Sunday, May 10, 2009

Little Red Hat

I've been listening to the 1999 studio recording of the complete score of 110 in the Shade, probably the best recording in producer John Yap's now-defunct series of studio cast albums. Yap, the head of the British label That's Entertainment, made (with the British musical/operetta conductor John Owen Edwards) two-disc recordings of a bunch of post-1944 musicals, using the original orchestrations and all the incidental music, reprises, etc. He called off the series when the CD market collapsed, and there are a few recordings he made but never released, most notably a recording of Kurt Weill's One Touch Of Venus.

Many of the recordings are more interesting for teaching value than listening value -- that is, they're great learning tools for anyone who is putting on one of these shows and wants to hear all the dance music et al, but many of them sound under-rehearsed and untheatrical. But there are some very valuable recordings in the series, either for individual performances (Alec McCowen in the two-disc My Fair Lady may be the only Higgins who actually sings his songs instead of speaking through them all, and it works amazingly well) or an alternative to the original (his Most Happy Fella is not as well-sung as the original, but it's a good performance and the only place to hear Don Walker's orchestrations in stereo sound).

The 110 In the Shade was the only recording since the original (which is better sung overall, but out of print), and since it includes two principals from the '90s New York City Opera production, it has a more theatrical feel than most of the other recordings in the series, and is far preferable to the re-orchestrated, miscast Audra McDonald revival.

The show itself, an adaptation of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker (Nash adapted the script himself) stands somewhere between classic and cult classic. It was the first Broadway score by the team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, of the Off-Broadway hit The Fantasticks. They were both big fans of the original play, especially, Jones, who first saw it in its original incarnation, as a TV play. (It then became a stage play, a film, and a Broadway musical.) Perhaps because they loved the play so much, most of the songs in 110 In the Shade come directly from Nash's script about a con man who claims he can bring rain to a drought-ridden town -- sort of a meaner Harold Hill -- and a single woman who doubts her own womanliness. Almost every song originates in a line of dialogue or a whole speech from the play. The con man's big speech in The Rainmaker about queen Melisande, whose husband went forth to win a "golden fleece" for her, becomes a song about the exact same thing. Here's the speech from the original:

STARBUCK with a sudden inspiration): Just a minute, Lizzie -- just one little half of a minute! I got the greatest name for you -- the greatest name -- just listen! (Then, like a love lyric) Melisande.

LIZZIE (flatly): I don't like it.

STARBUCK: That's because you don't know anything about her! But when I tell you who she was -- lady, when I tell you who she was!


STARBUCK: She was the most beautiful --! She was the beautiful wife of King Hamlet! -- Ever hear of him?

LIZZIE (giving him rope): Go on! -- go on!

STARBUCK: He was the fella who sailed across the ocean and brought back the Golden Fleece! And you know why he did that? Because Queen Melisande begged him for it! I tell you, that Melisande -- she was so beautiful and her hair was so long and curly -- every time he looked at her he just fell right down and died! And this King Hamlet, he'd do anything for her -- anything she wanted! So when she said: "Hamlet, I got a terrible hankerin' for a soft Golden Fleece," he just naturally sailed right off to find it! And when he came back -- all bleedin' and torn -- he went and laid that Fleece of Gold right down at her pretty white feet! And she took that fur piece and she wrapped it around her pink naked shoulders and she said: "I got the Golden Fleece -- and I'll never be cold no more!" -- Melisande! What a woman! What a name!!

And here's the song from the musical, which is basically the same speech with one addition (a description of how King Hamlet got the Fleece):

Uploaded by carpalton

Sure, the music gives an extra dimension to the scene, but in dramatic terms, it doesn't do much that the nonmusical play didn't. That's a problem with the show that keeps it from completely working, even though the songs themselves are nearly all very good. Some stage adaptations simply musicalize moments that worked perfectly well in dialogue, and this is one of them. And when that happens, the songs often have the feeling of being over-long versions of something that could just as easily be said in dialogue; even if the audience doesn't know the original, they'll sense it. My Fair Lady is a stage adaptation where most of the dialogue is from the play (or the 1938 movie), but most of the songs don't correspond to speeches from the play. It uses song to say things that the play didn't say, because if the play said it effectively, why put it in song at all? But a lot of the songs from 110 In the Shade, as good as they are, have the feel of stage dialogue given a few rhymes and set to music -- because that's what they are. And the problem would have been even worse except that, on the road, the songwriters added two new songs that were not merely transcriptions of a scene from the original play and instead offered something new. The ballad "A Man and a Woman" (giving a key scene a new depth of feeling that it didn't have in the play). And while the comic quartet "Poker Polka" is based on a scene from the play, it gives a much funnier spin on that scene and a different take on the character of Sheriff File.

(In The Rainmaker, part of the scene)
H.C.: How's your poker, File?

FILE: My what?

H.C.: Poker.

FILE: Oh, I don't like poker much.

JIM: You don't?! Don't you like Spit in the Ocean?!

FILE: Not much.

H.C.: We figured to ask you to play some cards.

FILE: I gave up cards a long time ago,

H.C. (stymied): You did, huh?

FILE: M-hm.

Here's one song that is basically a dialogue transcription but does expand a little on the dialogue that it's based on, "Little Red Hat," the eleven o'clock number for the secondary young couple, Jimmy and Snookie (who was played in the original 1963 production by a very young Lesley Ann Warren). Nash's play lends itself so well to musicalization that it even had the then-obligatory secondary comic couple in it. The song is based on Jimmy's story of how he got engaged to Snookie and asserted his independence from his brother Noah:

JIM: We went ridin' -- yep, that's right! We opened that Essex up and we went forty million miles an hour! And then we stopped that car and we got out and we sat down under a great big tree! And we got out and we sat down under a great big tree! And we could look through the branches and see the sky all full of stars -- damn, it was full of stars. And I turned around and I kissed her. I kissed her once, I kissed her a hundred times! And while I was doin' that, I knew I could carry her any where -- right straight to the moon! But all the time, I kept thinkin': ''Noah's gonna come along and he's gonna say 'whoa!' He's gonna say: 'Jim, you're dumb! You're so dumb you ain't got sense enough to say whoa to yourself— so I'm sayin' it for you— Whoa!'" But Noah didn't show up— and I kept right on kissin'. And then somethin' happened. She was cryin' and I was cryin' and I thought any minute now we'll be right up there on the moon. And then— then!— without Noah bein' there— all by my smart little self— I said whoa!

HC: Yippeeeeee!

JIM: Thank you, Pop -- your yippee is accepted.

NOAH: I don't believe a word of it. Why'd she give you the hat?

JIM: For the same reason I give her my elk's tooth! We're engaged!

The song adds a little to this, partly by having Snookie tell the story along with Jimmy, but partly because it very strongly suggests that he was about to rape her until he told himself "whoa!" I suppose the suggestion is unintentional, but by cutting the line where he suggests that it was consensual ("I knew I could carry her anywhere"), and adding the line about "pinnin' her flat," it sounds like an assault scene that is interrupted when the assaulter has second thoughts. Howard Taubman, the theatre critic for the New York Times (and the only critic who didn't like the show), really hated this song and what he thought to be its implications, writing: "This duet is meant to be exuberant and racy; it emerges as a kind of distasteful theme song for vulgar theater suited to a world of debased values."

Not that I think this is actually a song about rape. (Nor, for that matter, is the same authors' song in The Fantasticks that keeps getting into trouble because it uses the word "rape" -- the word is used in the old-fashioned sense, to mean "abduction.") Just that it has some phrases in it whose implications maybe weren't quite thought through. It's still a great number.


Noel said...

A brilliant post, exceedingly valuable to those of us who adapt plays into musicals.

Did you ever notice that the melody to Poker Polka is extremely similar to Sondheim's Miracle Elixer song from the much later Sweeney Todd? Also, his choral song from the much later Sunday in the Park With George, Sunday, uses the same opening vamp as 110's Is It Really Me?

Ted Marcus said...

And did you ever notice how much the melody of "A Man and a Woman" resembles Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head"? Since "110" came first, I can only wonder whether Burt Bacharach ever saw it or heard the recording.

Griff said...

Jaime, while I see what you're saying about the "Melisande" number, I do like the way I recall it ending (I couldn't play the online recording). Starbuck musically addresses Lizzie as "Melisande," and Lizzie, a little doubtfully but determinedly, responds, "Lizzie."

The very pretty "Everything Beautiful Happens at Night" number may not sound terribly impressive on disc, but it worked very well on stage -- all diffused light and color, it's the only time during the production that the temperature seems remotely cool and the world has possibilities other than drought and dread.