Comic Characters on the Musical Stage

 

220px-Lehar_Lustige-Witwe_KlA-01“Comic” Characters on the Musical Stage Are Nothing to Laugh At

Well, it happened again. Many of you might have caught on PBS television a production of “The Merry Widow” from San Francisco some years ago. In it is the ancient subplot of three husbands (it is usually only one) being cuckolded by their pretty wives, all the while bragging how faithful their spouses are compared with those of other men. Not that adultery is supposed to be funny per se–and after all, in the Lehar operetta the women only flirt (as far we can tell). But the husbands are such pompous asses that we are supposed to say “Good for you” and laugh at their expense.

The problem is that the actor/singers are invariably directed to give a cartoon performance that destroys any social point the librettist had in mind. The plots of most “Merry Widow”-type operettas are flimsy enough without taking the humanity out of the cast of characters and leaving us with nothing really to laugh at. And being less than human, there is no social point they can make.

downloadFor example, Laurel and Hardy were bumbling fools. But their hearts were pure, their intentions always good. It was their human failings that always got in their way. In a classic short, “Towed in a Hole,” they are trying to improve their “fresh fish” business by fixing up an old boat to cut out the middleman. The fact that Stan can do nothing right and that Ollie thinks he himself can do everything right–failings that come from their basic characters–is what leads to a string of disasters ending in the total demolition of the boat.

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A comic but heroic character in a nature film

But the husbands in “The Merry Widow” have nothing but failings. There is nothing funny about that because they are not believable. Consider the following. In the nature film “Microcosmos,” there is a sequence in which a dung beetle gets his huge ball of dung stuck on a twig. Not having the intelligence to see why he is making no progress, he simply keeps pushing and pushing until the ball rolls over the twig. The audience cheered! And this for a dung beetle! It won the audience’s sympathy because its persistence, although part of its genetic code, was understandable and laudable. The three husbands, then, come out in most productions several sympathetic notches below the little hero of the nature sequence.

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Ko-Ko in a 1926 costume

In too many versions of “The Mikado,” Ko-Ko is played as an idiot, unable even to carry his large ax when he enters (although Gilbert wanted a sword). I do not know how George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko, played the role, but Martyn Green certainly established once and for all the feebleminded Lord High Executioner. However, when one production updated and replaced the action to an English seaside resort hotel lobby during the 1920s and cast Eric Idle of the Monty Python group to play the role, he pranced on with a tennis racket, addressed the people through a loudspeaker, feedback and all, and dismissed Nanki-Poo with what is usually a throwaway line, “Take him away,” in a very no-nonsense, dangerous way. Finally, a Ko-Ko to be reckoned with!

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An early souvenir program illustration showing Sir Joseph lording it over the Captain of the Pinafore

Worse still is having Sir Joseph Porter in “HMS Pinafore” played like a clown. (I must admit, I saw it done only once and that was in a rehearsal, after which most of the business was dropped.) Sir Joseph is all dignity, a dignity that does not come natural to him since his greatest accomplishment was to polish up the handle of the big front door and the only ship he had ever seen was a partnership before he was elevated to the rank he now holds and does not in the least deserve. The point Gilbert (who also directed his own works) is making is that Porter LOOKS and ACTS like “the ruler of the Queen’s nahvee” despite the hollowness below the glitter, and is therefore treated with respect his rank (if not the man) deserves in the British social scale.

The same must be said for the character of Dr. Bartolo in “The Barber of Seville.” If he is played as a total fool, then all the machinations devised by Rosina, Figaro and Almaviva are wasted effort. Now and then, a good actor/singer plays him as an intelligent person and the opera seems to make sense. He fails because of his ego, not because he is stupid. But then again, so many productions of “Barber” are played strictly for laughs that believable characterization is at a premium.

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Papageno as he appeared in a 1816 production

Even the richly comic Papageno in “The Magic Flute” might be played as childish, but always very very human. After all, opera is drama and drama is about human beings. Even farces are based on human failings, but in this area the rules are somewhat relaxed since farce is based on types (“humors” as Ben Jonson put it) and complexity of character is actually detrimental in this case.

This essay is, if anything, a caveat for local groups, both amateur and semi-professional, that might consider some of my comments while planning their next productions. Cheap laughs are easy to achieve, as Gilbert once commented, if all you do is to sit on a pork pie. Real life, however, needs real people up on that stage–even if they do live in a world where an orchestra is always playing.

Not the Product as Advertised: the Hollywood Musical Adaptation

downloadNot the Product as Advertised: the Hollywood Musical Adaptation

Having once written a diatribe against “revivals” that are no such thing, I began to  consider how Hollywood treated some of our Broadway musicals in the past. Here the early record is even more lamentable.

When Hollywood found it could speak in the late 1920s, it seemed natural to turn out musicals. And musicals came in two varieties: those that already existed as stage plays and those that had to be created entirely for the films. When it came to the former, the title the audience saw flashed on the screen often bore little resemblance to the show they might or might not have seen on the stage.

download (8)Among the first musicals to be “adapted” for the screen was the 1926 “The Desert Song” with a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Sigmund Romberg. Only three years later it became a film with John Boles, Carlotta King and Myrna Loy and kept almost all the great songs from that score. It appeared again in 1944, updated to bring in Nazis; but I cannot find any record of what songs were retained. A more familiar version appeared in 1953 with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson and again kept most of the score. So “The Desert Song” did not do too badly at least two out of three times.

On the other hand, “Rose-Marie” certainly underwent several changes. The 1924 production had book and lyrics by the same two who gave us “Desert Song,” while the score was shared between Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart. In 1928, it showed up as a vehicle for Joan Crawford (!) with background music but no singing. It is the 1936 film with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald that is THE “Rose-Marie” for thousands. Casting MacDonald led to changing the title character from a backwoods singer to a Canadian opera star, while the plot was twisted to make Eddy the Mounty her love interest. A few songs were kept, others by different composers were added, and some Puccini and Gounod were jammed in for Jeanette to show off. And in non-singing roles are James Stewart as the brother and David Niven (you will have to keep from blinking to catch him).

downloadIn 1954, this musical appeared yet again, in Cinemascope no less, with Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Ann Blyth, and Burt Lahr. Again only a few songs were kept, but Friml himself was called upon to write some new melodies to lyrics by Paul Francis Webster; while two others supplied Lahr with an hilarious lament called “The Mounty Who Never Got His Man.” (And let us not forget that fabulous spoof of this musical and all the others like it, “Little Mary Sunshine”!)

So with three musical films of “Rose-Marie,” we still do not have the version that lasted 557 performances in its original run. “The product as advertised” strikes again!

51P17QNDXEL._AA160_Of course there were times when no one really expected to see what the title promises. When “The Bohemian Girl” came out in 1936 with a certain comic team, we all knew that the Balfe original would rest on its Laurels nor would any one be so Hardy as to complain. Two songs and one chorus were kept (one being, of course, “I Dreamed I Dwelt in Marble Halls”) and the plot bore only the most fleeting resemblance to the original. (With Ollie married to Mae Bush, how could it be otherwise?)

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“Babes in Toyland” was given the alternate title of “March of the Wooden Soldiers”

The same goes for the Laurel & Hardy vehicle “Babes in Toyland,” which managed to keep several of the songs to be warbled by Felix Knight and Charlotte Henry in the 1934 vocal style. The unfortunate Disney remake in 1961 was pronounced “dismal” by the critics, even with such high-toned singers as Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello! But by that date, how many in the audience really knew the original score?

Typical Hollywood disdain was shed upon the Rodgers and Hart “On Your Toes.” When it opened in 1936 on Broadway, it stunned audiences with its two integrated ballets, the second of which is the immortal “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” and the hit song “There’s a Small Hotel.” Its stars included Ray Bolger, Tamara Geva and 31MsGdteLeL._AA160_Monty Wooly. Ironically, this show had been offered as a film for Fred Astaire, who waltzed out because he would not have had the chance to wear his top hat and tails! When the 1939 film came out, audiences saw a different plot, heard snatches from one of the ballets that was dropped from the film, enjoyed only three of the many songs, and the rest was pretty dull. Eddie Albert was no Astaire.

51KHnklpSTL._PI_PJStripe-HD-Only-500px,TopLeft,0,0_AA160_Soon things got a bit better with fairly faithful screen adaptations of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady,” “How to Succeed in Business,” and too many others to list here. More recent is “Chicago,” which presents other problems but certainly remains fairly close to what people saw on Broadway.

To end with a trivia question, can you name a Cole Porter Broadway hit that retained only one song in the film version?