Sunday, September 9, 2012
Theatre historians have long asserted that OKLAHOMA and SHOWBOAT were the first American musicals to integrate score with script such that the musical numbers propelled the action. Not so: there were others. And one of the earliest was the wildly successful and now-largely forgotten THE PINK LADY (1911), by CMS McLellan and the truly incomparable Ivan Caryll.
Okay, I'm gonna gush here for a moment. American theatre has been blessed with a number of truly great composers — Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim, Bernstein — but if anyone could use a serious revival, it's Ivan Caryll. I have about a half dozen of his scores (among them a truly whacked adaptation of Aristophanes' The Birds entitled WOODLAND), and, while they are definitely products of their turn-of-the-century times, there's also something stylish and sparkling and flat-out lovely that makes them speak across the decades to say, "Look, your rock music is all well and good, but check me out, dude." One might call Caryll the Strauss of Broadway: his music has an almost distinct salon feeling, particularly in shows like THE MESSENGER BOY and THE LITTLE CAFE. He wrote sophisticated, elegant scores that were often well above the scripts they were scotch-taped to. The scripts to these have most been forgotten — and probably for good reason. But not THE PINK LADY. I was fortunate enough to see a copy of this at the Library of Performing Arts in New York and instantly was smitten by its whimsy and joie-de-vivre, and I was excited beyond all reason when the Library posted a pdf of the libretto.
The story will no doubt sound slightly inane by modern standards — but then, dont the farces of Feydeau? All that door slamming and mistaken identity and coincidence piling on coincidence, all to the point where your head is spinning by Act Three. This one certainly doesnt disappoint in that regard, which isnt surprising, considering its heritage. THE PINK LADY is based on Le Satyre, a Parisian boulevard farce by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand (and I'm now on a quest to find a copy of that) that was apparently quite the hit in its own day. So let's see what's going on here, shall we?
Now we throw into the mix a man named Dondidier... who doesnt really exist. Lucien has been using him as a means of coming to country — much like Algernon does with the perpetually dying Bunbury in The Importance of Being Earnest — but now Angele insists on meeting him, especially since Lucien has framed him as the infamous Satyr. And if things were messy enough, Claudine, Lucien's mistress and the Pink Lady of the title, appears to have lunch with him. Angele is furious at his deception and decides immediately to throw Lucien over and marry Bebe.
BEBE. But you dont love me!
ANGELE. Of all the men I know, I love you the least. But my happiness of shattered forever, Bebe, and I propose to live and die a martyr. I shall take a husband towards whom I can be cold, dictatorial, and superior. Above all a husband who is totally lacking in personal attraction. In a word — you!
Lucien tries to explain that Claudine is actually Dondidier's wife, sent to explain his absence. But Angele isnt fooled... until Claudine appears and does indeed drop into the role — without any prompting. Lucien has no idea how to deal with this, and Angele, still suspicious, insists on knowing where in Paris she and her husband reside. Claudine smoothly gives her an address, adding that Mr. Dondidier is an antiques dealer. And it all seems settled for the moment... sort of. Bebe actually provided Claudine with the inside information, so that a placated Angele would go ahead with her plans to marry Lucien. And yes, there is a Monsieur Dondidier, who runs an antique store at that address...
... except that everyone overheard Lucien claim that this Dondidier is the infamous Satyre, so now everyone wants to go to Paris to meet him. Everyone. So with that, we're off to Act Two...
The complications build from there: the real Monsier Dondidier is a mousy little dealer in questionable antiques, married to a woman who wishes he were more of a man "than a mash" and is thrilled when she finds out her husband is the infamous Satyre (except, of course, he isnt... but you knew that, right?). Before long, the relationships between the characters have become so convoluted that no one but the Pink Lady herself can sort it out... which she does, ensuring that Lucien does marry Angele, Bebe can remain faithful to his girl in Canada, and Monsieur Dondidier can be more of a man to his wife. And then there's the thing about the two missing statues...
Oh? You want to know about those? Ah, the joy of magic realism. At one point Dondidier points out that two ancient Greek statues, one of Aphrodite, the other of a satyr, have mysteriously disappeared from his inventory... about the same time that Claudine and Le Satyre appeared on the scene. Hmm....
But this leads to an interesting little piece of trivia. According to generally accepted tradition, the female lead of a musical should have her own happy ending... except that the lead here is a somewhat immoral mistress who's leading the male lead astray — and we cant have that. So the librettist's inspired solution? Make her a goddess whose charms are irresistible to men and who can bless Lucien's and Angele's wedding.
The lyrics are by turn wondrous and witty. For example, the Act Two opener, sung by Dondidier's clerk about the store's inventory:
Look a this wonderful thing!
It's Julius Caesar's gun.
And here may be seen the sewing machine
Of the Duke of Wellington
Just look! Over there is a genuine pair
Of Shakespeare's rubber shoes
You've a chance now to own the same telephone
That Washington used to use
Here's a watch and chain that Adam gave Cain,
The piano from Noah's ark,
And here in its place the cigarette case
Cleopatra gave her Marc.
or the hysterical "seduction" scene between Dondidier, reveling in the sudden notoriety of being Le Satyre, and the excited Angele:
D. I'm a wicked, awful man.
A. And I'm so glad
That you're bad
Be just as wicked wont you as you can
A terrifying spectacle to see
If you were, 'twould simply break my heart
D. Is that a fact?
Well I shall act
So awful you will have to make a start
And scamper like a deer away form me
I'm after you before you've time to speak
A. Then we'll have a game of hide and seek
Much of THE PINK LADY was written with specific performers in mind, particularly Frank Lalor as Dondidier and Hazel Dawn as Claudine. Dawn went on to be a Ziegfeld performer until her marriage in 1927, after which she retired from the stage. But for a generation, she was indeed The Pink Lady. And to call the show a sensation would be an understatement: there were two touring companies; the show inspired an entire line of women's fashions; and just about anyone who was anyone found some sort of professional connection with it. The critics were unanimous in their raves, with all noting how the score was so tightly bound to the script that only one or two songs — "The Girl by the Saskatchewan" and "The Kiss Waltz" could be extracted without undue damage.
So why has it faded from memory? Darned if I know. It's a sophisticated, rollicking good time, an intelligent musical that has great fun with itself, the genre, and the audience, with good-natured winks spread as generously as mushrooms in the forest.