Theater Shelf: Great Moments in Theater, Marilyn Miller, A Visit To Oz, And Betty Blue Eyes

Empty TheaterTheater Shelf, a recurring feature, reviews recently-released books, CDs and DVDs of interest to theater lovers. Some are popular titles like a new Original Cast Recording, others are works you’ll be intrigued by, but didn’t even know about.

By Brad Hathaway

Books: Great Moments in the Theatre

The sweep of Benedict Nightingale’s “Great Moments in Theatre” covers not decades or centuries, but millennia. As if his pen were a time machine, he takes the reader back as far as ancient Greece’s Dionysus Festival of 458 BC to imagine what it was like to witness the performance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Then he tackles moments up to four years ago with the London production of Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth.

Night by night, performance by performance, Nightingale describes those moments he either wishes he’d witnessed himself or that he did witness and wants to share with his readers as the “Great” ones in theatrical history. Each gets an entry of about two pages, so Nightingale has to make his case in about 750 well chosen words. And well chosen they are, too.

In his piece on the 1904 opening of James Barrie’s Peter Pan, Nightingale says Barrie’s calling his fictional family the Darlings adds to the feeling that the play “demands the attention of the psychiatrist as much as the critic.”

To characterize the extremely convoluted plot of the English comedy Eastward Ho!  which played the Blackfriars Theatre in 1605, he says “it’s an extreme case of nits biting fleas that are nibbling leeches that are bleeding curs.” He also lets us know there is a character in the play who held the title “groom of the close-stool.” He explains in the early seventeenth century “there was indeed a court officer called ‘The Groom of the Stool,’ a man responsible, among other things, for the health of the royal anus.” It is hard to imagine how a playwright could come up with a parody of such a court.

Not all the words he chooses are in general use – at least not yet. I can’t imagine the term he uses for what it was Sweeney Todd did to the customers in his barber’s chair won’t become a well-used cliche with time. It’s just too deliciously precise to say that he “jugulated” them.

Nightingale isn’t above quoting the well-considered words of others, as well. He quotes Clifford Odets’ recollection of the moment the actors noted the audience reaction at the 1935 opening of Waiting for Lefty when the audience was brought to its feet with the chant of “strike! strike! strike!” Said Odets: “the audience became the actors on the stage and the actors became the audience: the proscenium arch disappeared.”

Among his more intriguing choices for “great moment” classification is the 1728 premiere of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera which some consider the first musical (as opposed to opera.) It was surely the first “jukebox musical,” given that its score used traditional tunes popular at the time.

His choices are not entirely predictable, and some seem a bit strange, but with over a hundred entries most theater lovers will find at least 75 with which they agree, and the rest make for an interesting moment or two of contemplation.

For those who don’t recall The Marriage of Figaro was a popular play before it was a Mozartian opera, there is a delectable description of the opening of Beaumarchais’ play at Paris’ Théâtre Français in 1784.

He makes some choices based on the event’s historic rather than theatrical importance. For example, he details the 1849 feud between Shakespearean actors Edwin Forrest and William Macready that resulted in riots in New York, with the police firing into the crowds, killing over two dozen.

The write up of John Galsworthy’s Justice asks the question “How many British plays have had a direct effect on public policy and the law? I can only think of one.” It seems that Winston Churchill saw the show when he was Home Secretary and was moved to push prison reforms through the legislature.

Some of his choices are of performers he wishes he’d seen either at their prime or at the moment they became legendary. These include Shakespeare’s partner and leading actor Richard Burbage, Drury Lane’s David Garrick circa 1742, Sarah Siddons in 1785, Edmund Kean of 1814, and Sarah Bernhardt when she played Hamlet at the Adelphi in 1899. He also talks about the London Lyceum’s Henry Irving whose performance of Leopold Lewis’ The Bells in 1871 I’d never heard of, but which Nightingale makes me share his desire to have witnessed.

I don’t buy all of his judgments, but I find each worthy of contemplation. Instead of The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, Trial by Jury or even Thespis as the Gilbert and Sullivan show offering the greatest moment, he devotes two pages to the debut of Iolanthe at the Savoy, perhaps because of the theater’s unique electronic lighting. In his write up, he devotes only one sentence to the contribution of Sullivan, which may give you an idea of how Nightingale values music in a musical as opposed to the lyrics and book. That view may also explain why the essay on the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is lacking in either a sense of excitement over the impact of that landmark production, or of the drama that would be inherent in having the opportunity to actually attend. After all, it was not a sell out and it would have been possible to simply walk up to the box office at curtain time and purchase a seat at one of the most important events in (at least musical) theater history.

However, he comes to the defense of a much maligned musical show when he describes the magic of Trevor Nunn and John Carid’s production of Schönberg and Boublil’s Les Misérables. Quoting some of the negative statements in the original reviews, he says “Thank God I hadn’t read the original book or maybe I too would have been supercilious and sneery at the expense of a musical the audience itself clearly loved.”

Most of Nightingale’s career was spent as a theater critic in London, he was The Times’ chief theater critic for twenty years. That may explain why most of the “moments” he actually witnessed are from the London stage. However, his choices take us from ancient Greece to such places as Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Dublin, Vienna, Madrid, Chicago, Berlin, Copenhagen and, of course, New York.

The book, then, is a trip not only through history but to far flung theaters and Nightingale is a delightful traveling companion.

Great Moments in the Theatre
by Benedict Nightingale
Paperback – 272 pages
Published by Oberon Books
Distributed by Theatre Communications Group (TCG)
ISBN 978-1-84943-233-7
List price $26.95

Video: The Yellow Brick Road and Beyond

This relatively short (less than an hour) and occasionally interesting documentary deals with, as its subtitle says, “The History of L. Frank Baum’s Classic Books and Movies.” It doesn’t however, deal with them very comprehensively and leaves quite a lot uncovered.

Written and directed by Troy Szebin and narrated with a bit more chipper-ness in his voice than seems necessary given the cliché-loaded text he’s reading, the documentary spends most of its time on the classic movie version with Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and 124 “little people.” Interviews with a few of them provide some entertaining side-stories, as does a brief clip of Garland herself making an appearance on the Jack Parr show where she, perhaps jokingly, referred to them as “little drunks.”

The 50-minute documentary devotes just 22 minutes to events prior to the legendary movie version, and has only eight minutes left when it moves on to sketch subsequent adaptations for television, movies and the stage. Thus, there just isn’t time to relate much beyond the basic information about such vehicles as The Wiz, the 1975 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, and the 2003 Broadway smash that is still going strong, Wicked. Most of that time is taken up with tales of the 1939 film.

Before getting to the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz, however, the documentary provides an interesting mini-bio of the author of the Oz books, L. Frank Baum himself. Sprinkled with photos and film clips, not all of which seem to be related to the point being made and others which beg for identification, there is enough here to give one the basic facts and a feel for the man who created a story which we all know so well.

Many comments from people who have either something to do with the classic movie or credentials the producers felt justified their appearance in the documentary help tell the stories of Baum, the Oz books and the many spinoffs of which the movie was, of course, the most important.

Some of the most interesting facts or observations come from Carlos Larkin who is simply identified as an “Oz Historian.” I don’t know how he earned that appellation. A search for his name of the Library of Congress Online Catalog comes up empty and his website reveals that he is an actor. It doesn’t list any Oz-related activities. Nonetheless, his comments which are sprinkled throughout the film are often insightful. It is Larkin who makes the observation that Baum was “aiming for something a little less horrific and terrifying than the fear-based morality tales that European folklore had given the children.”

Moving rapidly along, the film devotes less than a minute to the first hit musical based on the story, the 1903 The Wizard of Oz, which ran for 293 performances at the old Majestic Theater on Columbus Circle. That musical had a score by Paul Tietjens and A. Baldwin Sloane. Many of the songs were recorded by various artists on piano rolls and music boxes as well as the new-fangled talking machines: wax cylinders and 78s. These have been lovingly tracked down, cleaned up and offered on a two CD set by David Maxine. My copy has the imprimatur of Hungry Tiger Press of San Diego while Amazon is showing it as a release of Original Cast Records with an ASIN: B00009MPYQ. Either way you track it down, it is a great deal more satisfying a visit to the history of Baum’s creation than is the documentary.

The most lengthy section of the documentary does include clips from the famous movie itself, a few photos from the set, photos of the four directors who served on the movie before its final release and some anecdotes about its initial minor success and then its resurrection as a classic due to television exposure. The clips of interviews with some of the “little people” who worked on the movie reveal that there were 124 of them because that is how many showed up for the casting call – everyone of which was hired at $50 a day plus room and board. This contrasted with the pay for the dog playing Toto who got, the interview says, $125 a day.

Legends are retold. These include the cutting of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” after the film’s second preview convinced studio officials that the song slowed down the start of the film too much. The song’s restoration before the release of the movie saved it from oblivion so it could go on to win the Oscar for Outstanding Song from a Movie and become the standard we all know today.

There is also a discussion of the famous ruby slippers. The book originally had them in crystal but, as the movie was to be a Technicolor spectacular, ruby was selected so that the red would show up better. Larkin reports that there were four pairs used in filming. One is on display at the Smithsonian. Two are believed to be in private collections and the fourth pair was stolen from a museum in Kansas and has not been recovered.

The documentary rushes through the subsequent tale of the spin offs of The Wizard of Oz leaving more questions pending than it answers.

Perhaps more interesting to avid collectors or just curiosity seekers is the bonus content of the disc. While the documentary is just 50 minutes, another hour and a half are devoted to a 1925 silent film version of Wizard of Oz staring its director Larry Semon and featuring Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy and, as the Tin Woodsman, none other than Oliver N. Hardy (later just Oliver Hardy when teamed up with Stan Laurel). Backed by classical music that has nothing to do with the scenes on the screen (mostly Vivaldi) the film is actually quite entertaining and interesting since you know the story and can spot the differences between this version and others.

The Yellow Brick Road and Beyond – DVD
Passport Video Catalog PIP-DV-7430
Running time 50 minutes plus 1:30 bonus feature

Audio: Betty Blue Eyes
Original London Cast Recording

This is a disc that may be of more interest intellectually than aesthetically for American fans of musical theatre. It is a classic illustration of a basic truth of the musical theatre – Broadway and London’s West End are more than 3,470 miles away from each other. They span a gap greater than the crow can fly.

Broadway musical comedy owes a great debt to and draws a great deal from the grand American tradition of Vaudeville with its unique blend of native naiveté and highly polished sophistication. The British musical comedy owes just as great a debt and draws just as much from the classic British tradition of the music hall with its unique blend of the raucous and the bawdy.

What works on a stage on one side of the Atlantic doesn’t necessarily work on a stage on the other.

Yes, there are successful transfers. The three longest running shows in Broadway history (The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Les Miséables) all were transfers from the West End. But only one of the top ten long-running shows there came from Broadway.

Many a producer has lost many a pound or dollar simply moving a show from one shore to another. The smart ones make changes when arranging a transfer. Sister Act is very different on Broadway than in London and the London version of Shrek The Musical not only made changes, they tout it with a sign saying “It’s different here.”

So, when a Broadway fan buys an original London cast recording of a purely made-in-England musical, one shouldn’t expect to find that only the accents are a bit different. With the musical Betty Blue Eyes, you need to loosen up your Broadway ears and prepare to go along for a fairly unorthodox ride. If you do, you’ll find lots to enjoy.

This is the musical comedy treatment of the story of a pig raised during England’s post-World War II period of privation and rationing, which was the basis for Alan Bennett’s bizarre screenplay A Private Function. It opened last year to high praise, but closed due to disappointing ticket sales. As a result, it is unlikely to have any thought of a Broadway mounting.

It has a lively, even effervescent score featuring the catchy melodies of George Stiles and the sometimes sly but most often openly clever lyrics of Anthony Drewe.

Stiles and Drewe are represented on Broadway by their eight songs which augment those of the Sherman brothers from the movie in the stage version of Mary Poppins. In smaller theaters all over the US and England their small, charming musical Honk! just has songs by them.

Some of the lyrics might well draw groans from American audiences … but they would be appreciative groans as everyone goes along with the gag at the same time they appreciate the cleverness.

In the song “Steal the Pig” which, as the title blatantly states, is the revelation of a plan to augment the food ration with a purloined pig, he sets out the plan thusly: “We’ll just steal a pig / and I know a smasher / These are rash times / and we need to think … rasher.” (When sung by Reece Shearsmith, you can’t actually hear the ellipses, but Drewe was good enough to include them in the text.)

That’s not Drewe’s only descent into the lexicon of sus domesticus (or the pig family, if you will.) In “Another Little Victory” he describes the expected success of the plan with: “… the hoity-toity will be deeply shaken / when they see that we are bringing home the bacon” and, of course, anyone who has ever been in the vicinity of a pig farm knows just what the song “It’s An Ill Wind” is all about.

While the booklet doesn’t include a detailed synopsis, it is easy to follow the story through the lyrics which are printed in full. This is useful even though the enunciation of the cast is superb.

This recording was made during five live performances at the Novello Theatre in London. Therefore, each number ends with the sound of great applause. Sometimes you understand that the reception is for a fine performance (as in Sarah Lancashire’s selling of the song “Nobody”) while at other times you wonder what all the fuss is about even though almost all of the songs do build to a satisfying climax.

Perhaps the show had a visual excitement that doesn’t make the transition to audio recording. More likely, it is a reflection of the vaudeville/music hall mismatch between a Broadway musical comedy and a British one that accounts for the confusion over here.

At any rate, you can sit back and enjoy orchestrator’s William David Brohn’s use of a featured instrument rarely heard from the orchestra pit on either side of the Atlantic: an accordion. It gives his 10-instrument charts a distinctive flavor. Brohn finds more effects for the accordion that blend with an otherwise big-band sound than you can imagine. For that, the recording would be worth your attention. But throw in the quality score, clearly delivered vocal performances and the sense of pleasure that a live recording can deliver when the audience seems to be having a great time and the artists seem to be responding to the “vibe” in the hall, the recording may show up in your disc player more often than you might expect. It’s not likely to just take up space on your theater shelf.

Betty Blue Eyes
Original London Cast Recording
First Night Records catalog number CASTCD111
Running time 1:12 over 20 tracks
Recorded live in 2011
Packaged with full lyrics, notes and many color photographs
Sold as an import
Price hard copy at Amazon – $27.01
Price as a download from iTunes – $9.99

Marilyn Miller on DVD

DVDs of old movies can serve a variety of purposes. Of course, they can simply offer entertainment, but they can also fill in the blanks in some of our knowledge of theater of the past.

Take, for example, the Warner Archive DVD of the 1929 Hollywood version of the Broadway musical Sally that made a huge book-musical star of Marilyn Miller, moving her up from her perch as a huge star of revues. Combine this with their DVD of her second film, the 1930 movie version of another huge Broadway book-musical hit, Sunny, and you can begin to appreciate her special attraction.

Musical theater historian Gerald Bordman called Miller “the unquestioned queen of Broadway musical comedy in the 1920s.” Her first big breaks came in the nineteen-teens, however. She’d been working vaudeville and touring the world when Lee Shubert caught her act in London and brought her back to the US to light up the stage of New York’s Winter Garden in his The Passing Show of 1914. Florenz Ziegfeld hired her away for his Follies of 1918.

In 1920, Sally, with a score by Jerome Kern, gave her not only book-musical stardom, but a theme song that would be her signature: “Look For The Silver Lining.” Her other big Jerome Kern hit song was “Who,” which she introduced in Sunny in 1925. As the 20s came to an end she found yet another hit with the Gershwin/Romberg Rosalie.

But her last appearance on a Broadway stage came in 1934 at the end of the run of Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer. She died in 1936 at the age of 37 of complications of surgery for a chronic nasal problem. As a result, unless you are well into your eighties, you never had the chance to see her in a live performance.

But you can still see her in performance. On DVD she dances, sings, acts, jests and charms. Her star quality may not have made the transition to the silver screen as completely as some others, but there is enough of a hint of something special in these two films to give you some idea of what the highest paid star on Broadway in the 1920s was like.

Shirley Temple was only 20 months old when the film of Sally opened two days before Christmas in 1929, and she hadn’t yet made her first movie. If she had, the review of Sally might have said that Miller had an almost Shirley Temple like cuteness, but it was combined with a youthful sexuality.

More modern eyes might see it a bit differently, however. Cinematic technique has become more refined. In his NPR feature when these DVDs were released, critic Lloyd Schwartz said “She sings with a trained, almost operatic voice that seems disconnected from her characters’ down to earth speaking voice – a quality more designed for a theater where vocal projection was more important than in films where amplified sound and intimate closeups are more suited to realism than theatrical stylization.”

At the time of filming for these two movies, the “talkies” were a new phenomenon and Hollywood was just starting to figure out how to use the new technology. Al Jolson’s “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in The Jazz Singer sparked the craze of features with sound dialogue and music. That movie really was a silent film with a couple of songs. While Jolson threw in a few spoken lines, most of his “dialogue” was printed out on the screen.

That was only two years before Sally. In those two years, some, but not all of the techniques of using sound as well as picture to tell a story had been developed.

Hollywood was pulling out all the stops to capitalize on the fascination of the public for what became “talkies.” The first big effort was to push into the theaters all the musical movies the studios could come up with. Some were titles already in preparation as silent films but which had sound quickly added. Others were quick-start productions, some drawing from plays popular on Broadway.

Musicals glutted the market, however. Miller’s Sally and Sunny were well timed to hit the streets as the rage was peaking. In his book All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing: A Pictorial History of the Movie Musical, John Springer says that “By mid-1930, people were staying away from them and exhibitors were putting up signs to announce ‘This is not a musical.'” For that reason, Miller’s final film, 1931’s Her Majesty, Love was a “semi-musical” co-staring W. C. Fields.

Both Sally and Sunny tell their stories primarily through dialogue scenes, and Miller shows a good deal of charm as well as acting skill that easily match those of her contemporaries attempting to find the right intensity of emoting for the screen.

Neither story is terribly involving. Both were lightweight fare as book musicals. Intentionally so – that wasn’t a drawback to success, but a path toward it. The screen adaptations make use of these skeletal structures to find places to hang comic bits, photogenic locales and only slightly motivated large dance sequences. All it takes for Miller in Sunny to segue into a dance in an otherwise non-musical sequence is to say “Come on, let’s have some fun.”

And fun is exactly what her dances look like. Whether she’s doing a flat out clog routine in a tap dance, or an on-toe ballet turn, she genuinely looks as if she’s having the time of her life. Perhaps that is what came across the footlights on Broadway as well. These discs help you know what her special magic must have been.

There is also a bio-musical ostensibly about Miller available from Warner Archive, but Look for the Silver Lining, with June Haver as Marilyn Miller, is so fictionalized that it is not a valid representation of either her art or her life. The film leaves out her health problems, her drinking problems and her early death. The musical numbers, staged by LeRoy Prinz, tend to be more “Hollywood” and less “Broadway.” Haver does the dances quite well but her co-star, Ray Bolger, is the more impressive hoofer here.

Look for the Silver Lining bears more relationship to Miller, however, than does the bio-musical of Jerome Kern, MGM’s Till The Clouds Roll By which is available in multiple releases on DVD. It has two numbers and a scene for Marilyn Miller’s character as portrayed by Judy Garland, but it does not appear that Vincent Minnelli attempted to stage Garland’s numbers in Miller’s style. The film, while enjoyable and offering some marvelous production numbers, is even less biographically reliable than Look for the Silver Lining. Anyone who didn’t know better would come away thinking that Kern wrote most if not all of his own lyrics – there is a passing acknowledgment that Oscar Hammerstein II had something to do with some of the words, but there’s nary a mention of Dorothy Fields, Schuyler Green, Otto Harbach, Herbert Reynolds, or P. G. Wodehouse!

Warner Archive Video

Warner Archive Video

Look For The Silver Lining
Warner Archive Video

List Price $26.99 each

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