Saturday, March 29, 2008

Obscure Musicals: KEAN

There are very few Broadway musicals that flopped even though they were completely satisfying. In fact, I'd say there haven't been any: if a show flops, it almost always had at least one really serious flaw. But the flawed musicals are often more interesting than many of the hits, which is why I often find myself listening to the flops and thinking about them more often than many of the hit shows.

One flop that was probably more interesting and ambitious than any hit musical of its season was Kean, a 1961 star vehicle for perhaps the greatest male star of the musical theatre, Alfred Drake. Most of the great stars of the musical stage have been women: Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon. Drake didn't do as many shows as they did, but he was one of the few men, perhaps the only one, who was such a strong, larger-than-life personality that he could completely dominate an evening. He also had a larger-than-life persona to match any female superstar's: though he first became famous as the original lead in Oklahoma!, it was in Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet that he really came into his own by developing an unusual, tongue-in-cheek style. He had a good baritone voice, maybe not as good as some of his contemporaries, but he used it as a slightly over-the-top parody of old-fashioned musical theatre singing and performance. It was a tricky act because if he'd taken it even a little too far, he'd have wound up being campy and taking the audience out of the story; he didn't go too far, and the result that he came off as hipper and more self-aware, and more genuinely funny, than any romantic leading man in the history of musicals.

His greatest achievement was Kismet, a show that was tailor-made for his style: it was a tongue-in-cheek, deliberately over-the-top takeoff on operetta where the whole show was just like Alfred Drake himself. It's been said that Drake's performance in Kismet was the musical-comedy equivalent of Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, a one-of-a-kind performance that can't be described and can't be forgotten. After starring and directing in a flop non-musical play, Love Me Little (Drake didn't have as much luck with non-musicals as he did with musicals), he was ready to do another musical. Kean was essentially a self-produced vehicle; the credited producer was Robert Lantz, but Lantz was Drake's agent. Drake brought back many of the people who did Kismet, including songwriters Robert Wright and Chet Forrest; they had mostly specialized in adapting the music of other composers (Borodin in Kismet, most famously) but this time they were given the go-ahead to do a completely original score. And for the book, the production team hired a young and very talented writer, Peter Stone, who would go on to write Charade and 1776.

The source material for Kean was a play by Jean-Paul Sartre based loosely on the life of the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean. As set out in the musical, Kean's problem is, well, existential: he is only "real" when he's acting and he has no idea who he is offstage, no idea whether anything he feels or says is real or fake. He deals with two potential love interests (a woman who dumps him for the Prince Regent and a young aspiring actress who winds up playing Desdemona to his Othello); the climactic scene comes when Kean, forced to make a public apology, "lets Shakespeare apologize for him" by building his apology entirely out of Shakespeare quotes. By doing this he comes to terms with the fact that his identity is inseparable from his acting; "you make me real," he tells his audience.

This is pretty ambitious stuff for a musical, and it was, of course, perfect for Drake, who got to do absolutely everything: comedy, drama, romance, violence, Shakespearian acting and wearing awesome period costumes. It also had a fine production: Jack Cole, the great choreographer who had been a big part of the success of Kismet, directed and choreographed the whole show, bringing big splashy theatrical gestures to every scene, like the opening number, "Penny Plain, Tuppence Colored", where a street vendor walks down the theatre aisle and up onto the stage selling commemorative cards of Kean in his greatest roles.

The biggest flaw of the show, the crippling flaw, is that there was really no one and nothing for the audience to root for. Kean's identity crisis is very ambitious and raises a lot of questions about art and life, but it's not a very theatrical problem: because his problems are mostly internal and philosophical, they can't be clearly stated in song or script. And the problems that can be clearly stated -- romantic problems and so forth -- are not very interesting because they are subordinate to the philosophical problem. And so you had a great star performance in a great-looking show that didn't go much of anywhere.

A subordinate flaw was that Wright and Forrest, as songwriters, were better at writing for Drake than they were at writing genuinely memorable songs. (On their own, I mean; their Kismet songs are great, but most of them owe a big debt to Borodin.) I like the score, but it's not a great one. You can see why Drake wanted them for the show: they write to his strengths, all his strengths, and they are good at expressing some of the more obscure issues of the play in music and lyrics, but their melodies are more functional than memorable. "Sweet Danger," the big love ballad (and the closest the show came to having a hit), is typical: the music is essentially imitation Tchaikovsky, complete with that vaguely Slavic extention of the melody in its fourth phrase, but it does move the plot along and the lyrics are cleverly written to work either as a standard love song or a song of pretend Kean-style love: "We'll be in love, and we won't care."

Another song even more skilfully tailored to Drake's strengths, and almost certainly the best song in the score, is "To Look Upon My Love," where the first refrain is a love song and the second refrain is played for laughs.

But then there are other songs in the score that work theatrically but don't work so well as songs. Like "The Fog and the Grog," a song for Kean and his drinking buddies (including Chris "Mr. Belvedere" Hewett). Some people really like this number and I understand it went over well in the theatre. I find it hard to like, and the wordplay in the lyrics is the stupidest until (and similar to) Sondheim's "the puddle where the poodle did the piddle."

With mixed reviews and no hit songs, the show was always in trouble; it might have run longer on Drake's star power, but his health was not the best at the time, which caused him to start missing a lot of performances. This hurt the show in that it made it harder to make changes and fix it during the tryouts (a lot of changes were made after the Broadway opening, presumbably because by then Drake was in the show more consistently and they could judge how it was working). Anyway, the show closed after a little over 100 performances.

Kean, unfortunately, would be Drake's last original musical, though he did play the Maurice Chevalier part in the Broadway version of Gigi.


Unknown said...

My 1988 musical The Christmas Bride borrows the premise behind To Look Upon My Love, allowing the hero to rhapsodize about his beloved while two lawyers fretfully try to get him to concentrate on his debts. The song then shifts to the romantic rival who sees the same girl in comically opposite terms in split-stage counterpoint.

Anonymous said...

What brought you to blog on Kean? I don't know anyone outside my (retired theater) family who knows the show at all. Many years ago, I looked up the reviews from the NY Times, and your characterization of the show really seems spot-on. I have always loved the score; when I read the book I think I understood its failure. But listening again just today, I cannot help thinking it's salvageable with rewrites. Perhaps if you left behind some of the historical fact and reoriented the plot around the romantic angles
(with the existential crisis revealed later as a possible explanation for his troubles...)

Indeed, Drake was a giant of American theater. I never saw him in person, but have many recordings and his Kiss Me Kate is simply brilliant.