Saturday, October 2, 2010

PRINCESS TING AH LING

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Juanita Roos, with music by Franceso B. DeLeone, PRINCESS TING AH LING (1930) is mindless, silly fun. Yes, looked back upon from eighty years' distance, it's also a bit racist in its stereotypical portrayals of the Chinese, but to a degree you have to forgive that. It's not an operetta meant to make a political or social statement but, akin to Arthur Penn's CHINA SHOP, simply an opportunity for the performers to chow down on some scenery and sing some more than decent music.

As noted, we're in China, in the distant mysterious past, in a small kingdom called Way Off, ruled by the noble king Duck Ling (You might as well resign yourself now: the script is loaded with such groaners). Way Off is one of those small countries under constant attack, so the king decides to strengthen his position by marrying his daughter Ting Ah Ling to Prince Tu Fat, heir to the throne of Ho Kum. Needless to say, the princess doesnt find Tu Fat one white attractive; instead, she has her eye on Ah Lee, the son of the court astrologer Look See -- and he's not exactly indifferent to her charms either.

But he's a commoner and she's not, and besides her marriage to Tu Fat has already been announced, so you'd think it was time to just write this one off. But the court jester Ku Ku, who's sympathetic to the lovers' plight, administers a drug to Tu Fat that takes away his appetite just before the vows. Now the prince holds that part of his life dearer than anything else — even the upcoming marriage — so you can imagine his desperation. Overcome with his loss, Tu Fat says the wedding's off.

Well, that could be kind of convenient for Ting Ah Ling, but now Way Off finds itself at war once more, this time with a more powerful kingdom. Its king Wun Lung, who's not only aged and dissipated but gosh darn evil to boot, arrives and says that peace is possible... if he can marry the Princess. She's not happy about the situation, but still she's ready to sacrifice herself for her country's good —

— when suddenly Tu Fat issues a proclamation that he will grant any wish to the man who can restore his appetite. Duck Ling, anxious that his daughter not marry Wun Lung, ups the ante to two wishes. Ku Ku, ever prepared, tells them both that he knows of such a magician: a marvelous man of magic who just happens to be Ah Lee in disguise. He makes Tu Fat believe hs appetite has been stolen by a genie and is held prisoner inside a large rubber ball, which he must bounce repeatedly if he is to regain it.

After eight hours of bouncing the ball, Tu Fat is sweaty, exhausted... and famished. Convinced his appetite has been returned to him, Tu Fat agrees to anything the Man of Magic asks, whereupon Ah Lee has him sign a treaty that says Ho Kum will forever promise protection for Way Off from war or invasion. Duck Ling is ecstatic and reminds the Man of Magic that he'd offered the granting of two wishes. Ah Lee thinks for a moment, then asks first that he be made a prince and second that he be able to marry Ting Ah Ling. And as everyone sings and dances in merriment — except for Tu Fat who spends the finale gorging himself — the curtain falls.

The work of Charles and Juanita Roos inexplicably runs extreme hot and cold: for a pair of trained musicians who made their marks with serious compositions, they seem to flounder a bit when it comes to the juvenile operetta. That's not to say that PRINCESS TING AH LING is anywhere near as bad as, say, GHOST OF LOLLIPOP BAY or SOUTH OF SONORA — far from it, actually. But it simply demonstrates how maddeningly inconsistent these two can be when it comes to the final product. Here, the Roos' work is completely and utterly fun, with almost perfect music from DeLeone that underscore wonderfully inane lyrics such as this, sung by Ku Ku:

When man and maid a friendship form
Then Cupid strings his archer's bow.......
The world looks on through smiling eyes
As down life's winding road they go.......
But remember there is not much room
In heart of man or maid
For friendship's little fires to burn
It smothers where it's laid
And if you add fuel to it
You have yourself to blame
If spontaneous combustion
Sets the fires of love aflame.

It's a little convoluted, but trust me: it sings far better than it reads. There are also daffy little touches in the increasingly annoying cute nicknames the Princess and Ah Lee give each other: "my rose of dawn" / "my little heart of amethyst" / "my prince from the coloured cloud"... and so on and so on. In fact, the language throughout is so very, very arch that I imagine it was a challenge to speak any of the lines with a straight face.

But the music... ah Gentle Reader, the music is indeed sublime. DeLeone takes every opportunity for large-scale choral work, with as many vocal lines as he can squeeze out. His tempi may be a tad too monotonous, but he makes up for it by throwing us such delicious little numbers as Tu Fat's paean to food or Ah Lee's military march on the wonders of exercise. The lyrics may be mundane, but DeLeone tosses in the occasional musical wink, as if to tell us "Look, I know how absurd this all is". And it doesnt take much for us to as charmed by it all as he no doubt hoped.

It would be a hoot to see this mounted with all the visual overkill of the Zeffirelli Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera: the work almost begs for it. And this is a work where you really wonder what the orchestration sounded like -- as with a few other in this genre, the piano reduction has small hints here and there about the instrumentation, all of them indicative that DeLeone meant this to be played with great passion and enormous gusto.

This particular copy, as you can see from the image above, is in pretty decent shape and was autographed by the Roos. I dont know who did the cover art, but everything there, from the cartoon to the typography, was done by hand.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

AT THE TOURIST CAMP

As you've seen from other entries, I sometimes find the cover art more fascinating than the actual work itself. This was never more true than for AT THE TOURIST'S CAMP (1937), by Elsie Duncan Yale and Clarence Kohlman, who also provided us with the very odd and phantasmagorical MOOON MAIDEN.

Let's get the work itself out of the way. A short, 48-page work that purports to last an hour (although I suspect less), TOURIST'S CAMP is the story of Mrs. Smiley, who, along with her son Chester and her sister Miss Melody, runs a tourist camp named "Happy Haven". It has your usual assortment of oddball residents: the woman who loves, in equal parts, fishing and epic poetry; a wealthy if off-beat family from Texas; a very pushy 30s version of a Mary Kay saleswoman... and the stuttering Professor Propendorimentasia (Say that six times fast).

Now one would hope this would be a happy little troupe, but that's not quite the case. There is jealousy and snobbery and a touch of teenage lust and... well, just all sorts of things going on between the various tourists, which makes you wonder why they dont pack up and leave for a Happier Haven someplace. And into this soap opera arrives a lone hiker, Charles Dill, president of (what else?) a pickling factory.

But Mrs. Smiley's not buying that for a moment, because she knows that he's got to really be Charles Dial, a radio producer who's supposedly traveling about the country in cognito. As a result, everyone does a little star turn for "Mr. Dill", in the hopes of getting a job on the radio. Sadly for them, it turns out that he really is Charles Dill...

— but wait! The Professor isnt the Professor! He's Charles Dial, and he's so impressed with everyone that he gets Charles Dill to sponsor a radio show soap opera about tourist camp life, with everyone here for its cast!

EVERYONE (in concert). Hurrah!

... which takes us to the closing number:

ENSEMBLE. Then off to the city
To win a fortune or two.
No more, you see, may we campers be,
For we've too much to do.

PROFESSOR (sternly) You must be willing workers,
Rehearsing day and night
I have no time for shirkers
They never get things right

MISS MELODY. My heart is filled with grief and care
Ah Life you are so fickle
To think that I should have to share
The spotlight with a pickle

... and so on and so on as we build to a crescendo about roses and lilies and campfires and pickles and how we all just love each other... even if we really dont. But hey, it's summer, and they all have the chance for a cushy job with lots of pay, so, for now anyway, it's all good.

The copy I own is in perfect condition; it doesnt like it's been cracked open since printing, let alone actually be used — and honestly I'm not surprised. I suppose this could have been written as an easy-to-stage diversion at a real tourist summer camp, but I cant imagine any possible production possibilities beyond that. The music is interesting, but it's so solidly undercut by Yale's less than pedestrian lyrics. As for her book, well, it's just too... well, awful, even by 1930s standards. She tries so very, very hard to make things funny, particularly when it deals with the continually injured Chester (who's always managing to somehow hit himself in the head with a rake), except they rarely are: she's created an environment that barely masks a whopping big helping of hostility, to the point where it's difficult to care about anyone or his or her dreams of success as a radio performer. It's almost too delicious to think that one reason why Dial's taking this crew on is because he knows he can get storylines out of their just-barely-genteel interrelationships for years. It's hard to believe this comes from the same team that did the slightly surreal (and far more genuinely comic) MOON MAIDEN... not that that particular work was any great shake in the Grand High School Operetta Scheme of Things. But this is just so relentlessly weak that it makes RADIO MAID seem like a Gershwin show.

Then there's that cover.

Okay, two men, one in front and to the side of the other. If the perspective is to be considered correct (which is doubtful, considering it would mean the trailer on the left is parked on a pretty severe slope), the guy in back is huge. I mean, we're talking Andre the Giant big. Further, I'm not exactly sure what his friend is looking at, let alone why he's smashing his forehead into the very large question mark that the Very Large Man is apparently holding.

Also, note that the subtitle of this work is "Dad's Vacation". Dear Reader, I've been through this thing twice now, and there's no dad anywhere, unless we're looking at the family from Texas, who are third-tier characters. Maybe this was suggested by something that happened to Elsie or Clarence's fathers? Maybe it's a self-referential in-joke? I have no clue.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

THE COUNT AND THE CO-ED

This wonderful little piece of work was on my list of orphans, and it was only by luck that I managed to find a copy of the script at, of all places, Amazon. The seller was almost embarrassed to send it, because of its near-precarious condition... but am I ever glad she did.

THE COUNT AND THE COED (1930, with unsigned cover art) continues that stream of works by the two Geoffreys, either together or with others, in which madcap humour rules the day in a piece that almost suggests the 30s-style movie musical. We're on the campus at Marden College, which has seen unfortunate financial times (Given the date of the work, that's not surprising). The President of the College has decided to show off the college a bit by producing an evening's entertainment for the benefit of some wealthy potential donors, including the Count Gustave von Weinerheister, in the hopes that maybe someone from the group will part with sufficient cash to keep the place going.

But he also has to deal with the college glee club -- and in specific, the club's resident comedian Kenneth Andrews, otherwise known as Snooze, who has the remarkable tendency of getting into scrapes of one kind or another. This wouldnt be so bad, were it not for the fact that Snooze is in love with the President's daughter Dolly; all he really wants to do for now is make a good enough impression through his performance so that the college will get its much-needed endowment and he can get his girl.

On the day of the benefit, poor Snooze has had a bit of a run-in with the law while picking up his costume. He's not exactly sure what it was he did; all he knows is that a motorcycle patrolman is hunting him down -- and naturally, panic strikes. To hide from the officer, he slaps on the costume and pretends to be owner of a delicatessan. But the President, thinking this is just one more manifestation of the Count's eccentric ways, assumes that Snooze is the Count and (happily for Snooze and Dolly) insists his daughter escort their guest to the evening's performance, with the thought that possibly not only will the college gets its money but their daughter might also marry very, very well.

But Snooze also discovers that, as the Count, he's suddenly also the object of the affections of Agatha Lockstep, the housemother of the girls' dormitory. As you might expect, this leads to a series of overlapping situations in which Snooze finally has to confess to both the policeman and the President who he really is. As it turns out with the policeman, he merely wanted to make sure that Snooze keep quiet about a possible career-harming incident... but the President is not so magnaminous. He's about to send Snooze packing —

— when a registered letter arrives, from the real Count, who sends his regrets for being unable to attend. However, he was so impressed by the actions of a certain Marden college boy who helped repair his limousine that he's sending the college a check for the endowment fund. Naturally, that certain college boy was Snooze, who claims Dolly as his reward for saving the day.

Yes, it's outrageously silly, but it's also outrageously charming, as one would expect from the two Geoffries. Like so many works attached to their names, THE COUNT AND THE COED would require only a bit of tinkering here and there to see value for a revival: the script is solid as a rock, with an almost bravura role for Snooze (who's onstage throughout virtually the entire show). The three supporting roles for the president, his wife, and the dorm mother are all marvelously written, with just enough character cliche to make them easy to approach while at the same time affording possibilities for some fun character development. And the second tier romantic couple, Hamilton and Marjorie, are given inexplicably more time musically than Snooze and Dolly, including a lovely Act Two duet, "Campus Moon". For the chorus, O'Hara doesnt take it easy on them: there are at least four places in the show where the ensemble gets a chance to really show off musically, including a remarkable medley of various college songs of the period.

But it really is Snooze who gets the whopping majority of the evening. From his first appearance on the run from the law to the final curtain in which he sings of the joys of sausages and bratwurst, his character is relentless fun, yet another role that instantly reminds one of movie stars such as Danny Kaye or Donald O'Connor or even possibly Mickey Rooney. He sings, he dances, he mugs to distraction — and even though you know he's gonna get the girl, it's delicious fun watching him arrive.

Morgan and O'Hara also provided work on another college musical, PEGGY AND THE PIRATE, which is yet another case where I have the score but no libretto. If anyone out there has a lead on this, please let me know.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

PICKLES

One of the first operettas described in this blog, IN OLD VIENNA (with the subtitle PICKLES) was an immediate favourite of mine, for its almost perfect construction. So imagine my surprise when I came across an eBay listing for PICKLES (or IN OLD VIENNA) that not only had the original creators Benedict, Wilson, and Crane, but now added to that list "edited by Alfred Wathall" and "dramatized by Frederick G. Johnson". That last name is important, because if you look at other entries here that deal with works by Johnson, you find a collection of scripts noted for their off-beat humour. Knowing that somehow he had been roped into working on a possible revision of this already remarkably comic piece was just too inticing.

And imagine my further surprise to see that the cover art had been drastically changed: a more expansive layout, a more detailed illustration... which turned out to be only one of the many alterations that went into this piece when Carl Fischer Inc bought the property from H.T. Fitzimmons. I dont know if Fischer bought the entire HTF catalogue or only selected works, but when they took this one, changes were clearly made.

Naturally, it's almost impossible to know where Wilson and Crane revised their work and where Johnson took over, but they're there. The alterations to the book are slight but develop the already outrageous characterizations even further: Jigo, the evil gypsy father, is now almost melodramatically evil, while his supposed daughter Ilona is even more of a victim of her father's mechanizations. But what's intruiging is how the Jones/Ilona subplot has now been pushed to the forefront, taking the focus off June and Arthur in the process. It's all done almost delicately, which suggests that Johnson didnt want to tinker too much for fear of incurring the wrath of Wilson and Crane for mangling a solid piece of work. But an already polished book is now even tighter.

But the music... Dear Reader, this is where we strike gold. The choral work is now far more layered, with much more parts work, and there's an amazing sextet at the end of the first act in which major themes are played on top of each other in the kind of blend that must have driven musical directors to nervous distraction in performance every night. Benedict's piano arrangements have been reset for four hands in one particular number in Act Two, and his parts work is now given more sweep and (dare I say it) near-operatic grandeur, with -- at one point -- ten harmonic vocal lines. The entire score has been amplified and enhanced; you can actually see that Benedict is taking more chances and, in the process, demanding more of his performers.

Because the original entry was written before I'd really gotten into this, you may remember that I commented that IN OLD VIENNA must have come from a professional production, even though there were no listings for it on IBDB.com. Having now seen so many examples of the kind of work this genre was capable of, I'm sure that this, like so many other gems in this collection, was written specifically for high school and community theatre production. But it's still the bar by which I measure new entries to this blog -- and with the receipt of this revision, the bar just went a little higher.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

PUDDIN'HEAD THE FIRST

An odd little piece that seems meant for the lower grades while designed for the sensibilities of the upper ones, PUDDIN'HEAD THE FIRST (1936), by Edward Bradley and Geoffrey O'Hara (with unattributed cover art), reads like a Danny Kaye sketch. The story is a simple and reliable one: ineffectual rulers whose kingdom is actually run by scheming couriers, and it's up to their son the Prince to set things aright.

Problem is, the Prince has been thrown in jail because he let the army stand out in the rain, thereby rusting their armour and making them unable to fight. But he's escaped.

His father, the titular King Puddin'head the First, wants to be seen as the wisest monarch in all the world, but instead he's dull-witted and easily swayed by his royal council — General Quakinboots, Count Pennypincher, and Doctor Pillstuffer (respectively, the army commander, the royal treasurer, and the royal physician). The play opens on the Annual Judgment Day, the one time in the year when the citizens of Lampoonia can ask for wrongs to be re-addressed. The King and Queen are asleep on the throne during the ceremony, so the court jester takes it on himself to awaken them. Because they're heavy sleepers, he has to be more than a little forceful about it, a gesture that sees him ordered to leave the country for presumption. But before he does, he stops to help Marianne, a peasant girl who has come to plead the case for Prince Roland.

Act Two takes us to the actual judging, and we see what an inept ruler Puddin'head is.

KING. Speak, Dame Woodenshoes. Has someone wronged you?

WOODENSHOES. Please, your Majesty, a big black crow ate all my corn.


K. That's easily fixed! We'll trap the crow, suff him, and let you take him to market to sell.


W. But a sneaking dog ate the crow.


K. Oh! Then the dog that ate the crow must guard your sheep.


W. But a ravenous wolf are the dog.


K. Then we'll skin the wolf that ate the dog that ate the crow that ate your corn, and make a nice warm rug.


W. But a wily huntsman killed the wolf.


K. Then we'll skin the huntsman... I mean, we'll let the huntsman who skinned the crow who ate the wolf... well, anyway, let him pay for your corn.


W. But the huntsman is in the dungeon for hunting the royal deer.


K. Hunting my deer?


W. Yes, your Majesty.


K. Well, it looks like I'm stuck again. I'll have to pay for your corn.


It seems everyone in the kingdom gets justice except him; all he gets (as he reminds us mournfully) is bran muffins.

And he really hates bran muffins because that's all he ever gets to eat.

He's about to shut things down when Marianne approaches the throne and asks for forgiveness for Prince Roland. The king refuses, saying that Roland was a traitor... and not only is he a traitor, he's escaped the dungeon, which makes him worse than a traitor. The jester steps forward and says he knows where to find the prince: all they have to do is consult the Magic Ruby, a gemstone so amazing that only the wise and good can see it.

Naturally, the king decides he can and rhapsodizes on its colour and sheen. The Queen decides she must have it made into a brooch. The royal council... well, the royal council is panic-stricken, especially when one soldier, who has also come seeking justice for his rusty appearance (from being left out in the rain, you know), reveals that it's not Roland who gave the order. Instead:

QUAKINBOOTS. Your Majesty, I did leave the Tin Soldier out in the rain, and I did blame Prince Roland. But it wasnt my fault entirely - Count Pennypincher —

PENNYPINCHER. Your Majesty, if I did... er... mislay the funs for the army's umbrellas, it was only because of the bad example set by Doctor Pillstuffer, who —


PILLSTUFFER. Your Majesty, even I have been a little bit careless with the appropriation for the royal groceries, I left enough money for bran muffins. And bran muffins make you wise!


Well, that last seals it, of course. And they have no choice but to confess:

Q. I've always been a model military man
Till guilty of the little carelessness.


PENNY. To guard the royal treasury was my one and only plan

Although I've taken samples I confess


PILL. And most peculiar notions

On pills and sour potions

Have dulled my sense of honour just a trifle

ALL THREE. But we swear by all the salt in the seven oceans

Temptation to betray you... much... we stifle.


His mission accomplished, the jester reveals himself to be Prince Roland, who's happily reunited with his parents. He asks that they make Marianne a princess so he can marry her, and all ends (well, for most anyway) happily ever after.

PUDDIN'HEAD is a giddy little show, no doubt about it, but one that's almost unapologetic in its insistence that power, no matter its original intent, corrupts. It's interesting that this was written during the early years of the Depression, when Roosevelt was coming down from the high of being swept into office, and cracks in the veneer of his administration — especially as regarding the implementation of the New Deal — were starting to show. The Supreme Court was overturning many of his initiatives, particularly the National Recovery Act, and he was finding defiance within his own party as he sought to expand the powers of the Executive Branch. I dont think it takes much to see PUDDIN'HEAD as a satire of the first years of the Roosevelt administration, given Bradley's and O'Hara's own very liberal leanings.

But the show, as earlier noted, plays like a 30s comedy sketch. Had it been written in a later time. Danny Kaye would have been all over it, but it's easy to see character actors like Guy Kibbee and Margaret Dumont as the King and Queen, with Alan Hale, Sig Ruman, and Adolfe Monjou as the council. With a bit more expansion, this would have made a perfect Vitaphone picture, and it makes one wonder how many of the writers of these little pieces had aspirations in that direction.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

THE WISHING WELL

Fairies and real estate double dealings form the core of THE WISHING WELL (1923), by that always remarkable team of May Hewes and John Wilson Dodge (with cover art by Cynthia Dodge). Even with their consistently unique construction -- a sprawling first act, a middling second act, and an abbreviated (yet exposition-heavy) third act -- this particular work is almost satisfying.

The basic story revolves around Lady Mary Donnell, an impoverished member of the Irish gentry. Her finances are such that, in desperation, she's unwittingly taken out a second mortgage on her estate through the connivings of Squire Matthew Baxby.

Her niece Noreen has met a gentleman vagabond named Terrence O'More -- who's actually Sir Terrence O'Grady, from a wealthy family. He's been in love with Mary since they were children, but she thinks he (the nobility version of Terrence) is just stringing her along. Terrence knows about Baxby's duplicity and tries to intervene, but to no avail. In the process, Mary discovers who Terrence is and what Baxby wants, and it's all just awful.

So, to try and remedy things, Terrence tells Noreen that there's an old wishing well in the garden and that fairies who live there will grant anything one wants. She wishes for a fortune, which Terrence easily supplies. The mortgages are paid, the estate stays in Mary's hands, and you'd think everything would be set up for the inevitable meeting of kindred spirits...

... but this is a Dodge creation, so we have to wade through a couple of pages of exposition at the top of the very short Act Three, in which Mary is convinced that Terrence is not engaged to someone else and really does love her. That little misunderstanding out of the way, we can move along to the utterly expected finale.

Now, on top of that is a second little story that involves the fairies... who do indeed live in the bottom of the garden. They pop out of the well, they weave through the various love affairs, and they mysteriously insert themselves into the finale. Beyond that, they serve nothing in propelling the plot, but that's okay, because the Dodges have given them some really lovely music to sing. The whole score is quite the delight, a mixture of old folk songs and original work that has an authentically Irish feel to it. I can even manage to overlook the clumsy construction (which would actually be rewoven into a more satisfying two-acter), because this ia arguably the Dodge's best work aside from the already discussed CRIMSON EYEBROWS. The three principals are all written with more than the usual juvenile operetta depth, and the supporting characters provide not only good comic relief as well as a bit of decent dramatic tension. The groomsman Dan and the maid Kathleen and the old married couple Darby and Nora steal the stage in every scene they appear in, and Baxby's lawyer Felix Murphy is perhaps a step or two from the classic melodrama villain, save with an Irish brogue.

A reader of the blog sent me a photo of a production of WISHING WELL from 1927 at Turlock Union High School. I have no doubt it was a lovely production if this one image is any indication.

Overall, WISHING WELL is a charming and surprisingly delicate work that could use just a bit of editing and rewrite to make it function a little more smoothly. Not the best the genre has to offer, but certainly far from being the worst. If anything, WISHING WELL demonstrates the innocent beauty that was the juvenile operetta, a gentle simplicity of purpose. Once again, I'm reminded that these little pieces will probably never see the boards again, not unless presented for camp value. Their earnestness would now be seen as silly and derisive...

... which really is a shame.

(Happy news: I've found a copy of the script to THE COUNT AND THE CO-ED, one of the musicals discussed in the "Orphans" post, and I'm really excited to see what this Morgan/O'Hara collaboration brings. Also, I came across a one-hour radio version of THE PINK LADY, by Ivan Caryll, performed by the Chicago Theatre of the Air in the 1930s. It's a truncated script, but enough that I can finally post something on that wonderfully lush and romantic work.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

AN UP TO DATE GRAND OPERA

Attendant to the juvenile operetta was the glee club, usually at the college or university level. Although some remain today (and favour returning thanks to the television show Glee), the glee club is also quickly going the way of the musical dodo. Nevertheless, during its heyday, the traditional glee club — kind of a pop chorus — was the sort of genre that bore commissioned works, much as the juvenile operetta did.

One such insanely popular work was AN ACT OF UP TO DATE GRAND OPERA (1896) by the pseudonymous "Frank J. Smith" (in reality a reporter named H. B. Stevens), with a libretto adapted from a news article he wrote for the Chicago Record of an apartment fire.

A short work, only 30 pages long, UP TO DATE (written for the New York University Glee Club) chronicles the events in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment during a seemingly deadly blaze. I say "seemingly" because even though death appears eminent, the residents of the fifth floor act much more interested in singing about their plight than actually doing anything about it... like, you know, leaving...

... which, when you think about it, isnt that far off from what goes on in traditional grand opera.

Be that as it may, UP TO DATE takes place in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. He's reading a newspaper when she slowly and cautiously approaches.

MRS. TYLER. I think I smell smoke.

MR. TYLER. She thinks she smells smoke.

... which is repeated several times until he comes to a realization:

What does it mean?
What does it mean?
This smell of smoke may indicate
That we'll be burned.
O awful fate.

... which leads to an extended duet in which they rail against the Fates and describe, in somewhat gory detail, "writhing in the curling flames" and what a dreadful thing it is to "fry and sizz". Once this is well established, the chorus — their neighbours — join them. There's six more pages of singing that they really should go before they all die. Then a janitor shows up:

I come to inform you
That you must quickly fly
The fearful blaze is spreading
To tarry is to die
The floors underneath you
Are completely burned away

They cannot save the building
So now escape I pray

The chorus responds:

The flames are roaring loudly
Oh what a fearful sound
You can hear the people shrieking
As they leap and strike the ground
Ah horror overtakes me
And I merely pause to say
That the building's doomed for certain
So haste o haste away
La la la la la la la la la away
La la la la la la la la la away

With six more pages of telling us they must "haste away", they finally do, in a Grand March to the fire escapes.

Stevens knows just how long to carry his joke, and along the way, he snatches a bit of Puccini here, a bit of Verdi there, and a whole lot of Wagner over there. We get waltzes and mazurkas and polkas and dramatic recitatives and a concluding march, all thrown at us with such dizzying speed that the humour actually remains fresh all the way to the end. Lest you think it sounds a bit too relentless, about the best I can compare it to is the Grand Grand Festival Overture written by Sir Gerald Hoffnung in the 1950s for the London Philharmonic, as part of his many hilarious Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festivals. The eight minute overture rattles through every possible cliché; just when you think that dominant seventh is going to resolve into a frenetically glorious ending... the piccolo picks up the main theme, which cascades through the rest of the orchestra like a tidal wave, and we're off once more. So it is here with UP TO DATE: every time you think "Okay, they're gonna cut out of here", a soloist interrupts to remind us that the building is on fire... and the chorus dissolves into yet another variation of "We really should leave".

UP TO DATE was wildly popular: there are records of its performance through to the 1920s, with a smattering into the 1930s. As far as I can tell, this was Stevens' only musical composition — and I say "composition" in the loosest sense, as today it would be better described as "sampling". Still, it's an engagingly easy piece that would stand well in a program of works by PDQ Bach or Spike Jones. Although Stevens scored it strictly for piano, I read through it wondering what it would sound like performed by the New York Philharmonic, with the residents sung by a fifty-piece chorus. Such a bloated monstrosity might put it waaaaaaaaaay over the edge, but it'd be fun driving it there.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

THE LAND OF DREAMS COME TRUE

Meant for performance by the lower grades, THE LAND OF DREAMS COME TRUE (1930), by Alan Campbell (with a typically gorgeous cover by Corina Melder-Collier), seems almost a paean to hallucinogenic drugs than anything else.

No, I'm serious. Here's the set-up: some children are out playing when one of them comes up with the idea of everyone going to the Land of Dreams Come True... which they have to do by injesting some "magic berries". Most of the children sensibly say no and run away in horror, while four of them go for it. They promptly pass out and are magically transported to the story book land of Dreams Come True, where they meet Mother Goose, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Jack and Jill, and other recognizable characters. Everyone's partying down when a giant is heard bellowing "I smell the blood of an Englishman!" The storybook characters surround the children and put them back to sleep --

-- and they wake up back in the meadow, convinced they had a swell time and cant wait to do it again...

Hooked on magic berries.

At such an early age.

One can only imagine the personal stories they'll share at their twelve-step program.

Okay, as for the work itself... The intruiging thing about LAND OF DREAMS COME TRUE is that part of the score is written in swing time, which I'm sure must have made quite the impact on parents in 1930. It's not big band swing, obviously, but about as close as you can get with a piano, a juvenile "rhythm orchestra", and singers who are probably about eight years old. Still, it's the first time I've come across this kind of pop music used in something aimed at the lower grades.

And it doesnt stop with swing: Mother Goose's number at the top of Act Two, "Strange Adventures", has a distinctly blues feel to it — to the point where you can almost see her languishing on top of a piano lid, with a bright red scarf dangling from one hand. The polka "Here's the Way We Dance" has a relentless repetition to it that just adds to the overall disorienting feel of things in the Land of Dreams Come True. Campbell does have the obligatory waltz, but you cant help but notice how much he also looks to unexpected musical sources for his score.

Further, the script is surprising in its own distinct way. Consider this exchange, a piece of early 20th century peer pressure:

PEGGY. O Betty, are you really going to eat one of those berries? Arent you afraid?

BETTY. Of course I'm not scared. It's your turn now, so hurry.

PAUL. C'mon, Peggy; be a good sport.

(After much urging, PEGGY timidly swallows berry.)

ALL. Now then, we're ready. (ALL sit down on the ground.)

BOB. What do you suppose is going to happen now?

BETTY. I dont know. Let's wait and see.

One can only imagine as well what ringleader Betty must have done to this pack in later years, when they became her "people". Interestingly enough, when the Giant appears (offstage) in Act Two, it's Big Butch Betty that panics first, crying that she wants to go home.

A bad acid trip, man.....

It's curious, in a way, at how strange and bizarre the operettas for the younger grades can be. Like AT THE RAINBOW'S EDGE and LAZY TOWN, THE LAND OF DREAMS COME TRUE has this near-Fellini-esque surreality to itself: moods shift almost frenetically from happy to morose, bleak to mirthful, without any real reason, and legions of characters roam about the stage for no purpose other than to give everyone a part, no matter how minimal. Whether or not they have anything to do with the play is almost irrelevant; instead, the writers of these mini-extravaganzas seemed to just pull characters at random, as though writing by stream of consciousness.

To their credit, there's a certain deranged joy to these that gets lost as you advance into middle-school and high school works. The stories become more structured; the scores more predictable. But at the lower levels, it seemed like anything goes... even to the point of Mother Goose performed in the style of Helen Morgan in a drug-induced dream.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

THE SLEEPING QUEEN

Another curiosity, this one demonstrates, as my friend Randy says, that "sometimes the story of the object is more interesting that the object itself". Such truly is the case of THE SLEEPING QUEEN (1865) by Michael Balfe, with a libretto by H. B. Farnie, and published by Ditson. There's no copyright, but despite the antique image on the cover, it looks to have been published some time in the 1930s. Something about that cover in a moment.

Born in Ireland in 1808, Balfe is best known for BOHEMIAN GIRL (1843), although he composed almost thirty additional works, few of which have been recorded, even in excerpt. A noted performer and singer in his own right as well as composer, Balfe performed across Europe before returning to London and settling down to write his operas. His first major success was FALSTAFF (1838) -- which was only recently revived for the first time since the work's premiere.

He was a quick yet sensitive composer, able to turn out an entire opera in as little as seven weeks, and his compositions were universally praised in their time. There were moments that, in historical retrospect, must have seemed like synchronistic greatness... such as the 1862 revival of BOHEMIAN GIRL in Rouen -- conducted by a young Massenet and performed by Celestine Galli-Marie, who went on to create the roles of Mignon and Carmen.

Designed as a short one-act for a cast of four accompanied by a piano and harmonium, THE SLEEPING QUEEN was a commissioned work, for the Opera di Camera, a small company operated by German Reed, a university chum. It's difficult even now to understand why Balfe would have taken the commission, because it's so wildly out of synch with the rest of his works... so much so that he rewrote it some years later as a full evening's work with chorus and full orchestration, replacing the spoken dialogue with proper recitatives.

So... what is this first draft attempt about? A queen is being pressured by her regent to marry the King of Spain, even though her heart lays elsewhere, with the son of one of the regent's many political foes. Thanks to her maid, who has been stringing the regent along with the tempted possility of an affair, the queen is able to finally marry the man she loves. It's short, only 76 pages, and moves at a pretty brisk pace over what I would gather to be about only 45 minutes, an hour max. The score is High Romantic, with some beautiful parts work for the ensemble. Stylistically, it screams the work of Balfe's mentor, Rossini, and I can only imagine that the full-out version screams even louder.

This chamber version has never been performed professionally (the proposed production by Opera dei Camera never took place, thanks to a falling out with a short-fused director) nor recorded, although the recent revival of interest in Balfe may result in it at some point.

As for the edition itself... well, it comes from Ditson, which published the previously mentioned RADIO MAID and physically follows their usual low standard of presentation. It looks like Ditson simply bought the chamber version and printed it wholecloth, without even bothering to do anything in the way of an edit. Everything -- the dialogue, the music, even the title page -- looks like a relic from the 19th century, so I have little doubt the publisher did naught to make it presentable, which is pretty much par for the course for Ditson anyway. It seems such an odd addition to their catalogue of juvenile operettas, but no one ever said Ditson was all that bright a company in the first place. Honestly, I wonder if any school ever tackled this: the role of the queen demands a near-coluratura soprano, and the maid's "ribbon" aria has some very tricky elements in its timing, with a rattle of 32nd notes preceded by a host of grace notes, which makes it appear to sound like nonstop hiccups. Colleges and universities might have tackled this -- but a high school? Very unlikely.

The copy I have also has the additional oddity that someone, at some point, carefully translated the lyrics into what looks like Czech. Not the dialogue, mind you, just the arias and ensembles. Perhaps the written text was replaced by a complete overhaul? I have no idea, good Reader, although it adds to the mystery of the object itself.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

THE CHINA SHOP

THE CHINA SHOP (1922) comes from the pen of one of my favourites in this genre, Arthur Penn. I've commented on the Gilbert and Sullivan resonances of his work in CAPTAIN CROSSBONES and YOKOHAMA MAID. This one doesn't disappoint in furthering that conceit, but it has more than a few problems all its own.

We start with a brief prologue, sung by two "chinamen" before the curtain:

A new Chinese operetta
We present to you tonight
The scene is laid in gay Ping Pong
The story isnt very long
In this Chinese operetta
We play for your delight
We'll charm your ears with many a tune
And finish up with a honeymoon
In ths Chinese operetta
We present to you tonight

Now the Chinese cannot boast much music
And what they have sounds queer
It's the kind of music that might make you sick
If we sang much of it here
So if the tunes we sing you
Dont sound very much Chinese
You will surely like them better
In this Chinese operetta
For they're likelier to please

Yes, it's sounding pretty insensitive right off the bat, but remember, this is 1922 we're talking about. Not exactly a time when anyone was let off lightly for being "different".

We open in a backroom behind Fat Sing's shop. The trade is exceedingly brisk (although exactly what he sells is -- and remains -- a mystery), most of it conducted by his son Sing Fong. Fat Sing is at the point in life when he realizes he cant take his wealth with him when he dies, and his son consoles him with the suggestion that he leave it to someone... like, maybe, his son.

FAT SING. Your suggestion is a good one, and like most good suggestions it will be ignored.

No, rather than spoil his son with wealth that would make work unnecessary, Fat Sing has decided to leave his fortune to the Ping Pong Orphan Asylum. Sing Fong none too gracefully accepts this, reminding his father that upon his demise, Sing Fong will become an orphan and might perhaps benefit, "if only indirectly", from his father's legacy.

This is interrupted by the entrance of Mush Lush, an avowed woman hater, and Hoy Tee Toy, the woman he wants as wife.

MUSH LUSH. I pointed out to her that love and hate being only a step removed from each other, she could naturally hope to overtake the former by walking briskly.

Hoy Tee Toy sends him on his way, then turns her attentions to Sing Fong, telling him that she has brought three lovely young ladies he might consider for his own wife, her "three belles". His choice is set aside when an impoverished fisherman enters, looking to sell a doll he has outside. The doll, as it turns out, is the lovely Lotus Blossom, the fisherman's niece, and Sing Fong is immediately smitten. He takes his new acquisition into the kitchen just before we meet Juscot Karfair, a "reformer" from Medicine Hat, Kentucky. Through him, Lotus Blossom realizes she's in love with Sing Fong and insists he become her husband. Sing Fong is more than happy to do this, until his father reminds him that she's penniless and Sing Fong is penniless, "a speedy cure for love".

But it gets even worse for Sing Fong: his father is leaving for points unknown. He informs Sing Fong that he'll tell everyone that his son is the heir apparent to his fabulous wealth, just for a laugh. Thinking he's rich beyond all expectation and therefore highly influential, the city fathers want Sing Fong to become the new chief magistrate. Although it's not clear exactly what, this puts another obstacle in his hoped for marriage to Lotus Blossom, who, weeping, returns to her uncle's shanty by the sea.

Act Two is a year later. Sing Fong is celebrating his first anniversary as magistrate with a garden party. No one understands why he hasnt married in all that time (considering they've all done their best to throw every available woman at him). Further, he's issued a decree that any heiresses who are still unmarried by sundown must leave Ping Pong in banishment. Hoy Tee Toy tells the three belles that one of them must land Sing Fong that night. But even that hope is dashed when his secretary reveals the magistrate's latest decree:

Sing Fong will marry nobody
Good bad or sick or healthy
Except an orphan who must be
Incontinently wealthy

("Incontinently"?)

Sing Fong enters, in a truly lousy mood, and immediately dismisses the belles because none of them are orphans. Now, why is he doing this, you ask? Because he wants to set things up so he can never marry: he's still in love with Lotus Blossom, who, true, is an orphan, but a penniless one. All seems lost until Wun Tun, one of Sing Fong's political associates, makes a marvelous discovery:

WUN TUN. Your illustrious father, who disappeared a year ago, was drowned a month later on a voyage to a far province. We kept the news from you at the time because we only learned about it an hour ago.

SING FONG. That was very thoughtful of you.

WUN TUN. Your father, as is now known to all, left every yen to the Ping Pong Orphan Asylum. This institution has been unoccupied for ten months at which time the last orphan was married off to a lonely widower. Consequently, no one felt concern when the Asylum itself burned to the ground.

Sing Fong hopes this means his father's wealth will revert to him, but Wun Tun cuts that off, telling him that the terms of the will dictate it must be divided amoung the indigent orphans of Ping Pong. For the last hour, apparently, they've been looking, trying to find these indigent orphans, with limited success. The parents of Ping Pong were all extremely healthy, and what orphans there were appear to have married well. The only one left is... Lotus Blossom, who now in addition to being an orphan is filthy rich. Free to fulfill his own decree, Sing Fong makes sure everyone, even the belles, gets married on the spot. So with much rejoicing (well, sorta: something on that in a moment), the curtain falls.

Now. What to make of this addled little play...

As noted, it's from 1922, later than CAPTAIN CROSSBONES and YOKOHAMA MAID (as well as the to-be-discussed LASS OF LIMRICK TOWN), and you would thnk that Penn's satirical outlook would have sharpened. Instead, the humour is dry to the point of arid, and this is the first piece of his I've encountered in which the plotting seems, well, slapdash, with a huge hole right in the centre. There's no reason to prevent Sing Fong from marrying Lotus Blossom at the end of the first act: his ascension to chief magistrate doesnt really change things for the two of them. But without creating this obstacle, Penn doesnt have a second act, so I guess it was just put in there with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

And that seems to permeate the entire show. It has a few great lines, but you almost get the feeling that Penn's tired of doing it all. As far as I can tell, this is the last show he wrote solo: everything from here on out was done in collaboration. Granted, he worked with some major names in the genre, like Geoffrey Morgan, whose individual creativities inspired him musically. But CHINA SHOP appears the work of a man about to give up. Unlike the wit of CROSSBONES or YOKOHAMA, this one tries far too hard, with too many poorly executed puns and too many jokes that want desperately to sound funny... when they just arent. The social satire we saw in the previous works is practically non-existant, and the characterizations are flatter than the two-dimensional stereotypes they hope to evoke. On a later reading, I thought, okay, maybe he wants everyone to be as bland as possible, perhaps to make the show into some sort of turn of the century commedia play where the performers are free to go as big as possible. But that doesnt work either.

Then there's the curious character of Karfair, the reformer from Kentucky. He doesnt really move the plot anywhere, and yet somehow this third-tier character gets the finale, a reprise of his earlier song "My Kentucky Home". It's slightly bewildering, as though Penn shoved him in in the last draft as yet another attempt at hoping to find something funny to say. I daresay a director today would find a way to eliminate him altogether, by reassigning his lines and incorporating songs from other works by Penn to fill in the gaps, thus leaving room for a finale about, you know, the happy couple, like it should be.

Musically, his work is just as good as ever, with some lovely ballads for Lotus Blossom and a some musically amusing ensemble work for the Three Belles. The first act finale hints at what Penn no doubt hoped to accomplish, with choral writing that could have come from Iolanthe or Patience. But the rest of it simply dies on the vine. I suspect that, in contrast to his other works, CHINA SHOP was not a wild success.

Curiously, Penn dedicates this work to the inhabitants of the "Island of Mantsees". A Google search failed to shed any light on where this might be: the only reference I could find was in a poem by Whittier, who appears to treat it as a metaphor. Maybe this was some kind of inside joke?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

SUNBONNETS AND OVERALLS

This exceptionally charming book dates from 1914 and is the work of Etta Craven Hogate and Eulalie Osgood Grover, with music by Isadora Martinez and wondrous little illustrations by Bertha Corbett Melcher (who created the characters). It's a combination "dramatic reader" and operetta for perhaps first- or second-graders and comes from a series of works by Hogate and Melcher about the Sunbonnet Babies and Overalls Boys. The lessons in the reader, for example, are adapted from The Sunbonnet Babies' Primer, The Overalls Boys, and The Sunbonnet Babies in Holland. Hogate and Melcher collaborated for many years on this series, taking the Sunbonnet Babies and the Overalls Boys to Switzerland, Italy, and other parts of the world as geography studies for second-graders. Inspired by Kate Greenway's drawings of little girls, the Sunbonnet Babies and Overalls Boys took the appearance to a cleaner, more graphic dimension, with a simpler line and a simple colour palatte.

The look of the characters was almost a mainstay for three decades and continues on even now, albeit in adaptations. Still, it's always little girls with their heads and faces completely hidden by enormous sunbonnets. Melcher painted thousands of these little images, releasing some as postcards during the height of the Sunbonnet craze in the mid 1900s. Sunbonnet figures seemed to be everywhere - on postcards, calendars, even on fine china. It was only natural that illustrators like Dorothy Dixon and Bernhardt Wall would jump on the bandwagon (in later years, Wall would claim he was first) and produce knockoffs, including Wall's 1906 postcards and his 1907 books Bennie and Jennie and The Sunbonnet Twins, images from which became part of quilters' standard catalogue until well into the 1930s.

The characters never completely left the American psyche — even as late as the 1960s, the little girls were still around, this time reborn as Holly Hobbie. By the time that character had passed on, craftspeople were re-discovering the original characters and putting them back into use, even as late as 2005.

What distinguishes the original series of books is that it's the first "early reader" to have continuing characters throughout the text, as well as to be the first to use full colour printing and a larger, easier-to-read font size.

The playlets themselves are, as one might expect, very simple works -- a girl is crying because her dolly carriage is broken, and a boy fixes it for her; or an invitation to go to the store in Dad's wagon is threatened by the loss of a sunbonnet. What I found interesting about the text, tho, is that the range of required vocabulary seems a great deal wider and demands more than, say Dick and Jane's exploits.

The music adapts simple folk tunes of the times, but Hogate's choreographic requirements are, in spots, pretty darn pushy if she expects them to be performed by first graders: a great deal of precision marching and walking and strolling and skipping that would keep the stage in constant motion. And considering that the girls' faces are always to be kept hidden (since that's part of the Sunbonnet Baby look), I have little doubt that there were plenty of performance accidents.

Still, it's fascinating to see the genesis of such an iconic image.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

AUNT DRUSILLA'S GARDEN

There are some titles that, for whatever reason, I just avoided picking up — no real reason, actually. I suppose more than anything it was looking at the operetta cover and thinking, "Sheessshh, it's like a dozen or so I already own; how many of these do I have to have?"

Then I give in, buy the damn thing — and lo and behold it comes with a surprise.

AUNT DRUSILLA'S GARDEN (1927), by George Murray Brown (who wrote MEET ARIZONA) and John S. Fearis (with a really lovely cover illustration by Doris Holt Hauman), arrived with a treat: a stage manager's guide, something I'd not seen before. In essence, the stage manager's guide is everything you need to know to put the show on without the benefit of a designer or a choreographer or a costumer or even a director. It's all laid out for you, step by torturous step. This one, put together by Clara Elizabeth Whips, contains almost everything, as you'll see below.

But let's go through the operetta itself first. Nelda, who ives in a city tenement with her large family, has been taken in by a maiden aunt who lives on a largish estate in the country. Problem is, Aunt Drusilla has a bit of a reputation as a dragon with the children in the village, so Nelda is left pretty much on her own yet again. She's allowed in her aunt's famous garden and to school, but that's about it.

The last day of school, Nelda gambles on her aunt's largesse and invites her school friends into the garden. Things predictably go awry, and Aunt Drusilla starts to throw everyone out, then proceeds to rip Nelda a new one.

AUNT D. Well, I never! PRU, COME QUICK! The yard is full of strange children, and I who never let a strange child inside of that gate!

AUNT P. Wh
at a sight! How'd they all get in?

NELDA. Please dont send them away! I only asked hem in to learn their names and get acquainted.

AUNT D. Stop right there, Nelda Alvenia. When I want you get acquainted, I'll pick out your acquaintances myself.

But she ultimately allows them to stay (just this once!) as long as they watch out for the signs and dont make a mess, all the while reminding them of how much different (and better!) things were when she was a child. Unfortunately, tho, someone picks a flower and someone else steps into a flower bed and things are just awful all around and Aunt Drusilla throws everyone out like she should have done originally and Nelda cries and Aunt Drusilla tells her to man up as she stomps off in high dudgeon.

The kids all come back and tell Nelda they know it's not her fault her aunt is a terror, but she has to shove them all out just before Aunt Drusilla comes back to tend to her garden. Suddenly, a softball comes flying in and, breaking a plant in the process, lands at Dru's feet.

Aunt Drusilla is not amused.

She decides to keep the ball as a punishment, and the boys swear revenge. Once Drusilla and Nelda leave for town, the boys invade. They're just about to ruin the garden when one of them smells smoke coming from the kitchen. Breaking a window, he gets inside to find the stove on fire. The boys quickly put it out, just as Drusilla comes home. Realizing she misjudged the children, she invites them all back on the following Monday for a lawn party.

Act Two is the party itself, with much singing and dancing. Things are going just spiffy when the local postman drops by with a letter from a long-lost uncle, who's made a fortune out west and has returned to put Nelda's family into the lap of luxury, which means she'll be going home.

Aunt Drusilla is sad. But Nelda cheers her up with a masque in which all the children come out wearing flower costumes of one kind or another, because

In the city's noisy street
Gardens have no chance to grow

There the people seldom meet

Pretty flowers they'd like to know

Yet a garden each may tend

Finding joy from hour to hour

If he thinks of every friend

As a rare and valued flower

Everyone may own a garden

If he chooses friends for flowers

Nelda then arranges everyone in a perfectly lovely stage picture and announces, "There, isnt this a nice garden? And we will call it Aunt Drusilla's Garden!" Cue the finale music, please.

Okay, you can see why I might be loathe to put this in the collection. It's meant mostly for the lower grades, with all unison singing — and to be ruthlessly honest, it's just not that good. Little wonder it shows up so much on eBay and some of the other auction sites. But what distinguished this particular copy, dear Reader was...

... the Stage Manager's Guide. These are unbelievably rare, because they would be the first thing to be tossed after a production was finished. They contain detailed notes about the set and costumes, as well as step-by-step instructions for the choreography and particular stage moments. Clara Whips, who prepared this one, suggests a cast of no less than 50 and then lays out how to wrangle -- er, handle -- everyone.

This spread, for example, demonstrates what the local teacher should do for some of the musical numbers, including the geometry of the movement. If you notice, it's all very tightly written, much like we saw with THIRTY MINUTES WITH THE MIKADO. Whips also adds to the cast with a few creative additions of her own, such as the Wild Rose, which she inserts into the masque as an opportunity for a strong dancer to have a solo moment. Whips also extends the number and type of flowers presented by the children, as well as adding an entire additional panto, involving butterflies, fairy sprites, rain drops, a few bees, and the West Wind. I dont know that such augmentation was the standard operating procedure for the Guides, but it'd be interesting to find out.

Whips prepared costume sketches for the masque, with very detailed notes on execution, with an emphasis on the use of crepe paper and cardboard. The sketches, of course, show performers substantially older than the lower-grade children who would actually be performing this. The colour work was done by the previous owner, a Miss "H", who was in charge of the "drills". The cover notes that it's IMPORTANT (with a double underscore) that this be "returned to desk". Throughout the script, there are several pencil notations of cast placement, and it shows that Miss "H" followed the Guide almost to the letter. Good for her!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

PIRATES OF PENZANCE

Now you're probably thinking, "PIRATES OF PENZANCE? Huh? What's that got to do with this place?"

Well, nothing actually -- and yet, in its own way, everything.

See, here's the thing: Gilbert and Sullivan had a terribly time with copyright thievery. Their shows would open to rave revues in London, but before they could bring a production to the US, half a dozen producers here would have already stolen the material and put it on the boards in blatantly unauthorized (and yet, given the copyright laws of the time, perfectly legal) productions. G&S simply never got a chance when it came to productions in America...

... until PIRATES. Shrewdly, they decided to premier it in the US first, obtain the US copyright on the work, then take it back to London for its proper premiere at D'Oyly Carte.

So, in 1880, New York got to see PIRATES before London, and it was, of course, a sensation. Almost immediately, two national tours were released -- both under the very careful supervision of G&S. It was only then that they sailed home.

However, between the US premiere in 1880 and the London premiere in 1882, they tinkered a bit with the script and the score. Not in huge ways: a slightly rewritten scene here, an almost barely reworked song there. The biggest change comes at the end of the second act, when the ensemble sings the amazing chorale about Poetry. The pirates are revealed to be all lords gone astray. "What, all?" asks the Major-General. "Well, nearly all," replies the King. This exchange doesnt exist in the official playscript, and I was a little surprised to find it intact in the edition of the score I now have. Looking further, it seems that the copy I have is marked "Authorized Copyright Edition", with the date 1880 -- so it seems that I have managed to acquire one of the rehearsal scores used by one of the very first national tours, one printed specifically for the purpose of covering the copyright needs. It was owned by Lois Jane Barth, who played the part of Ruth, but sadly I cant find out anything more about Ms. Barth.

As I read through it one night, a few other things emerged: a different overture, for example. Not different in big ways, but still, different. Some different phrasings in Frederic's "Stay, Ladies, Stay". Taken all together, it wouldnt so much be like looking at a different show so much as it would be that nagging sense of "Okay, it sounds almost right, but why does it feel... not quite right?"

It's almost impossible to express my excitement at finding this. I've always loved PIRATES, ever since seeing it in Central Park with Kevin Kline (who will always be my Pirate King) -- a rowdy, boistrous production that no doubt would have made G&S giggle a bit themselves. But to find the prototype score... reader, you honestly have no idea what visceral pleasure this gives me. The book itself is in gorgeous shape for something 130 years old, and it's almost joyous to see these woodblock printed pages with their carefully reduced piano versions of "Climbing over rocky mountain" and "When a felon's not engaged in his employment". This version doesnt even try to emulate the sound of the orchestrations -- it's about as bare bones as you can get, and I have no doubt it's exactly as Sullivan originally wrote it on his piano.

THE SINGER OF NAPLES

A surprisingly good piece of work, THE SINGER OF NAPLES (1928), by Cynthia Dodge and May Hewes Dodge, seems to inform, right off the bat, why some of the other work by the Dodges is so frustrating. If you look at other titles by May Hewes, you'll find her husband's name attached — and in every case save one, the dramatic construction is, to be kind, problematic. A huge first act. A middling-sized second. And a very brief but exposition-intense third, where everything you really need to know to resolve the story is crammed into two pages of near breathless dialogue between minor characters.

Not so with THE SINGER OF NAPLES, I'm happy to say. While it's not the best the genre has to offer, it's well-paced and solidly written, in terms of both music and dialogue. But what surprised me more than anything was the maturity of the story.

We're in Naples, where a family of itinerate street singers, led by the patriarch Nicola, are engaged in their profession outside the garden town house of one Countess of Tristiani, who's well known for taking handsome young singers under her wing (as well as under other things) as she propels their careers. Nicola's foster son Guido attracts her attention, despite the worries expressed by Nicola's daughter Gabriella that Guido will forget his musical roots — and her, although she never quite says anything about the latter. After all, they were just childhood friends, and of course he's completely blind to her attention.

Still, Guido is dazzled by the Countess' attention and the prospects of fame, and when we see him again two years later, he's prepping for his debut at La Scala as Pagliacci. He's wrangled a promise from the Countess that if his debut is successful, she'll marry him. Once more, Gabriella tries to talk some sense into him, but he's a bit too caught up in the diva lifestyle to pay attention.

As we might expect, the debut is a disaster. His voice is ruined. The Countess, now no longer interested in her plaything, ignores him and moves on to yet another protégé, and Guido returns to Nicola and Gabriella a sadder but wiser man... albeit with a bit of a secret: the damage done to his voice was not permanent. He can still sing, but now he knows who his real audience is — and who the woman is who truly loves him.

Okay, these days, this would come across as sappy and sentimental... but kindly notice some of the themes running through this. A rich woman using younger (and much poorer) men as sexual toys: it's never baldly stated, of course, but certainly suggested broadly enough. The idea that riches arent always measured by wealth, something no doubt caused by the riot of bubble money just before the crash of the Depression. Even more amazing, there are no cultural or ethnic stereotypes in this play — instead, we have fully-drawn characters. Even the Countess is portrayed as less a facile villain than a woman who is, for her own reasons, simply incapable of a relationship. Her intentions are all well-meaning — Cynthia Dodge goes almost out of her way to make that plain — but she just cant find the right fit. As such, the gossip spoken behind her back comes off as cruel — and as a result, a frighteningly honest portrayal for the times of the results of meanspirited rumour.

THE SINGER OF NAPLES also distinguishes itself by being, at times, a full fledged opera rather than an operetta. There are long stretches in which the score almost flows from one character's song to the next, with no dialogue inbetween. The sixteen-page opening number (remember: most are only five or six) is divided across the stage for three distinct groups, a pretty nifty piece of construction, with some credible parts work that must have been a challenge for its inexperienced performers. Guido has a couple of truly lovely ballads that do indeed sound Napolitano, and Gabriella has one heart-breaking solo in the second act. And there are a couple of vicious little comedy numbers — one in particular on the importance of style and au courant clothing if one wants to succeed in life — that remind us that we're not watching some pleasant little show about happy Italian streetfolk. Rather, THE SINGER OF NAPLES comes across as a shockingly solid drama: predictable, to be sure, but with far more depth than your usual high school operetta fare.

I'm still not sure what, if any, relationship there might have been between Cynthia, May, and John, but I'm pretty certain it was more than just a coincidence of a last name. Cynthia was also an accomplished illustrator whose work appears on the covers of some of the Dodge's other efforts, and she was also a composer in her own right — albeit one that specialized in musicals for much younger performers (As noted in this blog earlier, she did all the work on WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH SALLY). I suspect she was possibly John's sister or cousin, given the time lines in which the various Dodges' work appears, but there's nothing to substantiate that. The one huge loss on this particular copy of SINGER is that the front cover has been hacked apart and pasted on card stock, no doubt because of the wear and tear of rehearsal.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Two months of a gap?

Okay, my apologies for that. But the pickings have been a tad slim of late, so dont be surprised if the blog starts to wander a bit from strictly high school stuff to more and more into professional level material from the same era. I already have, to a degree, but we might be wandering even more afield. There are all kinds of little treasures out there, similar to the unjustly ignored works of Arthur Penn and Charles Cadman, that could use a little dusting off. So be prepared for anything in the coming months.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

MUTT AND JEFF

Not a high school musical or juvenile operetta, this songbook from MUTT AND JEFF (1919) was one of those rare finds that speaks to a culture long past and long lost.

Only people "of a certain age" will remember Mutt and Jeff, two cartoon characters from the early part of the 20th century who managed to hang on, in various forms, until about 1960 or so. In its first iteration, in 1907 by Bud Fisher, it was arguably the very first newspaper comic strip to feature recurring characters on a daily basis. From Wikipedia:

Under its initial title, A. Mutt debuted on November 15, 1907 on the sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. The featured character had previously appeared in sports cartoons by Fisher, but was unnamed. Fisher had approached his editor, John P. Young about doing a regular strip as early as 1905, but was turned down. According to Fisher, Young told him, "It would take up too much room, and readers are used to reading down the page, and not horizontally."

This strip focused on a single main character, until the other half of the duo appeared on on March 27, 1908. It appeared only in the Chronicle, so Fisher did not have the extended lead time that syndicated strips require. Episodes were drawn the day before publication, and frequently referred to local events that were currently making headlines, or to specific horse races being run that day. A 1908 sequence about Mutt's trial featured a parade of thinly-disguised caricatures of specific San Francisco political figures, many of whom were being prosecuted for graft.

On June 7, 1908, the strip moved off the sports pages and into the SF Examiner where it became a national hit, subsequently making Fisher the first big celebrity of the comics industry. Fisher had taken the precaution of copyrighting the strip in his own name, facilitating the move to King Features and making it impossible for the Chronicle to continue the strip using another artist.

A dispute between Fisher and King Features arose in 1913, and Fisher moved his strip on September 15, 1915, to Wheeler Syndicate (later Bell Syndicate), who gave Fisher 60% of the gross revenue, an enormous income in those times. Hearst responded by launching a lawsuit which ultimately failed. By 1916, Fisher was earning in excess of $150,000 a year. By the 1920s, merchandising and growing circulation had increased his income to an estimated $250,000.

In 1918, Mutt and Jeff became a Sunday strip, and as success continued, Fisher became increasingly dependent on assistants to produce the work. Fisher hired Billy Liverpool and Ed Mack, artists Hearst had at one point groomed to take over the strip, who would do most of the artwork. Other assistants on the strip included Ken Kling, George Herriman, and Maurice Sendak while still in high school.

Augustus Mutt is a tall, dimwitted racetrack character - a fanatic horse-race gambler who is motivated by greed. Mutt has a wife, known only as Mrs. Mutt (Mutt always referred to her as "M'love") and a son named Cicero. Mutt first encountered the half-pint Jeff, an inmate of an insane asylum who shares his passion for horseracing, in 1908. They appeared in more and more strips together until the strip abandoned the horse-race theme, and concentrated on Mutt's other outlandish, get-rich-quick schemes. Jeff usually served as a (sometimes unwilling) partner. Jeff was short, bald as a billiard ball, and wore mutton chop sideburns. He has no last name, stating his name is "just Jeff — first and last and always it's Jeff." He has a twin brother named Julius. They look so much alike that Jeff, who can't afford to have a portrait painted, sits for Julius, who is too busy to pose. Rarely does Jeff change from his habitual outfit of top hat and suit with wing collar. Friends of Mutt and Jeff have included Gus Geevem, Joe Spivis and the English Sir Sidney. Characteristic lines and catch phrases that appeared often during the run of the strip included "Nix, Mutt, nix!", "For the love of Mike!" and "Oowah!"

In addition to the comic strip, MUTT AND JEFF also appeared, from 1911 on, as a series of over 300 silent animated cartoons, making it the second-longest running series for theatrical release (The longest is KRAZY KAT. The more obvious contender POPEYE only had 120 meant for theatres; the rest of its run was designed specifically for television.). In 1910, a film company in New Jersey also produced live-action single-reel versions at the then-phenomenal rate of one per week.

With this kind of wild success, it shouldnt be surprising that the national fad should show up on the stage as well, produced by Gus Hill, who was primarily known for his "Big City Minstrel Shows". The musical, about which next to nothing is known, was a touring show, with a libretto by Frank Tannehill, Jr, and Bud Fisher and appears to have put the boys into a revue-like mosh that was more about pretty girls and "songs of the South" than anything else. According to the Internet Broadway Datatbase, it never played New York.

The sixteen-page songbook features seven numbers (vocal line only, no accompaniment) and almost a dozen pages of ads for such things as "fun-making jokes and tricks" (like explosive matches and imitation bed bugs), books on how to write love letters, and "200 stage jokes", an omnibus of vaudeville jokes with a cover image that looks remarkably like MAD's Alfred E. Newman. There's also a page of "rib rocking riddles", most of which are bad puns (The two largest ladies in the US? Miss Ouri and Mrs. Sippi.) and some of which are now culturally obscure ("Why are Addison's works like a looking-glass? Because in them we see the Spectator."). The songs themselves are typical Tin Pan Alley fare and just about as memorable... with one notable exception: this is the show that gave us "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles".