Thursday, May 20, 2004

Obscure Musical of the Week: "The Happiest Girl in the World"

I think most flop musicals, however good they may sound on a cast album, have good solid reasons for their failure. A show like The Happiest Girl in the World (1961) sounds like huge fun on the cast album, which also reprints several favorable reviews. The basic idea, of doing a musical version of Lysistrata using the music of Offenbach, is pretty solid; the story, cleaned up for a Broadway audience, offers the musical comedy's standard combination of satire (on war and sex) and romance. But there are many obvious reasons why it flopped:
- The star and director, Cyril Ritchard, was mostly a favourite with English audiences. He built practically the whole show around himself -- playing multiple roles and giving undue prominence to his main role of the villain Pluto (who tries to tempt Lysistrata and the other women to go off their sex strike). Not only did this unbalance the show, but Ritchard's prissy Englishman act, sort of Bertie Wooster grown old, couldn't carry a show, nor did his name have big advance appeal at the box-office. It's as if Damn Yankees had been built around Mr. Applegate. Worse yet, the other star of the show, Janice Rule, played another role that should have been minor: Diana, the goddess who, in this retelling, encourages Lysistrata ("To end all wars/Whatever 'tis/That makes him yours/Must not be his"). To have any emotional effectiveness in between the hijinks, a musical comedy needs to have a strong central character who's directly involved in the action, like Pseudolous in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and his genuine desire to be free. The Lysistrata of Happiest Girl is a cypher, with no particular motivation beyond petulance.
- E.Y. Harburg (the Y stood for "Yip," his longtime nickname), who wrote the lyrics and came up with the idea for the show, gave the whole thing a sort of mock-operetta style to match the Offenbach music. The trouble with this is that comedy operetta had been box-office poison on Broadway for years; the most recent "comic operetta," Candide, had failed despite tremendous talent in every aspect of the production. Broadway audiences in the early '60s were increasingly unwilling to tolerate highfalutin' language or other operetta-isms; even the successful shows set in the past, like Hello, Dolly! or Fiddler on the Roof, tended toward brash musical-comedy style with maybe a hint of period flavour. Nobody was going to go for a night of Offenbach tunes with mock-G&S lyrics.

What makes the show worthwhile is those mock-G&S lyrics, by one of the greatest lyricists America ever produced, Yip Harburg. (For those who don't know his work, he's the lyricist-librettist of Finian's Rainbow and author of such songs as "It's Only a Paper Moon," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," and "April in Paris.") Harburg's work combines two styles; there's the Gilbertian style, full of nutty rhymes and mangling of the English language ("Something Sort of Grandish"). In this he's similar to his old friend Ira Gershwin. But unlike Ira Gershwin, and unlike almost any other Broadway lyricist besides Lorenz Hart, Harburg also had a truly "poetic" side, musing on subjects like the shortness of life and playing with words and sounds to create a unique mood for a whole song, much like a poet does on the page. The poetic side of Harburg comes out sometimes in Happiest Girl, as in a ballad, "Five Minutes of Spring." This was set to one of Offenbach's greatest waltzes (from La Belle Helene,) and sung by Bruce Yarnell, possessor of one of the best baritone voices on Broadway, who died tragically young:


Oh, come, sweet thing,
Life at best is just five minutes of spring,
A heigh-ho fling,
With a hope, a dream, a kiss on the wing.
That wise old clock
Called the moon is just a calendar thing,
And each tick-tock
Says it's all a small five minutes of spring.
Hope, dream, lover and rose
Fade into one
When the wind blows.
Hope, dream, lover and rose,
Kiss on the wing,
Child on a swing,
The song of it all is five minutes of spring....


But most of the lyrics in Happiest Girl in the World show off Harburg at his satirical, Gilbertian, rhyme-happy best, as in "Vive La Virtue" (also to a tune from Belle Helene):


Vice is not averse to virtue,
Though virtue is versa vice,
And the man who would unskirt you
Won't do it unless you're nice.
This is man's ambivalent taste:
Whatever is chased has got to be chaste.
Paradox is deep in his blood:
He's after the rose but leaps at the bud.


Or these bits from "Never Trust a Virgin" (which someone suggested should have been the title of the whole show):


A virgin is a scourge!
She's never had her splurge!
The trouble with a virgin is, she's always on the verge.
A virgin is the worst!
Her method is revers'd:
She'll lead a horse to water and then let him die of thirst.


The cast album is a bit half-hearted -- most of the songs get one refrain and that's it, as if nobody could be bothered to spend more session time on an obvious flop -- but it'll do; the lyrics are crystal-clear, and that's what counts.

1 comment:

frankieboy said...

"Half-hearted ?" The album's a CLASSIC ! A pure listening pleasure !
I've played it constantly for years ! Theatermania's great book about cast albums gives it 5 stars !