Friday, March 23, 2012

Obscure Musicals: DONNYBROOK!

People often complain that too many musicals are based on popular movies. I don't really agree with the complaint -- a movie is, in many ways, more appropriate for musical adaptation than a play. (The biggest argument against adapting a movie used to be that Broadway shows made a lot of their money from starting a bidding war for the movie rights, which you can't do if a movie studio already owns the property. Once movie sales dried up, that argument was no longer compelling.) But however you feel about this practice, it really took off in 1961. That year, two new musicals premiered on Broadway that were based on films less than a decade old (unlike Silk Stockings, which was based on an older film). One of these shows, Carnival! was based on 1953's Lili, and was a hit. This is the other one.

It's based on The Quiet Man, a movie that had many things going for it as a musical property. A romance, a picturesque setting, merry villagers, and a story structure that lends itself to the two-act format of a Broadway musical. It also has some drawbacks that become clearer the closer you look at it: it doesn't have much plot, and what little conflict it has is building to a resolution that is telegraphed far in advance; it's an atmosphere film, a charm film. The musical version was, accordingly, what William Goldman has called a "charm show." Not a big show with gigantic production numbers (like Carnival or the same director's Hello, Dolly!, small stories given a busy production that makes them feel important enough for an evening). A little show with no big stars, that hopefully sends the audience out feeling warm and happy.

The book was written by Robert McEnroe, who wrote a successful Broadway comedy called The Silver Whistle but hadn't had a play produced since then. The score was by Johnny Burke, a great pop lyricist (Bing Crosby's favorite lyricist, of "Swinging on a Star" and much more) here trying to pull a Frank Loesser and write his own music. Adding to the Loeserian feel, two of the actors were from The Most Happy Fella -- Art Lund in the John Wayne role, and Susan Johnson as a widow created for the purposes of the then-obligatory comic subplot. Barry Fitzgerald's part went to Eddie Foy Jr. And the Maureen O'Hara part was taken by Joan Fagan, a dancer who had never created a role on Broadway before; she got her big break during the Philadelphia tryout when the original lead, Kipp Hamilton, was stricken with pneumonia. But when Hamilton recovered, she took over the role; Fagan is on the cast album, though.

This very non-starry cast was in the hands of Jack Cole, a great choreographer doing his first and only shows as director that year (the other was Kean). In other words, a creative team consisting of a lot of people doing things for the first time (writing a musical, directing a musical, writing music).

For a "charm show" to be a hit, it has to be pretty much perfect all the way through and include some real standout performances -- like Bye Bye Birdie the previous season. Donnybrook! apparently was not one of those shows. It received generally good reviews, but that just proves that good reviews don't help a show if they are respectful, unexciting reviews; nothing short of raves will convince people to go see a show with no stars and no big hook. Donnybrook! wasn't the sort of show to get raves, so it closed after 69 performances.

I haven't read the book; people who have read it or seen it say it wasn't very good. Burke's score is another matter. He was an exceptionally skilled lyricist, whose words had an unusual quality that Sammy Cahn described as "lacier and more fragile" than the average pop lyric. Burke was also an alcoholic, and his drinking was apparently what caused both Crosby and his composing partner, Jimmy Van Heusen, to cut him loose in the '50s. (Van Heusen replaced Burke with Cahn, who was more reliable though less individual and interesting.) He had always longed for a successful Broadway show, although his efforts with Van Heusen had been flops. When he took up composing for Donnybrook!, he was only in his 50s, and he claimed to have given up drinking, but he was only three years away from death. Yet the score doesn't sound like the work of an amateur composer, nor the work of a man near to death; there are some dud songs, but there are several songs that are clever, tender and above all, charming. It's a "charm" score.

The charm is apparent in the first song, probably the only one that's had any life outside the show (there's a YouTube video of students performing it). "Sez I" is a type of song that every heroine has been singing almost literally since musicals were invented: she announces that the man for her hasn't come along yet, but when he does, she'll know it right away. How do you make this sub-genre of song interesting again? By casting it not as a ballad, but an energetic up-tempo number punctuated by hand-claps, where the refrain alternates with a contrasting section ("There's an old, old sayin'...") that's almost a separate song in itself.

"Sad Was the Day," the introductory number for the big, beautiful belt voice of Susan Johnson, was one of the songs Stephen Sondheim put on his list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written." I can see why; it seems on the surface like a peppy one-joke comedy song, but everything about it is a little unusual. The music is remarkably tricky, with many changes of rhythm (the trickiness isn't just for its own sake, either; it works dramatically, conveying the subtext of the piece). The lyrics go through just about every rhyme for "died" that you can find in the rhyming dictionary. It manages to tell the story of an entire marriage and a husband who wasn't evil, just a bore to live with. It gives us a complete portrait of the character who sings it even though she never comes out and directly states the point of the song (that she's happier now that she's alone), it has an arc to the story it tells, it incorporates choral commentary -- which has its own subtext, different from the singer's -- and it ends with a perfect little pun: Johnson's "Ah, men!" followed by the chorus's "Amen." It's such a difficult piece that I don't know if anyone but Susan Johnson could have pulled it off, but luckily Burke had Susan Johnson.

As part of the secondary couple, Johnson also got two delightful duets with Eddie Foy: "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny," another example of Burke rhyming more heavily than he usually did (he could rhyme; most good lyricists can; but in his pop lyrics he preferred to keep things as simple as possible), and a song that actually describes itself in the title, "Dee-Lightful is the word."

But here we see a possible problem: apart from the heroine's opening number, most of the songs that come to mind as highlights are charm songs for the secondary comic-relief couple. This would be like if Will and Ado Annie dominated Oklahoma! Where's the big duet for the lead couple? Where are the songs that make us root for their romance? There don't seem to be any. The leads don't have a duet at all, and while Lund gets one nice ballad, "Ellen Roe," his other songs are among the weakest in the show. This song, for example, is deadly; if "Sad Was the Day" is an example of how effective a song can be when people don't sing what they feel, "A Quiet Life" demonstrates why a song should not just summarize the character's situation for us.

Fagan and Hamilton were luckier than Lund; in addition to "Sez I," the heroine gets a lovely ballad in Burke's fragile poetic pop style, "He Makes Me Feel I'm Lovely." The song is a bit weakened by a dull, expository verse, though. (Introductory verses almost separate the Broadway pro from the amateur: the great composers knew how to make them musically interesting, while middling composers wrote verses that make you tap your fingers waiting for the refrain.)

An Encores! revival of Donnybrook! is probably not in the cards, since it does seem to be a fragile, wispy show that might not stand up to the scrutiny of a big concert. But the cast album, with Robert Ginzler's great orchestrations (after his success with Bye Bye Birdie, Ginzler -- formerly a TV arranger and Don Walker's uncredited assistant -- suddenly became one of the busiest orchestrators on Broadway before his own untimely death in 1963), is a fun listen for its charm, its sweetness, and those flashes of the unexpected. Just grit your teeth through some of Lund's material and the title song, which nobody seems to like.

There's never been a CD release or proper digital remaster, but in 2011, after it went out of copyright in some areas, some LP transfers became available to buy digitally; I don't know which of the digital versions is the best, or if there's any difference between them.

No comments: