Sunday, February 12, 2012

Paynter/Grant-Schaefer Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are of course a long-standing staple of the operetta world, and no one exploited this better than Theodosia Paynter and G A Grant-Schaeffer, who almost single handedly turned it into a long-standing career. We've already seen what they did to Snow White, so let's look at a few others.

RIP VAN WINKLE (1933) is a fairly straight-forward retelling, even though it's been moved forward by a century to 1757: Rip and his dog Wolf have been turned out by his ever-nagging wife and finds himself in the Kaatskill (their spelling, folks) Mountains, where he discovers Henrick Hudson and his crew. They've been transformed into gnomes who create weather havoc when playing ninepins. Rip drinks from Henrick's flagon and falls asleep for twenty years. Waking up, he returns home, finds his wife and many of his friends dead, and that the Colonies have won the Revolutionary War. HIs daughter, now an adult and married, offers him a home, and the villagers in general rejoice his return.

Now, you would think that something this simple would be treated fairly simply as well. Unfortunately, remember that we're talking about the duo that made Snow White's evil step mother into a possible Japanese spy. Never quite ones to turn away from a possible cultural stereotype, Paynter and Grant-Schaeffer look at the fact that RVW lived in New Amsterdam and.... well, see for yourself:

YOUNG RIP. Fader! Mooder says the broken shutter you should mend.

RIP. Go in, zon Rip, en say to mooder dot I loo...k en loo...k for de hammer, en I see it not.

YOUNG RIP. In your back pocket I see it, fodder.

RIP. De hammer you see in my back pocket, but I see it not vid'out eyes in de back of de head. You luf' me, leetle Rip? Go tell mooder de hammer I see not.

... and so on and so on, so relentlessly that I imagine learning the lines must have been a serious challenge for the playlet's little performers. References to the Revolution start popping up, with caustic little insults about "King Chorge" and a short song about paying taxes that grant "no representation". By the first act's end, Rip's wife has had enough and locks him out of the house, and he wanders into the mountains.

The very brief second act is virtually non-stop "Dutch lingo", save for Hudson, who affects a British accent. After sorting out that it's better to be Dutch than British, Rip takes a drink and falls asleep. The just-as-brief third returns to the village, where Rip arrives just in time to see a parade of returning Yankee soldiers (recreating the painting "The Spirit of 1776"), and no one seems especially surprised to see him returning after two decades. He's not especially surprised that his wife is dead. With another stirring song that celebrates how great it is to be American —

So now to George Washington we will sing
Tho we are Dutch descendents
Our representation will always be
The Spirit of Independence

— we end.

Okay, it's not bad. The dialect is way overdone, and the Revolutionary War aspect is clearly shoehorned on, but it does address the themes of lost time and the importance of family. The score is a fascinating mix of original work and Dutch folk songs, such as "The Lauterbach Maiden" and "Bergen of Zoom". The much-too-brief second act was probably a hoot to perform, certainly in comparison to the far duller first and third.

The music for ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO (1935) looks to Italian folk songs as its inspiration, but the story adaption is almost as bizarre as that afforded Snow White. Geppetto the wood carver discovers that a large chunk of wood is alive; as he works out the arms and head, they move around and laugh at him. Completed, the puppet runs out of the workshop; it's captured by a passing soldier who decides that, even though we're dealing with a puppet here, Geppetto is a bad parent and is summarily hauled off to prison. Alone, Pinocchio is consoled by his fellow puppets and a Talking Cricket (Where do you think they got that idea?). Pinocchio manages to burn his feet off during the night by putting them too close to a brazier.

Geppetto returns the next morning and makes new legs for his puppet, but instead of being a good boy and going to school, Pinocchio runs off with a brigade of marching soldiers.

Act Two.... well, okay, let me see if I can sort this one out. He's now at a Grand Theatre of the Marionettes, where a Fire Eater threatens to burn him (presumably alive) for dinner. A fox and a cat try to steal his gold by burning down the tree he's climbed to escape. He hightails it to the home of the Blue Fairy, where he falls in a faint. A bearded dog and three doctors — an owl, a crow, and the Talking Cricket — debate whether or not he's alive. Having determined he's dead, the doctors order four black rabbits to bury him, but Pinocchio demurs and takes some sort of restorative offered by the Blue Fairy. He tells a lie, and his nose grows by a foot, but the Blue Fairy restores it after he promises never to lie again. He leaves and winds up in the Country of Playthings, where lazy boys and girls become donkeys. Finally, Pinocchio is swallowed by a gigantic Dog-Fish, where he finds Geppetto, who was also swallowed at some point. They escape when the Dog-Fish falls asleep with its mouth wide open (because it's prone to asthma and heart palpitations) and reach land easily, since, of course, Pinocchio is made of wood and floats and carries Gepetto on his back.

Okay, I'll give you a moment to take all of that in.

Act Three is their return to their village, where everyone — fairy, fox, cat, soldier, talking cricket, kitchen sink — rejoice in their return. Blue Fairy makes him a real boy with no desire to ever do wrong things again, and Geppetto sees someone who'll take care of him in his old age... "as all real boys should".

Oh my.

Now bear in mind that this little extravaganza also features parts for sunbeams ("Fair girls are best in these roles"), fishes, a school master, sprites of the night, the Blue Fairy's attendants, and — believe it or not — assassins, complete with black ski masks. I cant even begin to imagine how many kids it would take to pull this off, but I'm betting well over a hundred. There's also a full rhythm orchestra, with bells, sticks, and cymbals (and the odd tambourine), and a surprising number of technical effects and lighting cues. All in all, this must have been a monster to produce.

Is it worth it, you ask? I suppose that depends. If you're a doting parent who wants to see little Janey onstage for all of thirty seconds while she sings about being a fishy in the sea, then quite possibly so. If you're a Rose-style stage-mother whose son got the title role, you'll be ecstatic — he's onstage for the entire piece. But otherwise?

I have to confess, this one is just a tad too weird for me. This adaptation makes the scripts by Estelle Merriman-Clark simplicity itself by comparison, especially the utterly bizarre second act.

CINDERELLA'S SLIPPER (1937, no cover available) is arguably the most straight forward of the three, although it too has its share of oddities. The Fairy Godmother in this one does a bit of snuff every now and then, and the little beings who create Cinderella's gown are a coterie of "little green tailors", who apparently have very strict ideas on how far they'll go on their work contract:

It's done, Fairy Godmother
Call the lady to put it on
It's ready now for her to don
Our Union doesnt let us do that

One other curious note comes during Act Two, when the Prince somehow gets one of her slippers. She complains that she'll have to hop around all night, while he complains that now he has two feet and three shoes.

Well, no one ever said operetta nobility was especially bright.

Act Three... you know the drill. Distraught prince. Every girl has to try on the shoe. Cinderella is apparently the only one in the kingdom to wear a size 6. Everyone — even the evil stepmother and step sisters — lives happily every after.

I must confess: the whole shoe thing has always bothered me. She was the only one that could wear a shoe that size? The only one?? Well, hey, whatever works for you, I suppose, although I must confess I dont know which is worse: the fact that she is the only one that can wear a size 6 or that he has such short term memory loss that he cant even remember what the girl he spend the entire night with looked like.

Typical man.

The music this time around is all original stuff (I'm not sure what he could have adapted it from, to tell the truth), and it's simple and bright and more than a bit quickly paced, with nothing slower than moderato. I was a bit surprised that the chorus didnt include mice and lizards — the whole coach thing is handled offstage — but I suppose by 1937, production cost was starting to become a bit of a factor. In many respects, it's the perfect little showcase for the lower grades: everyone gets a chance to show off a bit, and it's all handled with surprising speed and theatrical economy.

Perhaps it's their being products of their time, but I was a little surprised by a few things — the rather blatant rip off from Disney manifest in Cinderella and Pinocchio and the overworked accents in Rip Van Winkle. Pinocchio in particular seemed hopelessly overwrought, but as far as I can tell, that's a bit of an exception from the two who wrote these, almost as if the publishers demanded a full-bore panto-level production that they could market as such.

No idea who did the cover art for these. Quite possibly it's the same anonymous artist who did Snow White, but without a signature it's difficult to say for certain.