Sunday, September 25, 2011


Madness, political intrigue, and dirty old men making improper advances — sounds like just another day on the front pages of the New York Times, but they're also a huge part of the very bewildering GOVERNOR'S DAUGHTER (1929) by Alfred Wakeman (book and lyrics) and Ira Wilson (music), the latter of whom gave us the "themes on a limited variation on Chopin" ENCHANTED ISLE and the "doesnt he know more than one melody by Stephen Foster?" JEANNIE.

It's election time in Calibama, and Mr. Goodspeed is anxiously waiting by the radio to hear if he's won the governorship. He's a nice enough fellow, so you know already that in the world of the high school operetta, he's won — but his wife, even before hearing the news, is already planning on the next big step: using this to get at all those people who did her wrong.

Once the results are in, the place is swarming with reporters, all of whom want to know every little detail they can about their new governor, but he's a bit more worried about the whereabouts of his daughter Jane. Not to worry — right on cue, she shows up with her chorus of girlfriends, and she simply cannot wait to tell her almost fiance Johnny about the news.

But Mom has other plans for Jane in the form of Senator Snow, an elderly ("almost fifty!") man whose marriage to Jane could be politically advantageous. First, tho, she has to get John out of the way, and she does so by playing first on his insecurities about the book he's waiting to have published and next on his love for her ("If you really love her..." — well, you know the drill there.). He agrees to break off the engagement and, as Mrs. Goodspeed further insists, will not tell her why.

Naturally, this causes no small confusion in Jane and her father (who actually thinks the guy's a good kid), but John is adamant: he cant tell Jane why it's over. And as Mrs. Goodspeed looks on with no small amount of smugness at her victory, we end Act One.

Act Two is at Snow's mansion, for an inauguration party. Momma has been working not only the party lines and setting up photo opportunities but she's also been laying the groundwork with the media to announce Jane's engagement — even though of course she hasnt bothered to tell Jane about it, but that little detail can be dealt with later. Governor Goodspeed shares Jane's confusion about John and had asked to meet him at the party. John initially tries to say it's over a money issue, but when Goodspeed happily writes him a cheque for ten thousand to cover whatever the debt might be, Joh has to backtrack and say that it's because a history of family insanity, particularly an aunt who lives in Oshkosh. Insanity might be hereditary, you know, so John just had to stop things with Jane in their tracks... for her own protection.

Meanwhile, Snow hasnt been letting any moss grow under him: he's hitting on all of Jane's girlfriends, which doesnt go over well at all with Momma. Now realizing that maybe she erred a bit, she asks where John is — and it turns out she's not the only one looking for him: so is the head of the publishing firm that's considering John's novel (How did this gentleman come to arrive at the party, you ask? Well, you see.... oh, never mind: this is high school operetta we're talking about, remember?). He's come all this way to tell John he's not really interested in the book, when one of the reporters runs in and says there's a crazy man up in one of the trees.

Feigning madness, John sweeps in, pretending to be a count. Or perhaps a duke. Or maybe a king. Nevertheless, he's royalty — and he's carrying a gun, so of course everyone is going to do what he says. The publisher is thrilled by this turn of events — a mad genius! the headlines! what could be better! Mrs. Goodspeed, now seeing John as the lesser of two evils, negotiates a far better contract for John. Everything is going exactly to plan — sorta —

... when Aunt Mary shows up. Governor Goodspeed is somewhat surprised to discover that she's actually not insane and then furious with John for pulling such a trick on his daughter. Momma however smoothly moves in, fesses all, and tells John that, for the fifty thousand he's getting from the publisher, he's free to act as crazy as he wants. And with a hymn of praise to the governor's wife, we end.

Well. As you can see, it's a bit of... well, everything. Preceding the Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing by a couple of years, it still tries to cover the same ground: dirty politics, sleazy senators, the overly infatuated news media... with a few twists all its own. The songs, all of which are far too short, efficiently set up a premise and then never quite deliver on the manic possibilities; for example, the reporters' first interview with the new governor:

Sir, we would like to know
Your opinion on so and so
Should we muffle engine toots
Or change the length of bathing suits

This is secret, please dont quote
Or it would get the Statehouse goat
There is no doubt democracy
Demands we make the movies free

A scoop that news would be
We tell you confidentially
But problem black as ace of spades
Is what to do with razor blades

... and then it sort of meanders into a more or less concluding chorus. It's a pity, because the premise could have been given a few more pages to really play out. So also with "The Governor's Complaint", in which he tells us the job's not what it's cracked up to be.

The frontline soldier in a war
Is not unlike a governor
Who's always target for a shot
From politicians or what not
He dare not veto any bill
Or show how much he'd like to kill
When office seekers looking wise
Come swarming round as thick as flies
He has to give, he has to get
To please the proletariat
Or make a speech, no matter what
The subject or the cold he's caught.

It's not my nature to complain
But office is a ball and chain
I'd gladly leave it to my wife
And lead a lowly hermit's life

You get to the end of it wishing Wakeman had gone just a bit further, especially since it's to be sung allegretto. Everyone gets the same frustrating star turn, by the way, in a series of under-developed songs that do capture their individual characters.... just not enough so.

Musically? This is the first Wilson score I've encountered that wasnt adapted from another source, and it's not bad. He's not like Don Wilson (nothing I've found suggests they were related), but Ira does have a nice ear for characterization, and some of the parts work for Jane's girlfriends is quite nice. But that's about all.

The pity of this work is that it doesnt go far enough with its screwball storyline. If the rest of the script had been treated like John's mad scene with the gun (which now of course would see him under a pile of secret service men but in the world of high school operetta is just another device), a scene that truly milks the potential of the moment, it would have been a much different — and perhaps far better — work. It crams too much into sixty pages (granted, of small set type) that you wish it had gone on to flesh it out over 90.

Wakeman and Wilson wrote a number of songs together, mostly for barbershop quartets as far as I can see. This was apparently their sole collaboration for the stage.

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