Saturday, August 14, 2004

Obscure Musicals: OH, CAPTAIN!

My last couple of posts about musicals have been about shows whose cast albums aren't readily available, so here's a post about an obscure musical whose cast album fortunately is available on CD, and well worth picking up: Oh, Captain!, a 1958 musical based on the movie The Captain's Paradise.

The Captain's Paradise was a popular British film starring Alec Guinness as a sea captain who creates the perfect life for himself by marrying two women simultaneously (unbenownst to them, of course), who give him the best of both worlds: a prim and proper Englishwoman who gives him the traditional domestic pleasures, and a wild and free woman who gives him excitement. Disaster ensues when his two lives collide, and the women start to take on each other's distinctive characteristics. The musical, being an American stage show instead of a dark little British comedy (have you ever noticed how many British comedies of the '50s end unhappily, or at least unpleasantly?), changes things a bit: now Captain Henry St. James (Tony Randall) is no longer a bigamist; he's married to the prim Englishwoman Maud (Jacquelyn McKeever) and merely shares a Paris apartment with wild-and-free Bobo (Abbe Lane in the stage show, though she was unable to record the cast album for contractual reasons). This allows for a happy, monogamous ending; I don't think I'm going to shock anyone by giving away that particular plot detail. Anyway, the basic point remains that Captain St. James has tried to construct three separate and different "paradises" for himself: the home, the ship, and the sinful flat:

Paradise number one,
Perfect for the Englishman,
Bounded on the North by the cricket club,
Bounded on the South by the tepid tub,
Bounded on the East by the Union Jack,
And on the West by bric-a-brac.

Paradise number two,
Where the men are navy blue,
Bounded on the North by Cunard White Star,
Bounded on the South by a good cigar,
Bounded on the East by the Captain's log,
And on the West by gruel and grog.

Paradise number three,
Land of morning lechery,
Bounded on the North by Toulouse-Lautrecs,
Bounded on the South by the act of sex,
Bounded on the East by a Left Bank den,
And on the West by sex again!

...But the conclusion is that you can't have it all -- and yet you can. Harry finally accepts that he must "conform," but also that his attempt to pigeonhole his two women was unfairly limiting: Maud was more than just the stereotype he had of her, and so was Bobo, who ends up settling down with Harry's first mate, Manzoni (Edward Platt). (That description makes the show sound a lot more non-sexist than it really is, though it certainly isn't as sexist as the premise would initially imply; there's even a song, "Double Standard," where the women berate Harry for wanting to sleep around himself while expecting his wife to be spotless.)

Oh, Captain! was co-written and directed by Jose Ferrer, a mainstay of the New York theatre as both actor and director. As a serious actor who had won an Academy Award for playing Cyrano de Bergerac, and starred in and directed The Shrike, a Pulitzer-Prize winning (albeit not very good) play about an insane asylum, one might have expected his first musical to be something dark and serious. Instead Ferrer came up with a show that was, in every possible way, a throwback to the musical comedies of the '30s: loud, brash, and above all bawdy. Sex, which had once been a mainstay of the musical comedy, was pretty much absent in the '50s; with the exception of the occasional Cole Porter show, the hit musical comedies of the era tended to follow the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical-play format in being more about love than sex: Guys and Dolls is a great show but it features the most un-lecherous gangsters and wholesome striptease artists in the history of the musical comedy.

By the late '50s, some people were growing weary of all this wholesomeness, and Ferrer apparently was one of them, because Oh, Captain! was one of the least wholesome shows of its era. The evening abounded in double entendres, skimpy costumes, and lines like (introducing the showgirls in one number) "And now, folks, on with the show and the ladies of the ensemble. That's a French word for, like, broads." The show also turned away from the thematic organization and coherence of recent hits like The Music Man and West Side Story, shows which had a consistent overall style and tone. Ferrer made Oh, Captain! more like the freewheeling musical comedies of his youth, where anything goes as long as it's entertaining. So the ballerina Alexandra Danilova appeared for no better reason than to do one dance number (and even do a few steps with star Tony Randall); Susan Johnson, possessor of what many -- including me -- consider the greatest "belt" voice in Broadway history, had two songs utterly unconnected to the plot. This isn't your BMI workshop geek musical, nor is it your corporate-product musical comedy like The Producers or Hairspray; this is musical comedy -- disorganized, ribald, existing for no better reason than to give lots of fun to the tired businessman (tm). It may not have revived the old-style musical comedy, but you've got to give Ferrer props for trying.

The ideal choice to write the songs for a show like this would have been Cole Porter; I don't know whether Ferrer tried to get him, but in any case he would have been too old and ill to do it by 1958. The score was written by the veteran Hollywood team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, whom you know for "Buttons and Bows," "Mona Lisa," and the "Bonanza" theme song (da-dadala-dadala-dadala-BONANZAAAA!) among many others. Some of their work here has the generic sound of Hollywood and pop songs of the era, with determinedly nonspecific lyrics ("Now I see/The way it's meant to be/'Cause you're so right for me"). But after a few duds early on in the score -- like an opening chorus that sounds like bad Gilbert and Sullivan -- they get into the spirit of Ferrer's spectacle and unleash a series of entertaining ballads ("All the Time," surprisingly well sung by Randall, became a hit for Johnny Mathis), production numbers ("Give It All You Got," for Susan Johnson, and written to show off her superb breath control and ability to sing loud sustained notes), and, best of all, cheerfully bawdy songs. "Femininity," for Bobo, was considered too racy for radio stations at the time:

There's only one thing they want, that's understood,
I tell them I shouldn't, they tell me I should.
There must be other ways to make a man feel good...
There are times I can't help feeling,
As I'm staring at the ceiling,
What's the point of femininity?

Another song for Bobo, "Keep it Simple," was both a nightclub specialty -- complete with wailing horns, wild drums, and an ending where the time signature changes for no particular reason -- and a character song:

Keep it simple,
Don't make too much of love.
Keep it simple,
Let's enjoy each touch of love.
Don't end up with self-reproach,
Don't bring your dramatic coach,
Take that direct approach,
Why be tricky?
Grab a quickie.
Come with me, but
Don't pack a big valise.
Take my key, but
Don't expect a long-term lease.
For tonight, c'est la guerre,
And tomorrow, who knows where?
Keep it simple
And we'll have a simply splendid affair.

The show had a superb cast: Randall could sing passably well, and certainly had the comedy chops to carry a musical comedy; Abbe Lane was a popular singer/entertainer famously described by critic Walter Kerr as "better-constructed than the book," Edward Platt (a frequent Ferrer associate, but an out-of-town replacement for Lane's bandleader husband, Xavier Cugat) revealed a surprisingly fine singing voice that he only occasionally got to use on Get Smart. Jay Blackton, who had conducted such shows as Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun, led a terrific orchestra and created the kind of rousing, exciting choral arrangements you don't hear on Broadway any more (Blackton did the choral arrangement for Oklahoma!'s title number, which has become an inseparable part of the song). Just about everything about the show was professionally done and created for the maximum amount of fun.

So why did it run less than a year? Opinions vary. Some say that this kind of musical comedy, loose, bawdy, and gaudy, was just too old-fashioned and not what the public was looking for; the public wanted My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Music Man -- all in their differing ways coherent works of musical theatre, not just collections of entertaining bits. Another, related theory is that it was just a ferociously competitive time for Broadway musicals, with so many huge hits still playing to capacity crowds, the chances for a pure musical comedy -- which rarely ran as long as the musical play or the nostalgia-musical anyway -- were slim. Then, too, Oh, Captain! might have been too bawdy for family audiences and not bawdy enough for Playboy readers, leaving it without a particular segment of the audience to play to. Also, Abbe Lane, one of the biggest names in the cast, left the show very early (after three or four months she was replaced by Dorothy Lamour). All these factors combined probably had something to do with the show not performing up to expectations, despite a strong first few months at the box-office.

And then there's another theory, which was related at the now-defunct Livingston and Evans website. Basically, the story is that one of the producers of Oh, Captain! sold shares in the show to people, didn't put them on the list of investors, and pocketed the money for himself:

The show got mostly rave reviews and everyone was happy, until a man came across the river from New Jersey and demanded to know why he wasn't getting any statements, as he was an investor. But his name didn't appear on the rolls, and that's when the creative team knew that one of the producers was a crook. He simply pocketed the man's money, and otherwise dipped in the till at random. The show ran for six months and then closed to a full house because there was no money to pay the actors.

Whether this story is true, I don't know; whether it was the inspiration for The Producers, I definitely don't know. I'd like to think so, since we all know there must have been some Max Bialystock types in real life. And it would be fun to think that one "throwback" musical comedy that started strong but performed somewhat below expectations eventually led, over forty years later, to another "throwback" musical comedy that started strong but performed somewhat below expectations. Though given the choice between the two, I'd definitely take Oh, Captain!

The cast album, despite including none of the dance music, is one of the longer cast albums of the era, almost a full hour. Abbe Lane, as I said, was under contract to RCA and wasn't allowed to record the cast album, but luckily Eileen Rodgers, who sings Bobo's songs on the recording, is excellent. A show like this doesn't really come to life on the recording, of course; musical comedy depends on the performers, the showgirls, the schtick, the costumes. All the stuff that's gone, basically. But the recording is still well worth getting for a little taste of what a real brash n' bawdy musical comedy sounds like.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two years after the fact, I've just read your blog on OH, CAPTAIN!, and want to tell you that the story of the crook-producer is true. I was once interested in re-mounting the show and went to the Library For the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center for some research. In the show's files, there is at least one newspaper article announcing that the show would be closing because of box-office shenanigans credited to one of the producing team. Obviously, there was no actual indictment in the paper, and it's at least ten years since I read through the files, but there are NY papers with articles to prove the allegations from the Livingston-Evans website. Incidentally, the producer in question only recently passed away (sometime in 2005, possibly early '06), his Times obit saying that he had gone on to other producing credits (I forget exactly what), but that there had been legal problems surrounding his participation in OH, CAPTAIN!