiesta at the Rancho Gomez, where a party is in full swing to celebrate the birthday of the President of Mexico. Don Ricardo Gomez, owner of this spread, is the father of five daughters, four of whom are gorgeous, one of whom is... well... not so gorgeous. In fact, Catalina seems to be all stumbling angles and lines, incapable of ever saying or doing the right thing. But because she's the oldest, tradition says she must marry before any of her sisters, who have long decided they're sentenced to a very long spinsterhood. But the problem there is that three of the sisters have fallen in love with an American engineer and a couple of college boys doing some work on the ranch's property.

Still, all is not totally lost, as Dan (the engineer) and Paquita hit on a scheme to marry off Catalina to a bandit general who's camping near the house. Essentially, it goes like this:

(a) convince the general that Rosita (another one of the sisters, the really pretty one) is in love with the general

(b) wait for him to attack the rancho and take everyone prisoner so he can marry Rosita

(c) substitute Catalina for Rosita by putting the "bride" under a heavy veil

(d) tell the general not to remove the veil until he's off the property because it's a priceless (and therefore invaluable) heirloom

So they do and he does and a priest is summoned and the two are married and the general leaves with his new wife and there is much joy in the Gomez household.

Now, lest you think this is just some weird form of sibling cruelty, let me replay for you one scene, in which the bandit appears and takes control of the house:

GENERAL. (flourishing gun) Hands up! Everybody!

CATALINA (clasping hands over heart and gazing at the general with a fatuously enamoured expression) Oh, what a man! So bold! So brave! So fearless! I never knew there were such! A man indeed!

GENERAL. (fiercely to Catalina) Hands up, you! (threatens her with gun)

CATALINA (continues gazing at him languishingly as she slowly puts up her hands)

So it's not like they were arranging something she didnt want... right?

Two months pass. No one's heard a word from Catalina, and Paquita and Rosita are starting to think this might not have been the wisest of ideas (Gosh, ya think?). Down in Mexico City, a new president has been elected, and he sends word that he would like to be entertained at the ranch for some mysterious reason. Meanwhile, Don Ricardo has heard about what happened to Catalina and has decided to send all four remaining daughters to a convent, where, presumably, they can rot before he's willing to forgive them. He's just about ready to send them packing when Catalina appears.

... with her new husband, the bandit general.

... who just happens to be the new president of Mexico.

El Presidente tells Ricardo that marrying Catalina was the best thing that ever happened to him and asks that he forgive his daughters so they too can marry the men they love. You dont really tell a president no (even if the whole thing smacks of some rather facetious comment on Mexican politics), and it all ends happily as the curtain falls.

Now, what makes this particular work a little odd (aside from the scenes noted above and, well, the plot in general) is that, as I wrote before, this is the first time I've come across a musical where the leading female doesnt get to sing. Everyone else does: the college boys, the engineers, the four sisters, even Don Ricardo and the Bandit General, not to mention the sly Indian housemaid who gets the general there in the first place. But not Catalina — she simply stands there in the first act looking doleful (well, until the general arrives) and smashingly (and inexplicably) wonderful in the third. But she never gets to express it in song. For all we know, the General loves her because of her ability to make really good corn muffins, but the Roos and Cadman never let her say for herself.

Of course, that might not be such a terrible thing. For example, Dan's protestations of love to Paquita:

Without you, my dear
The world is drear
I love you love you love you
Dark clouds disappear
When you are near
I love you love you love you
Dull winter is gone and spring is here
Because I believe you love me dear
The sun shines bright
And the skies are clear
I love you love you love you

... or when Don Ricardo discovers the ruse:

Gone! Gone! Gone!
Look upon my wild and deep despair!

To which the sympathetic chorus replies:

Away! Away!
To the rescue we go
Before the dawn is breaking!
This bandit dog must bite the dust
For the fair maiden's taking, taking!
To horse! To horse!
And away to the hills
With speed we must go riding!
In canyon wild or mountain glen
This bandit bold is hiding!
Gone!
Gone!
Gone!

Now, in all the time they spent singing this somewhat interminable finale, they probably could have captured him, but hey, no one said operetta choruses were especially bright.

Musically, Cadman really overshadows everything else in here with a score that's by comparison to LOLLYPOP BAY bright and sparkling and lush and almost too romantic. It's all very Mexican, but not so much so that it wanders in to parody: he knows just how far to take it. There are a couple of moments when the college boys take a particular song and re-sing in four-part barbershop harmony, but that seems more of a laugh at an American style of revamping things than the Mexican original. Still, it's simply not up to his non-operetta work: he's not quite strolling, but it's damn close.

It's just so frustrating to read this and know what these three were capable of in other areas of entertainment and how scant of their talents were put into these little shows. LOLLYPOP BAY was bad enough, but SONORA seems the more heinous crime, since all three were supposedly heavily inspired in their "serious" work by the American Southwest and Mexico. I have one other work by this team that I havent really looked at yet; perhaps it'll redeem their reputations a little. But on the basis of SONORA, that's starting to seem somewhat unlikely.