Friday, October 15, 2004

Good Is Better Than Evil, 'Cause It's Nicer

I haven't written an "obscure musicals" post in a while, but while I'm working on that, here's a link to a great essay on a non-obscure musical, Mark Evanier's piece on the Broadway musical version of Li'l Abner. He also has an essay on the movie version, which retained most of the original Broadway cast, and is probably the stagiest movie musical ever made: none of the numbers were re-thought for the screen, so everybody throws out their arms and stands in the middle of the "stage" as though they're still trying to project to the back of the theatre. I find the movie almost unwatchable because it's so static and stagy; if any project ever cried out for Frank Tashlin as director, this was it. Too bad Paramount didn't hire him instead of letting the Broadway personnel create a mummified version of the stage show.

The musical itself is a lot of fun but somehow less good than it ought to be, considering the source material and the excellent score. The authors, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank -- who also directed the movie version -- were veteran comedy writers of the joke-a-minute Bob Hope school, and they filled their script with one-liners and setup/punchline routines: most of the jokes work, but it definitely blunts the social and political satire of Al Capp's strip, and many admirers of the strip were disappointed (including the Daisy Mae, Edie Adams, who expected the show to be much more biting -- and her part to be much more important -- than it turned out). On the other hand, Capp's humor is largely based on an extreme sense of contempt; there's hardly a character he seems to like, because everyone in his world is either a moron like Abner or a venal creep like most of the city folk that Abner meets. So a show that faithfully captured the spirit of Al Capp would probably run about a week.

Finally, here's part of a song that was cut from the show, an Abner song called "It's a Nuisance Havin' You Around." It's a good example of the wonderful lyrical style that Johnny Mercer came up with for the show, fusing his trademark colloquial cleverness with a good approximation of the verbal style of Capp's strip:

It's a nuisance havin' you around,
But ah finds that when you ain't,
It's the usual complaint:
Ah'm as mizzuble as any man can be who ain't a gol-durn saint.
It's a nuisance havin' you so close,
But ah finds that when you go
Ah'm so ornery and low
Ah don't pass the time to folks who stop to pass the time and say "hello."
Although yo' peeves me,
Yo' changes the day to spring.
And when yo' leaves me,
All joy you obliterates.
Ah reiterates:
It's a nuisance havin' you around,
But ah finds when you're away,
It's a mighty gloomy day,
And the moment you return ah'm just as puffed-up as a popinjay.
You can stay.

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