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.