Saturday, May 15, 2004

Obscure Musical of the Week: DRAT! THE CAT!

One thing I'm going to try to do every week is call attention to a musical that isn't well-known, and perhaps shouldn't be, but has something to recommend it, and hopefully, a recording available.

I'll start with Drat! the Cat! This show opened on Broadway on October 10, 1965 and closed on October 16, 1965. And even in the superior Broadway economy of 1965, a one-week run wasn't enough to make a profit. The music was by Milton Schafer, best known for the Danny Kaye novelty song "Mommy, Gimme a Drinka Water," and the book and lyrics were by Ira Levin. Even Sarah was astonished to learn that Ira Levin wrote a musical, but he did, and as I'll argue in a minute, it's too bad he never wrote another one.

Billed as a "musical spoof," it was sort of two parodies in one. First, it was a sendup of late-Victorian melodrama; it takes place in "the latter part of the 19th century" and the hero, a young policeman, is so dimwitted and duty-bound (following his dying father's admonition, "My Son, Uphold the Law") that he could pass for a Gilbert and Sullivan character. Second, like the original The Pink Panther, it was a spoof of caper stories; the plot concerns the hunt for a notorious jewel thief who turns out to be the heroine, a debutante who turned to crime primarily out of boredom with her own social circle ("I don't want their diamonds -- I'll get my own").

The show got some good reviews, especially for its stars, Elliott Gould and Lesley Ann Warren. But not good enough to make it a hit, and the show's novice producers apparently decided to give up and fold instantly rather than try to keep it going. (One of the investors was Barbra Streisand, who later recorded one of the songs from the show, "She Touched Me.") It's never been revived as far as I know; Bruce Kimmel, who produced a studio cast recording of the show, tried to get a concert version going, but it didn't happen.

The show was originally to be called Cat and Mouse; the title change, and a sort of self-conscious wackiness that may have contributed to its failure, came from the director-choreographer, Joe Layton. Layton, a prolific director of Broadway shows and TV specials, specialized in a kind of generic slickness and profusion of stage business; his shows had so much going on, onstage, that people barely noticed the writing. (Barnum, Layton's circus-spectacle show, actually had a fine score, but hardly anybody could notice that in the midst of all the trapeze acts and such.) Perhaps Drat! would have been more successful with a deadpan, Gilbert-and-Sullivan approach to the material. Certainly the only recording, now sadly out of print, reveals a charming score and a sweet if bizarre love story: the hero learns that some things, like love, are more important than duty, while the heroine realizes that the real escape from her boring life will come not from robbing someone, but from loving someone: "I like him," she sings, "And I like me." It also reveals some obvious flaws, like the fact that the story is awfully thin for a full evening -- no secondary couple; plot twists that are so obvious that the characters actually turn to the audience and acknowledge that we all guessed them in advance -- but I'd still like to see this one staged.

The big surprise of the score is what a good lyricist Ira Levin turns out to be. His lyrics don't have any of the clumsiness that you usually find when novelists and/or playwrights turn away from prose; there are few mis-accented words or unsingable lines. And whereas many lyricists in the '60s tended to go for Hammerstein-style simplicity, with simple rhyme schemes and simple, plot-advancing lines, Levin goes the other way, packing his lyrics with rhymes and allusions. One of the best songs from the score is "Holmes and Watson," sung by the heroine offering to help the foolish young policeman (he doesn't know yet that she's the jewel thief he's sworn to track down):

Sherlock Holmes has Doctor Watson,
Watson trots in back of Holmes.
All the plots that Holmes finds knots in,
Watson jots in tomes.
'Cause it takes one to do the heavy brainwork,
One to do the more mundane work,
One to say "it's elementary,"
One to say "amazing!"
You'll be Holmes and I'll be Watson,
In high spots, in catacombs.
Any place the Cat gavottes in,
Watson trots with Holmes....

Two ballads from the show have had a life outside it, "I Like Him" and "She Touched Me" (usually heard as "He Touched Me"), but I also like "Deep in Your Heart," which is a good example of the way a seemingly generic pop song can have its own function within a show. The hero's innocence, his insistence on seeing the larcenous Cat as a heroine even after he's found out about her life of crime, breaks down her resistance and makes the love story possible. Levin's lyric here is both generalized and plot-specific, as a good Broadway ballad should be:

One who's gentle,
Ly gingham and bows,
Kitchens and home-made pies.
Why not free her?
Why not be her?
Drop your disguise,
Try her for size,
She's waiting, watching, from your eyes.
Deep in your heart
You keep in your heart
The girl you were meant to be.
Don't keep us apart,
Please open your heart
And let her come back to me.

All in all, Drat! the Cat! has a lot to make me wish that Levin had written another musical, and that Shafer (a talented composer whose other show, Bravo Giovanni, was also a flop) had had better luck with his projects. The recording is out of print, but if you see a used copy, grab it.


Unknown said...

I've actually directed the show—it's one of my favorites. Yes, the story is thin, but the approach and tone is extremely clever, and the book is genuinely funny. The studio cast is dreadful, especially if you listen to the original cast. I love Elaine Stritch, but she was totally wrong for Mrs. Van Guilder—especially when you picture Jane Connell in the role.

It's a difficult show to do because it's a huge cast, lots of set changes, some complicated musical numbers, and costume (and costume jewelry) requirements that are unavoidable. However, a (very) talented community theatre group, or a small regional theatre could find some unexpected success with this show.

Anonymous said...

What do you know about "It's a Bird, it's a plane, it's Superman"?

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where I might find a copy of the song "She's Roses" from Dat! The Cat! ?