Saturday, August 28, 2004

Obscure Musicals: 70, GIRLS, 70

I've been listening recently to the cast album of 70, Girls, 70, a 1971 musical with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb (the Cabaret and Chicago) guys. The book was outlined by Joe Masteroff, the writer of Cabaret, and written by Ebb and Norman Martin. It had a number of problems before opening; two directors pulled out, and David Burns, cast in a key role, died during the tryouts. The show opened around the same time as Follies, and included all the veteran performers that Follies didn't sign up; between these two new shows and the revival of No, No, Nanette, 1971 was the year for old troupers coming back to Broadway. 70, Girls, 70 used older performers than those other shows -- as the title implies, it was mostly for performers over 70, like Mildred Natwick, Lillian Roth, and Hans Conried (whose voice you might remember from the "Aesop and Son" segments on Rocky and Bullwinkle). The basic story is that a bunch of senior citizens, bored, neglected by their children, and needing money, turn to robbery, stealing fur coats from Bloomingdale's and other establishments.

This is a fine idea for a show, taking in all sorts of things that can work in musical-comedy terms: a caper plot, a romantic subplot (for an elderly couple that gets married during the course of the show), farce and pathos. But, apparently influenced by their own biggest hit, Cabaret, Kander and Ebb decided not to tell the story directly, but to tell it as part of a show-within-a-show concept. The story is acted out by elderly actors who haven't been on Broadway in some years -- in other words, by the actors themselves -- and they frequently break character to comment on issues related to age, death, and other stuff (one song and dance number is called "Go Visit Your Grandmother"). When it comes time for Mildred Natwick's character to die, she turns to the audience and says: "Well, I die. The script says I'm captured and I die." Each number is started with a vamp at the piano from "Lorraine," the rehearsal pianist who sits onstage (Dorothea Freitag, who also arranged the dance music for the show), and the small orchestra joins in only gradually; the orchestrations were by the dean of Broadway orchestrators, Don Walker, who created a charmingly tinny, small-band sound similar to the sound that Ralph Burns would later create for Kander and Ebb's Chicago. This whole "concept" allowed for some commentative numbers, Kander and Ebb's specialty. But from the version I read, which seems to be the original version -- I say "seems" because the show has been revised several times, never very successfully -- the conceptual, show-within-a-show staging comes off as an unnecessary distraction from what is really a pretty solid story. It doesn't come off as adding anything, the way the "concept" of Cabaret did; instead, it seems like a way of making the show seem hip, as if Kander and Ebb and Martin didn't want to be caught writing a conventional musical comedy; by 1971, a musical comedy had to have some some kind of framework to show that it wasn't just a musical, but a commentary on musicals. It's as if the people who wrote musicals no longer really believed in the form -- which, indeed, may have been the case, and certainly is the case today, with all the spoof-musicals and anti-musicals and musicals where they feel a need to explain why the characters are breaking into song.

70, Girls, 70 includes some of the best songs in Kander and Ebb's uneven career; after two efficient but kind of drab scores for rather drab shows -- The Happy Time and Zorba -- they returned to their forte, musical comedy with a cynical edge and lots of insistent vamps (the last number, "Yes," has the most repetitive vamp this side of Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York"). There are some dud numbers: "The Caper," where Conreid tries to explain his plan, is sort of a parody of expository numbers, but just comes off as a boring expository number; another song consists almost entirely of the phrase "Boom Ditty Boom" repeated over and over again, another attempted parody gone wrong (they're apparently trying to spoof repetitive Broadway production numbers, but all they do is drive us nuts with a repetitive number). Another song, "You and I, Love," is an uncomfortable combination of sentimentality and ageism -- it's about old people who, deprived of television, spend their time imagining their favorite daytime TV shows -- and it was understandably cut during the run.

But the best of the score is very fine. There's "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," a rousing number about the decline of civility and the fact that "everything is 'hurry up.'" An elderly couple gets a song where they tease us, the audience, with the question we're all asking; the song should definitely be interpolated if they ever make a musical version of The Golden Girls:

Do we? Do we?
That's what you want to know, isn't it?
Do we? Do we?
That's what disturbs you so, isn't it?...
You sit there wondering
If we really ring that bell.
Do we?
Eat your heart out, kids, 'cause
We'll never tell.

My favorite song in the show, and indeed my favorite Kander and Ebb song, period, is the last song in Act 1, "See the Light." This is the last in a long line of Broadway gospel numbers, of the sing-you-sinners, "Get Happy," "Blow, Gabriel Blow" type. (Interesting subject for a thesis: why were the predominantly Jewish songwriters of Broadway so fascinated with the music of Evangelical Protestantism?) On the cast album, it's one of those songs that's so much fun that I can't hear it without skipping back to the beginning to hear it all over again:

I used to know a lady known as Emma Finch,
Emma Finch, Emma Finch,
She had a kleptomania that made her pinch
Any article she saw.
She liked to spend the afternoon at Bloomingdale's,
Bloomingdale's, Bloomingdale's,
But Emma's way of going to the bargain sales
Was a bit beyond the law.
Emma took along a shopping bag,
Emma took along a shopping list,
Emma thought whatever Bloomie's lost
Bloomie's never missed.
She couldn't see the light,
She wouldn't see the light,
Emma never knew wrong from right,
Which left her in the dark, unable to see the light.

But even this number, which sounds like a showstopper on the cast recording -- sung by Lillian Roth backed up by four guys singing "abba dabba dabba," and building to a climax where Emma realizes that she's been "an awful sinner" -- apparently didn't go over big in performance. At least that's what I've been told by someone who saw a production of the show, and I could guess why. Roth's character sings the song to distract the Bloomingdale's security guards while, in the background, her friends rob the store. So the number is integrated into the action and the staging; it's not just a showstopping number for its own sake, like a musical comedy might have had even ten years earlier. But the problem is that the background stuff distracts attention from what ought to be the focal point in any musical comedy: the musical number. You can't lose yourself in a number when there's something else happening in the background. This, like so much else of 70, Girls, 70, is the "concept" musical run amok; it's a musical that is embarrassed even to give the audience the old reliable pleasure of a big showstopping number. (Even Follies knows enough not to distract us with plot stuff in the middle of "I'm Still Here.")

So that's 70, Girls, 70 -- good source material, good score, good cast, but weighed down by an apparent lack of faith in the chosen form; it's one of the first real examples of the anti-musical: a musical written and staged by people who seem vaguely embarrassed about the idea of characters expressing themselves in song. When Kander and Ebb returned to Broadway with Chicago, they had another "concept" show that was done as a show-within-a-show -- but they also had a strong director, Bob Fosse, and he made sure a) to use the music and dancing to tell the story, and b) not to let the story points detract from the impact of the music and dancing. That's the balancing act in a modern musical, and something that 70, Girls, 70 couldn't handle. If Fosse had done it, it might have been different.


Anonymous said...

The Caper a dud number? You must be joking.

Anonymous said...

I saw this show 1.8.08, and I tend to agree that many of the numbers are unmemorable and a bit annoying with the backing almost overcoming the melody line, but as an overall experience, it was hilarious, bordering on the surreal. (Where do elephants go???) It reminded me a lot of the TV series Pennies from Heaven, where people burst into song at odd moments, and things happened almost randomly. Very funny.

Anonymous said...

At last i have found a page that has given me some information.I stumbled across this musical whilst looking for my theatre companys next show...a short burst of a song was all i got.So i bought the soundtrack and couldnt find anywhere a made do with just listening.I was totally hooked on this show and still am and have been so desperate to get more info.Joseph Weinberger has no rights,i cant find no script or ANYTHING.Now ive read this page and taken on board negative it that bad??? is anyone able to tell me where i see it or if anyone ever do this show???I would be so grateful.we are always doing rogers and hammerstein which is great but 70 girls 70 is on my bucket list..please help!!!I need to direct this show before im 70!!!