In the battle

“Man has three basic drives,” Broadway composer Charles Strouse quipped: “For food, for sex, and to rewrite somebody else’s musical.”  I heard him say it with my own ears (this was way back during the Carter administration).  Now, in those days, the scenario in which people eagerly proffered revision ideas might be at an out-of-town tryout, when strangers would buttonhole creators with “brilliant” ideas for improvement.  Or, there might have been a workshop, held for the express purpose of gathering advice from wise fellow toilers in the field.  Sometimes, shows had long periods of previews on Broadway, such as Strouse’s Nick and Nora (not long enough, apparently).  I kept his quip in mind when I met him backstage during a preview of Rags and merely assured him it would be a huge hit.  It wasn’t.

But here’s the thing: While there’s still time to fix a new musical, the collective wisdom of all those who feel compelled to exercise their basic drive is a positive force.  Shows all need help aborning, and no well-wisher’s advice should be completely ignored.  And there’s no glory in doing it all yourself.  Some of the best musicals of all time needed doctoring.  We know, for instance, that Neil Simon came in to add a few jokes to A Chorus Line, including the line about suicide being redundant in Buffalo, New York.  I later put this gag into a song about Bayonne, New Jersey.  But now I’m all over the map.

Many a musical theatre fan has another sort of compulsion.  You hear a cast album and love, simply love, the songs.  And you think, now there’s a wonderful musical.  Except when you hear those songs in context, actually seeing the show (or reading its script), they just lay there, a boring muddle.  So, this intense desire emerges to rewrite the woebegone tuner, giving it a workable book and letting those wonderful songs shine.

click to hear Wait Till We're 65

I’ve not had a chance to see the current “revisal” of Lerner & Lane’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but gather it’s the product of this sort of compulsion.  Having not seen it, I must restrain myself from commenting about what’s been done.  But I’ll use it to make a point about the sort of energy that leads to a “new” version of an old, flawed musical.  Because – and again I refer to the days of Jimmy Carter – we’ve got a big fat energy crisis on our hands.

But first, a few words about Alan Jay Lerner: When he was good, he was very good: My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Gigi, Paint Your Wagon, Camelot.  All of those hits had music by Frederick Loewe.  Lerner without Loewe, nine times out of ten, is not so good: Love Life, Coco, Lolita My Love, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Dance a Little Closer – all with different composers.  (One is left to puzzle over how and why Loewe brought out the best in him.)  Lerner’s genius, I feel, was for getting lyrics and libretto to work together.  No one since Hammerstein did this nearly so well.  He crafted his shows like a fine dramatist, seeing to it that the plots led to dramatic high points that would burst forth in song.  Unlike many a Johnny-Come-Lately, he was comfortable with being romantic.  It’s ironic that My Fair Lady, his biggest hit, lacks expression of love in its central relationship.  Oh, and one more thing: His abilities at plotting led to him winning two Academy Awards for screenwriting – both were also Best Pictures: Gigi, and An American In Paris.  The man knew his stuff.

Frederick Loewe was in such poor health, his doctor advised him to give up writing musicals – can you imagine such a terrible prescription? – leaving Lerner to flail about looking for a new project and a new partner. In these years, Lerner sought help for psychological malaise where a lot of high society New Yorkers did: an Upper East Side doctor who gave injections that made you happy.  (Anyone else reminded of the second act of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro here?)  Sound suspicious?  It was.  The shots were amphetamines, highly addictive, and clearly had the effect of zonking out Alan Jay Lerner.  It was under this “diminished capacity” that he wrote On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

How weird is it?  Given the mind of its lyricist-librettist, it’s not half bad.  It’s a star vehicle: Barbara Harris played Daisy, a kooky Jersey girl who seeks the help of a psychologist to help her quit smoking.  When he hypnotizes her, another personality emerges, Melinda, who lives in 18th Century London.  Daisy is her reincarnation, and the curious shrink is excited to find proof of past lives and other E.S.P. phenomena.  But he’s most captivated by Melinda, and falls in love with her.  Twentieth Century Daisy, however, doesn’t appeal to him at all.  She’s engaged to a stereotypical businessman who gets excited about his company’s retirement plan (“Wait Till We’re 65!”) but begins to fall for Dr. Bruckner.  When she discovers he doesn’t love her, but merely her previous incarnation, she sings the greatest torch song Broadway’s ever produced, What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?

On record, this is one of the most appealing scores of all time.  Song after song is filled with amazing wit and lush, hummable melodies.  Composer Burton Lane seems to have had a ball coming up with music in two distinct styles: contemporary (it was 1965, so a lot of major sevenths) and Regency (arpeggios on harpsichords, etc.).  The title song was a bona fide hit, but the show wasn’t.  People went, mostly, to see the virtuosity of one of the 1960’s great comediennes, Barbara Harris.  Her first Broadway appearance got her a Tony nomination for performing in a musical, even though the show was a comedy revue with a couple of songs, not a musical at all.  After getting nominated for the dual role in On a Clear Day, she went on to win a Tony for playing multiple roles in The Apple Tree.

Here in the 21st Century director Michael Mayer is seized by that unstoppable compulsion I described earlier.  That cast album of On a Clear Day is so good, the songs are so strong, what must have stopped the show from being a bigger hit was Alan Jay Lerner’s hopped-up-on-uppers libretto, right?

So Mayer hires Peter Parnell, the author of such musicals as … Wait, he’s never written one.  He’s written a few plays, one of which is based on an old novel that was also the basis of a famous opera, Werther, but that’s it for his connection to musical theatre.  Does nobody else see a problem with this?  In the new plot, a gay man seeks psychological help and hypnosis reveals that he used to be a female jazz singer in the 1940s.  I may be reading way too much into this, but I find the notion that homosexual males are heterosexual females reincarnated deeply offensive.  It’s as if Parnell is suggesting that same-sex attraction is abnormal, but can be explained by people being different genders in past lives; so only opposite-sex attraction is normal.

Again, I haven’t seen the show; maybe this is not being suggested at all.  But with the gay man and the female singer played by different actors, it’s no longer a star vehicle.

If Melinda is now a 1940s chanteuse, what happens to all of Lane’s Regency material?  Some of it is cut; some is repurposed.  In order to give Melinda appropriate songs to sing, Lerner & Lane’s 1951 film score, Royal Wedding, is appropriated (but how appropriately?).  Am I the only one who sees a huge problem here?  Lane fashioned a passionate ballad for a faithless Regency rake, in 6/4 time, no less, and now it’s given to Harry Connick, Jr. to sing as the 20th Century analyst.  Why would a modern widower sing in 6/4?  Why would he have a lyric like “Why did champagne lose its year for me?”  Who talks like that anymore?  The effect of this revisal is to make Lerner and Lane look like second rate hacks, since 18th Century Edward’s overblown calumny is now put into the mouth of a shrink who sincerely mourns his dead wife.  Good writing becomes bad writing.  Thanks a bunch, Parnell and Mayer.

When the gay guy, upset that his straight shrink doesn’t love him, sings What Did I Have That I Don’t Have? I can’t imagine how the audience restrains itself from yelling “a vagina!”

The last thing I’ll carp on is that comic climber in the executive pool, Warren.  In the original, he was played by William Daniels (you can see him in a similar role opposite Barbara Harris in the film version of A Thousand Clowns), and it’s very funny that his idea of a romantic expression is to extol bonds maturing and “Blue Cross until you go.”  Of course, in the Parnell restructuring, set in 1964, Warren’s the committed boyfriend of Davey, the gay analysand.  So, in 1974, they’re singing of a rosy future with a great pension and health insurance and hold the phone there…

I don’t know where Parnell and Mayer have been, but most of us are aware of a huge political issue these days about how homosexuals are treated by state laws, private and public pension plans, and insurers.  To have a gay couple sing merrily about a future we, in 2012, have not yet achieved is offensive in the extreme.  Not to mention unbelievable, since, so soon after Stonewall, issues like gay parenthood and hospital visitation weren’t a gleam in many people’s eyes.

Now, it probably sounds like what I’m most upset about is On a Clear Day’s odd perspective on homosexuality.  But what really frosts me is what I earlier referred to as an energy crisis.  Here, and in other revisals, tons of creative energy are lavished on “fixing” old musicals that may or may not need fixing at all.  If these renovators are successful, at best, they’ve given an old musical new life.  But it’s a huge waste of energy. Suppose Mayer and Parnell had left a moderately successful old show alone and instead had created a new musical, with new songs.  Then, their creativity would have added something to the world, and maybe given us a new musical producers would be happy to revive again and again.  And isn’t it the height of hubris, to think that a dramatist can make his first musical script better than one by a multiple Oscar and Tony winner?

Oh, that compulsion to tinker with old shows, as if they were old jalopies – how it makes me burn!  Why do theatre people do this?  One can’t imagine, say, someone in the auto industry reviving the Edsel, believing it could be popular with the public if only the tail fins were streamlined a bit.

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One Response to In the battle

  1. stephencole2 says:

    Wonderful and right on!

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