Essay Series Essays

Shakespeare on Broadway, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

Shakespeare on Broadway – 1Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_Cover

I have lost count of how many operas are based on the plays of Shakespeare. I am also losing count of the Broadway shows that try to translate the plays, mostly the comedies, into contemporary terms. One of the most successful is the one I will start with.

Back in the late 1940s, Cole Porter was in deep trouble. His last few wartime musicals did not do very well while two others were outright disasters, and he was having the devil’s own time raising money for this next show. But the money came his way, and the show opened on December 30, 1948, the first of 1,077 performances; and it went on to garnish awards for best musical, best composer, best libretto (by Bella and Samuel Spewack), best producers, best scenic and costume designs, and even best leading man (Alfred Drake). The source: “The Taming of the Shrew.” The title: “Kiss Me Kate.”

Tamer taming the tamee by turning their honeymoon meal into a nightmare

The critics went wild. Of the 9 major papers, 8 gave it raves while the other was merely very favorable. The Times called it a miracle and compared the score surprisingly with Puccini! The Post called it “a smash hit of epic proportions.” Everything worked right. Even Patricia Morrison, whose voice was predicted not to go further than the third row, was marvelous. And this was on Broadway, where Shakespeare was considered box office poison. The Spewacks were very careful to give the audience two plots, each mirroring the other: Petrucchio:Kate = Fred:Lilly. Not all that original, but very well handled.

This is one of those musicals in which the dialogue is as good as the lyrics. However, audiences went to musicals to hear songs (not to look at computer-driven stage effects as they do today); and great songs were what they got. Those sung as part of the framing plot include  “Too Darn Hot,” “True to You in my Fashion,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” “Wunderbar,” “Another Op’nin’Another Show,” and the very Gilbertian-trick-rhyme song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,”  which have been heard so often out of context. What is really unusual is that even the  songs from the play within the play are just as good: “We Open in Venice,” “I Hate Men,” “Were Thine That Special Face.”

51icpKKNZoL._AA160_Actually, Shakespeare did very well for himself earlier, in 1938, when Larry Hart wanted to write a part for his brother Teddy who looked so much like comedian Jimmy Savo that he could never get a role. Well, since they looked so much alike, Larry went to “The Comedy of Errors,” which involves two sets of twins, one of which is a pair of comic servants. Not surprisingly, Savo was cast as one twin and Teddy fell neatly into place. The result was “The Boys from Syracuse.”

It only ran for 235 performances–remember, the Depression was still with us–and is very seldom performed. Even the 1940 film with Alan Jones seems to have disappeared; and I dearly wish some television station would restore the it and some local group revive the show. There are at least three complete CD recordings of the score, and its absence from the stage is a genuine loss for us all.

Consider the two songs that became hits, “Falling in Love With Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” Among the less familiar numbers are “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” “Sing for Your Supper,” and “What Can You Do with a Man?” Finally, there is a comic duet titled “He and She” that should bring down the house.

Unlike “Kiss Me Kate,” the plot more or less sticks to the Shakespeare original but makes no attempt at period-sounding music. On the other hand, who knows what music sounded like in ancient Ephesus?

In 1981, something called “Oh, Brother!” also used “Comedy of Errors” as the basis for a musical, but it closed in two days. You see, the creators decided to reset the story in the Persian Gulf in modern times. Ken Mandelbaum in his fabulous history of Broadway flops, “Not Since Carrie” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), declares it deserved better. It suffered mainly from a small cast with too many lead roles in a single set. He suggests that with singers like Judy Kaye in the cast, they should have revived “The Boys from Syracuse.” In fact, there was a revival in 1963 that ran longer than did the original.

Now these are two very successful adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll bet anyone could name the blockbuster adaptation that outran even “Kiss Me Kate,” but very few could discuss a 1938 musical based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other flashes in the Broadway pan. Some of them will be discussed in the next issue.

Essays Film Musicals

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?)

download (9)
“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?

Essays Production values

A Plea to Local Theatre Groups: Take a Chance!

Two of the four twins in “The Boys from Syracuse”

A Plea to Local Theatre Groups: Take a Chance!

How many times have you sat with a fixed smile through a local production of “Oklahoma!” or “West Side Story,” all the while knowing every word of the lyrics and most of the dialogue because the high school did it just a year ago and the film version has been on AMC or TCM a dozen times in the past few years? But you have come not so much to enjoy the production as to witness the performances. After all, your daughter will show up for a second in a crowd scene or your dentist will soliloquize about “My Boy Bill” or–worse still–your wife will play the female lead’s best friend and you have been running lines with her for the past three months.

How much more, you think, you would enjoy a good production of “Pal Joey” or “Girl Crazy” or even any Cole Porter play other than “Anything Goes” or “Kiss Me Kate.” Where I live and back in 2001 when I first wrote this essay, the Lions Club is getting under weigh for the year’s Big Show: “Hello Dolly.” At the same time, a town 15 miles eastward is working on “Guys & Dolls.” Last year it was a “My Fair Lady” in which all the local talent did its best, some with “Cockney” accents that were totally unintelligible and almost none with any feeling for the Shavian dialogue.

Every year I make a pest of myself advocating a Rodgers and Hart instead of a Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Babes in Arms” is loaded with hits, “The Boys From Syracuse” has somewhat fewer “big numbers” (e.g. “This Can’t Be Love”) but a far better “book” cribbed from Shakespeare, and “Pal Joey” has several great tunes and characters who actually interest us. So why “The Sound of Music” yet again or “Fiddler on the Roof”? The answer is blatantly clear: Box Office.

A summer stock company in Vermont puts out a questionnaire each year, asking for requests for the upcoming season. Well, you should easily guess what titles show up year after year. Is it that people are just comfortable with the same old musicals? Is it that they simply do not know of the existence of other musicals–or they know them by title but know nothing about the quality of the scores or lyrics? I cannot second-guess what is in their minds. I give courses in Broadway History, so I have more of a pool from which to make my selections. And yet….

From the point of view of the group putting on the production, alas, the bottom line cannot be artistic, it must be financial. The best performed “Pardon My English” (a once recorded, never to my knowledge performed musical by the Gershwin brothers) that plays to empty houses must be considered less desirable than a very mediocre “Carousel” that packs them in. This is an unfortunate fact of theatrical life, but there we are.

Now I do not mean to imply that yet another “South Pacific” that is well done is to be despised. There are reasons for repeating the Top Ten or Twelve over and over. One of them is audience expectation. They know the music and words ahead of time. There is always that thrill of recognition when “Nothing Like a Dame” strikes up. But what about the thrill of discovery when an audience hears, possibly for the first time, the extremely clever lyrics to “Way Out West on West End Avenue” from “Babes in Arms” or the wonderful Gilbert & Sullivanish chorus of Supreme Court Judges in the second act of “Of Thee I Sing”?

My local Lions Club once had a bad box office experience with “Pippin” and has been paralyzed into a conservative mode ever since. It so happens that “Pippin” has very little music worth hearing, its chief merit lying in the choreography of Bob Fosse and the sexy costumes of the warrior-women. But what if they had chosen, say, “Babes in Arms”?

Rodgers seated, Hart standing, both outstanding

Okay, there we have the quintessential “Let’s put on a show, gang” plot that would call for a lot of local youthful talent and songs that almost anyone who can carry a tune can put over with a bang: “Where or When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One Note,” “The Lady is a Tramp.”  And the less-familiar numbers are almost as good as those standards.  Or try Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy,” unfortunately undermined for a long time by the adaptation called “Crazy For You.” Here we have “Bidin’ My Time,” “Could You Use Me?” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me.”

Hey, these are the great bubble-headed musicals of the 20s and 30s when you went to a musical to hear music, not to see a ship hit an iceberg, a chandelier fall, or some cat apotheosized on a floating tire! I firmly believe it is the duty of these community groups to bring to their audiences the best of the old with a fresh approach–but without camping them up or otherwise patronizing the product.

One word of warning to anyone I have actually convinced. The publishers of “Babes in Arms” have had the book rewritten for some inexplicable reason. All the songs are still in place and there is still a group of youngsters who want to put on a show, but the motivations are all different. Be sure to say so in your playbills, please, lest the audience get a misconception of what Rodgers and Hart had in mind.


Broadway and British Musicals

Dearest Enemy

“Dearest Enemy””Dearest Enemy” Retells Revolutionary Legend

A-VAI-Dearest Enemy

My deep thanks  yet again to Video Artists International (VAI) for preserving on DVD musical comedies that were seen on television back in the 1950s. Since they remain in their catalogue, I should repeat my original reviews at least once a year for the sake of new readers.

Looking at the VAI website, I see that there is Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” from 1958, historically as well as entertainingly important thanks to Alfred Drake and Patricia Morrison in their original roles. There is Rodgers and Hart’s “A Connecticut Yankee” from 1955 with Eddie Albert and Janet Blair. This was “live” television, mistakes and all. My favorite is the time when a knight’s beaver kept falling over his eyes and he could barely open it on the third closing. I have been reporting on new entries in this series as they appear.

The most recent entries form a neat contrast to how the originals were handled. First of all, each show was allowed 77 minutes for the musical itself and a good deal of cutting had to be made. That is acceptable. Second, the picture and sound are obviously 1950-ish, far from the state of the art features of today’s technology. That adds to the charm of watching these videos.

download (2)“Dearest Enemy” is a 1925 early effort by Rodgers and Hart that contained only one song that outlasted the original run, “Here in your arms,” but the rest of the score is by no means inferior to most musicals of the times; and Larry Hart’s clever rhymes show the promise of even cleverer ones to come. It was shown in 1955.


Cornelia Otis Skinner in post-Colonial days

The cast has Cornelia Otis Skinner as Mrs. Murray, who became a legend when she delayed General Howe from surprising George Washington by throwing a party; and Anne Jeffrey as Betsy, who distracted his second in command (played by Robert Sterling). Cyril Ritchard steals most of his scenes as a jolly and prancing Howe. The party is history, the rest is Broadway.

It is helpful that Jeffrey’s operatic voice was nicely matched by Sterling, whose voice is strong enough to keep up with hers.

From what I could research, this television version seems very faithful to the original play, except (I suspect) for the framing device of having Howe and three other generals look back years later at how a bunch of lovely colonists lost the war for Britain.

And of course one can see the future hit tunes of Rodgers and Hart developing in this early collaboration, although it is still a far cry from their tradition-breaking “Pal Joey.”