Saturday, December 10, 2011

Back Across The Pond

Long before the Internet and the age of globalization, composers and lyricists were tempted by the challenge to create the sounds of a foreign culture. Some succeeded better than others.

In 1976, Stephen Sondheim used the pentatonic scale to create his score for Pacific Overtures.

What may succeed when jumping from one culture (and its dominant musical idiom) to another usually works best over a period of several decades or centuries. Attempts to satirize another culture during contemporary times can lead to territorial resentment and accusations of artistic poaching.

Recently, two Bay area theatre companies presented works by American composers and librettists who tried to capture a certain British aesthetic. One creative team was writing to reflect its time; the other had the luxury of being several centuries safely removed from the story they were attempting to put onstage.

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When Show Boat opened on Broadway on December 27, 1927, it changed the course of the American musical theatre. Based on the popular 1926 novel by Edna Ferber, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (who also directed), Show Boat had plots, subplots, and dealt with the controversial issue of miscegenation. In the following clip from the 1936 film version of Show BoatPaul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel sing "Ah Still Suits Me."

On May 3, 1928, Show Boat opened in London at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane with Paul Robeson repeating his success as Joe. It's interesting to note the presence of two female singers in the cast who would later become jazz legends.  Alberta Hunter played Queenie and  Mabel Mercer appeared in the chorus. To watch a clip of  Irene Dunne (Magnolia), Helen Morgan (Julie), Hattie McDaniel (Queenie), and Paul Robeson (Joe) singing "Can't Help Lovin Dat' Man," click here.

By 1929, Kern was busy in Hollywood but, after Warner Brothers bought out his contract in 1931, he returned to his roots in musical theatre. Following the success of 1931's The Cat and the Fiddle (for which Otto Harbach wrote the book and lyrics) and its transfer to the London stage, Kern reunited with Hammerstein for 1932's Music in the Air before once again collaborating with Harbach on 1933's Roberta.

Kern collaborated once more with Hammerstein on his last show for London audiences: Three Sisters (which received a rather frosty reception from the British press when it opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on April 9, 1934).  The show closed in two months and Kern returned to Hollywood, where he worked on the 1935 film version of Roberta.

Riley Krull (Mary), Brittany Danielle (Dorrie) and Kate Paul (Tiny)
are Three Sisters (Photo by: David Allen)

Like some other composers of opera and musical theatre, (Giocchino Rossini, Jule Styne), Kern was not shy about cannibalizing his own material. With the failure of Three Sisters in London, he took the show's best song, "I Won't Dance," and inserted it into the film of Roberta.

It's important to put this second life for a failed song into perspective. Between 1927 (when Show Boat opened on Broadway) and 1934 (when Three Sisters premiered in London), stock markets had collapsed and the Great Depression gripped the world. Simultaneously, the sudden popularity of talkies (in particular Busby Berkeley's Depression-era movie musicals) meant that there was money to be made by recycling old material.

The result?  "I Won't Dance" became a huge hit for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Another song from Three Sisters ("Lonely Feet") was inserted into the score for the 1935 film adaptation of the Kern-Hammerstein musical, Sweet Adeline (which had opened on Broadway on September 3, 1929, roughly seven weeks before Wall Street crashed).

Since then, academics and musical theatre aficionados have often referred to Three Sisters as one of Kern's "lost musicals." A restored version of the show is currently being performed by 42nd Street Moon, whose Artistic Director, Greg MacKellan, explains that:
"Three Sisters was first presented by 42nd Street Moon, partially restored, as a staged concert in 1995. In addition to its importance in the Kern canon, it also shows Oscar Hammerstein's eagerness to continue the serious, integrated style of musical libretto writing that he had virtually created with Show Boat.  Ferenc Molnar's Liliom had just been revived on Broadway in 1932, and clearly, the relationship of Liliom and Julie influenced Hammerstein as he created Gypsy and Mary. Of course, 11 years later, Hammerstein, with Richard Rodgers, would turn Liliom into the musical Carousel.
Much music and script material has resurfaced since 1995 and we are now presenting as complete a restoration as is possible -- 77 years after the original production.  For me, the chance to return to Three Sisters and put many more of the missing pieces into the puzzle has been a joy. It's required me to operate in my best detective mode, and each new bit of music or dialogue that turned up was an exciting discovery. It's doubtful the show can ever be restored to its original Drury Lane version  -- and if it were, who could afford to produce such an epic?"
Bill Fahrner (George Purvis). Kate Paul (Tiny Barbour),
Danny Cozart (Gypsy Hood), and  Riley Krull (Mary Barbour)
appear in Three Sisters (Photo by: David Allen)

A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts helped MacKellan and his music director, Dave Dobrusky work on 42nd Street Moon's restoration. With MacKellan directing, the dedicated cast did the best it could with material that, set during World War I, was sufficiently distant to seem quaint.

Kern's score includes appealing numbers like "My Beautiful Circus Girl," "You Are Doing Very Well," and "Funny Old House." I especially liked the performances by Kate Paul (Tiny Barbour), Christopher Reber (Eustace Titherly), Michael Kern Cassidy (Sir John Marsden), and Jessica Powell (doubling as Mabel Tatmarsh and Lady Marsden).

Brittany Danielle and Michael Kern Cassidy perform "I Won't Dance"
in 42nd Street Moon's production of Three Sisters
(Photo by: David Allen)

In terms of stageworthiness, 1934's Three Sisters is to Kern & Hammerstein's Show Boat as 1947's Allegro is to Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel. I suppose the larger question to be asked is what everyone involved with the restoration got out of this production.
  • Greg MacKellan got a chance to bury himself in the kind of research he loves while restoring a  1930s musical he personally cherishes.
  • 42nd Street Moon got to present the American premiere of a "lost" Kern-Hammerstein musical.
  • The National Endowment for the Arts was able to bestow a grant on a small regional company which will hopefully encourage 42nd Street Moon's board of directors to continue taking greater risks (I suspect this was one of the least controversial grants the NEA has awarded in the past decade).
  • Bay area musical theatre aficionados got a rare chance to hear some of Kern & Hammerstein's lost songs.
From an audience standpoint, this experience reminded me of what happens when an opera company revives a long-neglected work for a star tenor or soprano who plans to record the opera. Exhuming and resuscitating Three Sisters may have delivered some artistic satisfaction from a historical standpoint but, at this point in time, I'm afraid this musical is much more of an academic/archival curiosity than the kind of long-neglected show that demands to find a new audience.

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When most theatregoers hear the words "Three Sisters," they automatically think of Anton Chekhov's 1901 drama. Few think of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical described above. Fewer still think of the Simon Sisters (whose father was the co-founder of Simon & Schuster, a popular American publisher).
With book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, The Secret Garden is a musical adaptation of the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Currently being revived by Theatreworks down in Palo Alto, it has been lovingly directed by Robert Kelley in an elegant production designed by Joe Ragey.

Although the action begins in Colonial India in 1906, it shifts to England soon after the orphaned Mary Lennox (Angelina Wahler) is discovered to be the only person in her home who has survived a local cholera epidemic. Upon her arrival in Great Britain, she is met by Mrs. Medlock (Leanne Borghesi), the humorless housekeeper for Mary's depressed uncle Archibald Craven (Joe Cassidy), who is still mourning the death of his beautiful wife, Lily (Patricia Noonan).

Expecting to be pampered in England as she was by her family's servants in India, Mary gets a rude awakening when she discovers that her uncle is so deeply depressed that he can barely communicate with her. Left alone in the rambling hallways of Misselthwaite Manor in North Yorkshire, she is befriended by Martha (Courtney Stokes) and her brother, Dickon (Alex Brightman), a talented young man who has a unique ability to communicate with plants and animals.

Angelina Wahler (Mary Lennox) and Courtney Stokes (Martha)
in The Secret Garden (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

After discovering the presence of the sickly young Colin (whose parents were Archibald and Lily Craven), Mary also finds the key to Lily's "secret garden." How Colin regains his health, Mary gains the love of her uncle, and Archibald breaks through his depression is a tale told with ghosts, magic, seeds, and drenched in the lush orchestrations of Simon's score.

Patricia Noonan (Lily Craven) and Andrew Apy (Colin Craven)
in The Secret Garden (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Thanks to William Liberatore's solid musical direction, Simon's music has a delicious, semi-operatic appeal. Although the cast is uniformly strong, Patricia Noonan's sweet lyric soprano and Alex Brightman's charismatic performance stand out above the rest.

Alex Brightman (Dickon) and Angelina Wahler (Mary Lennox)
in The Secret Garden (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Much of the show's visual appeal comes from the combination of Ragey's fluid sets and Pamila Z. Gray's lighting. As Ragey explains:
"I wanted to make it more elusive, transparent. I wanted to make it lighter and airy -- it's about memory and spirits, the music and actors bring that to the forefront -- so I went in a different direction with the sets.  Silk is transparent. It's almost a scrim-like kind of material, but it's much more beautiful than standard scrim. You can see actors moving around behind it. They are seen in a translucent sort of fashion. "
The result is an extremely rich visual experience for the audience that helps to frame The Secret Garden's many moments of mystery, magic, and revelation with a cross between gossamer and a headstrong child's gutsiness.

Performances of The Secret Garden continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre through December 31 (click here to order tickets). If the crassness of the current social, political, and economic climate has you down in the dumps, I can't recommend a lovelier, more charming, experience. This Theatreworks production is a superbly satisfying evening of music theatre.

Noel Anthony (Neville Craven) and Joe Cassidy (Archibald
Craven) stand before a portrait of the late Lucy Craven in
The Secret Garden (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

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