Friday, August 24, 2007

Obscure Musicals: The Grass Harp

One of those flop musicals that is sacred to hard-core Broadway fanatics is The Grass Harp. This is a 1971 musical based on the novel by Truman Capote, about a dotty spinster who runs away from her sister's house and goes to live in a treehouse rather than allow her sister to market her miracle dropsy cure. That's an over-simplified summary, of course, but it gives you an idea of what the story is like: a very delicate, whimsical fable about eccentric people. The musical adaptation, which ran only a week, was further proof that whimsy and delicacy rarely succeed on Broadway.

The book and lyrics were by playwright and poet Kenward Elmslie, who was the significant other of the late, great John LaTouche. His theatre work is similar to LaTouche's in that he tries to create a fusion of high and low -- to bring poetry and highbrow experimentation to Broadway while still keeping that Broadway pizazz. He's not nearly as good a lyricist as LaTouche was, though, and while some of the lyrics for Grass Harp are very beautiful, others are a little clumsy or drab. The music was by Claibe Richardson, who died in 2003.

This 2002 interview with Elmslie gives some background on The Grass Harp, as does this online chat from 2003. It was originally produced in Providence, Rhode Island, with a cast that included Barbara Baxley from She Loves Me and Elaine Stritch as the evangelist Baby Love. For the Broadway production, the show managed to pull together an even better cast including Barbara Cook, Max Showalter (the creepy father from the movie Lord Love a Duck), and the great contralto Carol Brice, who was equally comfortable on Broadway and in the opera house. Celeste Holm, who was originally supposed to play Cook's part, was then cast as Baby Love, but she quit the show out of town because her part was too small, and was replaced with Karen Morrow -- a good thing too, because while Holm was an excellent actress she didn't have enough of a voice for the very difficult music that had been written for the character (more on that later).

With the high-powered singing voices of Cook, Brice and Morrow in the production, it was decided to do the show without amplification; it was the last Broadway musical that didn't use microphones. (Not that everyone agreed with this. Capote's last word of advice to Elmslie after he looked at the show was "Mike it.") Several of the best numbers have the kind of sound you only hear in un-miked musicals: starting soft, building to a big vocal climax, orchestration deliberately thinned out during the vocal portions so the singer can always be heard. Even though some of the music has a contemporary sound -- some of the weaker songs are reminiscent of Burt Bacharach or the music for Company (a show from the previous year) -- much of it is in a very old-school style that feels like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Brice's first song, "If There's Love Enough," is a song of homespun wisdom that's sort of like a Capote-ized version of "Climb Every Mountain," and it's a great song. (Note: to include audio clips in this post I've uploaded the audio files to Daily Motion; click on the embedded video to hear the song, but there's no actual video except a caption identifying the song.)

There were many other superb songs in the piece, including almost all of Cook's numbers; there were also some pretty good comedy songs, like Brice's "Marry With Me (Love, Bill)." Although the show flopped, Elmslie and Richardson arranged with their mutual friend Ben Bagley to record it: to save money, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick went to Europe and recorded the orchestral tracks there (the union rates were lower) and the cast added their vocal tracks back in New York; Bagley released the album on his label Painted Smiles, and it became a cult classic. It was Cook's last Broadway musical; tired of appearing in one cult flop after another, she concentrated on concert performances after that.

Like all flop shows with great songs, the problems were blamed on the book. And it's hard to deny that the story is maybe just too whimsical to be a musical; several other Capote musicals have had the same trouble, finding themselves unable to work up the kind of raw energy that a story needs to sustain a bunch of musical numbers. (Capote's own House of Flowers was one of the great cult flops of the '50s, and a musical version of Breakfast At Tiffany's starring Mary Tyler Moore was such a disaster that it got rewritten by Edward Albee and then closed out of town.) But there was another problem apart from all the whimsy, which is that the audience didn't have a very clear rooting interest. The focus of the musical is on Dolly (Cook), a slightly nutty old maid; her behavior is supposed to be saintly, but it can come off as annoying. And so while "Chain of Love" -- whose opening lines are taken directly from Capote -- is a beautiful song, perfect for Cook's voice, it's one of the few moments in the score or the show that makes us feel any real emotional attachment to the character, and it comes too late in the first act to make us really care about her.

And then there's the problem that often comes up in adaptations of novels: what to do with the narrator? The narrator, and sort of the main character, of The Grass Harp is Collin, the orphaned teenage boy who's been sent to live with the two sisters (the good Dolly and the greedy Verena). But take him out of the novel and he doesn't really do a whole lot. So Collin (Russ Thacker) is a weak presence in the musical and his songs are the worst in the whole show; his first number, "Floozies," is proof of why it's a bad idea to write a peurile number to reflect a character's peurile sentiments. And coming so early in the show -- it's the second number -- "Floozies" may have helped turn people off the whole evening:

Elmslie and Richardson worked on some other projects, including a musical about Lola Montez, but I don't think any of them got to Broadway. (Bagley recorded some songs from Lola on Painted Smiles, and released a few of them as bonus tracks on a CD of The Grass Harp.) Elmslie has concentrated mostly on his poetry, but to many people he'll always be best known for that handful of great songs from The Grass Harp, and for creating one of the last showcases for great old-school un-amplified Broadway singing. Including one of the longest "belt" numbers in musical theatre history, "Baby Love's Miracle Show" -- a number that lasts a full twelve minutes and where Karen Morrow hardly ever gets a break from singing. It's also, of course, a number in the great Broadway tradition of fake gospel numbers, starting with "Blow Gabriel Blow" and going through "The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul" and "Brotherhood of Man" and many others.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, well presented and thoughtful.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. I was looking for more on this show and found this site:

...which shows a song order that says "Floozies" was towards the middle, with "This One Day" coming second. Then I looked and saw that "Floozies" was second on the cast album. Any chance they reordered the songs for the album? I agree that "Floozies" is a poor song, poor enough that I can't imagine it coming that early in the show.

Jaime J. Weinman said...
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