Monday, May 31, 2004

Obscure Musical of the Week: GOLDILOCKS

Goldilocks (1958) is relatively un-obscure for an obscure flop musical; the cast album is in print, the wonderful overture is still heard sometimes as a pops concert piece, and it has received a few semi-staged productions from the enterprising likes of 42nd Street Moon and Musicals Tonight.

Though the music for this show was composed by Leroy Anderson of "Sleigh Ride" fame, the most important members of the creative team were Walter and Jean Kerr, Broadway's most famous husband and wife team. They weren't a team exactly, at least not usually; Walter Kerr was the drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune (he moved to the Times after the Herald-Tribune folded in the '60s), and Jean Kerr was a playwright. The situation of a critic married to a playwright -- a marriage between two enemy factions, as it were -- inspired a lot of jokes and a whole play, Ira Levin's Critics' Choice about a drama-critic husband who pans his wife's play. (It goes without saying that in real life Walter Kerr did not review plays written by his wife.) The Kerrs' name was really made by Jean's book "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," a very funny collection of short articles, most of which were about her life with Walter and their children in a rather hideous, oversized house in Larchmont. The success of the book made the Kerrs a byword for the advantages of the surburban lifestyle: to readers in the late '50s and early '60s, they were the ideal suburban commuter couple, settling into the suburban family life without losing that City sophistication. There's even an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Laura explains the improved treatment she's gotten after a magazine publishes an article about Rob: "The butcher shop gave me the steaks they usually save for Jean Kerr." (By the way, it's pronounced to rhyme with "Her.")

Anyway, Walter Kerr took a leave from drama criticism to write a musical, Goldilocks, with his wife: they wrote the book, they wrote the lyrics (in collaboration with someone named Joan Ford, of whom I know nothing), and Walter directed the show. There were out-of-town casting problems; Barry Sullivan, cast in the part of the hustling silent-film director Max Grady, couldn't sing and was replaced by Don Ameche, who could. The female lead was Maggie Harris, an actress who has to make a short movie for Max before she can quit acting and settle down with her boring fiance George (Russell Nype, playing a version of Jean Kerr's favourite punching bag, the sensitive guy -- like Bob in her play Mary, Mary, he's castigated for being too sensible and reasonable and not enough of a "bigoted, reactionary mule"). The role of Maggie was played by Elaine Stritch, a card-carrying member of the "voices only a Broadway buff could love" club but certainly with enough personality to carry a show. The choreography was by Agnes DeMille, and the supporting cast included Pat Stanley -- who the next year would introduce "I Love a Cop" in Fiorello! -- and Margaret Hamilton.

The show takes place in 1913, and deals with the small-time hucksters who made early silent movies. Walter Kerr, one of those critics who was always nostalgic for silent days (he wrote a book on silent comedy, The Silent Clowns) makes it clear that this is where the art of movies begins, that a Max Grady, who makes ten-minute movies for cheap entertainment, is paving the way for the D.W. Griffiths to come. Max even gets a big speech about this, late in the second act:

You know who likes thse five-cent pictures? People -- ordinary, dumb, stupid, honest-to-God people... I like to go into these cheap nickel theaters, sit next to those nuts, and watch them have one hell of a time! You think they're wrong, don't you? But do you know what? This picture is better than the last one, and the last one was better than the one before that, and the next one might even be good if I had someone who just ten-percent believed it!

That's definitely Walter Kerr talking there. Among the major theatre critics of his time, he was sort of the highbrow populist, a fan of fast-paced American fun and of Broadway in general, with all its tryouts, frantic rewrites, script doctoring, the works. ("You worship success," Eric Bentley wrote in a rebuttal to one of Kerr's pieces.) Kerr's coverage of musicals, in particular, was filled with nostalgia for the seemingly unsophisticated, fast, fun musical comedies of the pre-Oklahoma! era; he tended to dislike musicals that took themselves too seriously or included operetta elements, which is why he disliked West Side Story, The Most Happy Fella, and Fiddler on the Roof among others. In writing Goldilocks he and his wife were trying to pay tribute to the brash unspretentiousness of early musicals and early moviemaking, all at once.

Does it work? Well, one point that comes to mind is that if you're going to write a fun musical comedy, you should have lead characters who are fun to be around. Max and Maggie aren't, really; they're arrogant, manipulative and constantly trying to score points off each other; they have a duet called "No One Will Ever Love You Like You Do." George, who gets treated like dirt by everybody, is more likable than the leads, and you're kind of glad to see him get free of Maggie by the end. Interestingly, when Jean Kerr finally had a huge success as a playwright, with Mary, Mary, she did it by combining a Maggie-like heroine with a George-like hero; Mary, Mary plays off the contrast between the wisecracking cynic Mary and the infuriatingly "sensible" Bob, and ends by sort of splitting the difference between them. What we have in Goldilocks is Mary, Mary with Mary as both the male and female lead.

The score is what has kept the show alive; it didn't produce any big hits ("I Never Know When" should have been a big hit ballad; it may have been hurt by Elaine Stritch's vocal unsuitability for a tender ballad), but it has Anderson's trademark of catchy tunes with unpredictable and funny orchestrations (Anderson did his own orchestrations, in collaboration with Broadway veteran Phil Lang). The lyrics are good too, though somewhat overloaded with attempts at clever rhymes; the best lyrics are the ones where the authors' personalities come through most clearly, as in this excerpt from "I Can't Be In Love," which prefigures a similar a/b/c list in Mary, Mary:

I can't be in love, I can't be in love!
Matrimony is
a) too sticky
b) too tricky
c) I believe I'll leave the lions' den to Daniel.
Any time that I get lonely, I have only got to get a cocker spaniel.

The cast album is good, but slightly compromised by the fact that all the dance music was left off (Anderson recorded the dance music himself for another label). Fortunately the overture, one of Broadway's best, is intact.

Edit: in my original post I mistakenly named Ralph Meeker as the original Max. Meeker was in fact originally cast in The Pajama Game, and dropped for much the same reason as Barry Sullivan left Goldilocks.

Edit # 2: Thanks to Noel Katz for correcting me on the name of the Ira Levin play.

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