Friday, June 15, 2012

TUNE IN!

A cute homage to the days when live radio was more than people yelling politically-charged diatribes at each other, TUNE IN (1934) by Edward Bradley and the ever-reliable Don Wilson (uncredited cover art), takes us behind the microphone to see the intrigue of running a station while keeping one's advertisers happy... no matter what.

We're in the studio of WTNT, owned and operated by the industrious and increasingly frantic Joe Brown. His sole advertiser, Kroggins Kippered Kodfish, has offered to underwrite the station if he'll produce a test show starring "Mitzi, the Mysterious Soprano". The only problem with that is that "Mitzi" is Kasper Kroggins' wife, who — as the authors put it — has more ambition than talent.

A lot more.

At the same time, Lysander Phipps, the former owner and now a theatrical producer, has decided he wants his station back and has maneuvered things such that if the test program fails, the station automatically reverts to him. To try and save the situation, Joe schemes with his announcer Binks to replace her with the WTNT telephone operator, who really is named Mitzi and apparently, thanks to the magical world of high school operetta, sings like an angel.

Well, you really didnt expect otherwise, did you?

So Binks and Jerry Kennedy, the Kroggins advertising manager (and Mitzi's boyfriend), arrange to get Mrs. Kroggins stuck in an elevator between floors. Mitzi sings in her place, but just as the program is concluding, Mrs. Kroggins escapes and dashes to the studio. She's told she's arrived just in time, but what the production team hasnt told her is that she's singing into a dead mike. Unfortunately, a phone call praising Mitzi's performance uncovers the ruse; furious, Mrs. Kroggins fires Jerry and orders her husband to cancel all business with WTNT. Phipps senses his opportunity and demands Joe give him the station. Embarrassed to be caught in the middle of things, Mitzi quits. And on this catastrophe, the first act ends.

The second act is the Kroggins' New Year's Eve party at the station (well, see, the invitations had already gone out and it would have been impossible to contact everyone to cancel and besides all he catering work would have gone to waste and, well, you get the idea, right?). The test program was a wild success with the listeners, due in large part to Mitzi's singing. Phipps offers Joe a clear contract to the station in exchange for a contract for the singer he heard on the program, who he thinks is Mrs. Kroggins. But that doesnt last too long after he hears her sing. Furious at being hoodwinked, Phipps turns around and offers the contract to the real Mitzi, who accepts it.

Things look dire for everyone until Archibald Throckmorton, an attorney who's been unsuccessfully trying to see Joe throughout the entire show, finally gets a word in: Joe is the heir to a huge estate, including all the patents to the process of kippering codfish. And with that utterly unexpected deus ex machina, Joe gets to keep his station, Jerry gets to keep his Mitzi, Lysander gets to leave empty handed, and Mrs. Kroggins gets to return to her place in the kitchen where she figures she belongs. And with much singing from the WTNT "operatic ensemble and concert orchestra", the curtain falls.

Okay, it's the plot of every 1930s backstage musical ever written, but TUNE IN does have a slightly wacky bit of charm going for it. The characters are all well-sketched stereotypes, from the dashing leading man to the Margaret Dumont "opera singer". Bradley has cleverly interpolated the chorus into a full schema of supporting roles, from radio chorus to production people, and the test program itself — the Kroggins Hour — is a cute little send-up of the advertiser-heavy musical revues of the time.

BINKS. Scientists tell us that ninety per cent of our physicals ills come from faulty diet. Why is it that Eskimos have no trouble with their vtamins or calories but are marvels of strength and vitality? Dr. Thymus, prominent veterinarian of Vienna answers that question in a surprising way. He says, 'The Eskimo gets in codfish all the fish the average businessman needs." So if you want to feel peppy as an Eskimo, eat more delicious, fresh from the hook, salt water codfish!

The centrepiece of the show is, of course, Mitzi but the authors note that "any specialties suitable for a radio program may be introduced here", but that the entire program not exceed fifteen minutes — since that was the usual length for such radio shows. Sprinkled through the entire evening are such 1930s radio standards as an Indian number (for the Kroggins Kodfish Kids Klub) and the song-and-dance trio of Milly, Tilly, and Billy. But what's most fun are the numbers written for Mrs. Kroggins, and I pity the poor musical director who had to keep his/her high school musical diva reined in for these. Wilson writes her first one, "What Vision Meets My Eye?", as a parody of "art songs" of the 1910s and 1920s:

What vision meets my eye?
What vision meets my eye?
O this is madness!
I thought I heard a coach and six acrossing hill and valley
Twas but the milkman as he rattled down the alley


Why, the vision's gone!
The vision's gone!
I'm just a lonely maiden
Forsaken and alone


But there's my flowers!
But there's my flowers!
I'll sing about them!

As the background chorus sings sotto voce to Joe that We cant let her sing We cant let her sing, the good lady has to deal with Wilson's musical line, which at spots is purposely written a half step lower or a half step higher to get her off-key just enough to make it unbearable. Her second — "The Gate is Off the Hinges but the Robin Sings There Still" — is more turn of the century music hall but just as much a brilliant parody.

There are also a few overtly theatrical moments, such as when Mitzi, distraught over the events after the program, decides she's going to run away "and join a bunch of gypsies!" — and immediately a chorus of gypsies appear for a wild number involving much tambourining. Later in the show, during a pretty standard love duet, the chorus appears yet again to lend their support to the moment. It's a cute gimmick, and Bradley and Wilson are wise not to overplay it.

TUNE IN is another one of those moderately frustrating shows: good enough to stand on its own in a production today and needing only a bit of dusting off to make it happen. A slight rewrite would allow for a few more pastiches during the Kroggins Kodfish Hour, which could allow things to build to Mitzi's solo. But all in all, it's a lovely little reminder of a time when radio entertainment ruled the land.

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