The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Mamma Mia

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Brigadoon

September 8, 1954   MGM   108 minutes
Gene Kelly called it a Scottish Western, but the only “Western” Brigadoon evokes is one where the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye. In the wake of Oklahoma! here’s one of those acknowledged “classics” of the Golden Age and one (if not the best) example of  R&H’s influence. Following a template that could almost be parody, Lerner & Loewe, after some early failures, dove into the R&H style with a vengeance, finding their own true voice. They also engaged Agnes DeMille, who after elevating dance on Bway with R&H, made this her greatest choreographic statement. (Between On the Town & West Side Story no Bway musical had more dancing.) On the surface the show seems to have everything the new lyric musicals aspired to: integrated story, music, dance; a colorful setting with romance and drama. But the charms of Brigadoon have never taken hold of me—even its score I find generously overrated. What it has, and what I believe has obscured critical-thinking about this musical is an overwhelming sense of atmosphere and mystery. Romantics treasure its love story but aside from a fairy tale ambience there’s really no depth beyond the standard boy-meets-girl formula. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the show aspires to a deeper metaphysical statement. Some may find it profound, but to others it’s just rather twee. With Alan Lerner already in the MGM stable (he’d just won himself an Oscar for the screenplay to American in Paris), the studio lavished it’s crack production team on the movie: producer Arthur Freed, fresh off The Bandwagon, and Singin’ in the Rain; master visual director Vincente Minnelli, and the redoubtable Gene Kelly to star. Expectations were higher than usual, and as R&H had yet to transfer any of their revolutionary shows to the screen, this Lerner & Loewe opus could set the standard for quality and fidelity to the new lyric Bway musical. But even with Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound the result proved that atmosphere wasn’t enuf.

My longtime aversion to Brigadoon kept me from viewing this movie until 1991—and not again until now. The show’s appeal doesn’t baffle me, nor does it persuade. Try as I might I just can’t seem to get into it. Still this project has made me an eager student as I approach each movie with fresh excitement—no matter how little or well I know it, or how good or bad my previous judgments. Hey, I’ve been known to change my tune. And so I began Brigadoon with a clean frame of mind, and with genuine hope that I might finally see in it what others love so much.

The opening is inviting enough, tho I wonder who is singing “Brigadoon” to us—the wind? The Minnelli touch is quickly in evidence as the enchanted village awakes and gathers to market in ”MacConnachy Square.” It’s a rousing introduction to place & populace, and I wonder how I could have been so indifferent to it before. Next we meet our heroine, Fiona, (Cyd Charisse, fresh off her first starring role in Bandwagon) as Our Laurey of the Highlands—tho looking none too Celtic. Fiona confesses she’s “Waitin’ for My Dearie.” It’s a standard “wanting” song, quite reminiscent of Oklahoma!’s “Many a New   Day” tho melodically far less engaging. Still, it’s beautifully done, danced in a pristine cottage with a highland view. Soon Tommy & Jeff (Gene Kelly & Van Johnson) arrive in town and are swept up in the wedding euphoria of beaming groom, Charlie Dalrymple. Minnelli uses the widescreen here as a literal proscenium, with rows of tartan-clad Scotsmen jigging “I’ll Go Home to Bonnie Jean.” back & forth across the screen. OK, I’m starting to like this. Gene looks keen in his sporting hat & jacket, and here’s the one place when Van Johnson isn’t a downer—watch how he’s drawn into the number (the only scene he seems to have rehearsed.) This might also be the movie’s choreographic highlight, and maybe that’s the problem. It shouldn’t be. After all we’ve got Cyd Charisse and all that running up and down soundstage hills with Gene Kelly—who also took on the choreographic duties. I’ll even confess to liking their song, “Heather on the Hill” and its lush symphonic arrangement by Conrad Salinger and MGM’s orchestra conducted by Johnny Green. But their dance set against exquisite naturalist paintings of Scottish vistas under moody skies somehow doesn’t feel released under all the artificial restraints. Perhaps it would have been quite different filmed on location, (as is often cited for the film’s failure) but the Highland climate made it too chancy. The studio-painted vistas are mostly transfixing for their artistry and hypnotic to our mood, but the one sort of magic Hlwd artisans could never believably conjure is the feel and look of earth. Some of those hilltops look a bit haggard and too fake, particularly in Kelly’s jubilation cry, “Almost Like Being in Love”—the one famous tune from the show, and a standard to this day. I’ve always been mad for the song. But Kelly struggles with it (the role isn’t in his natural vocal range) and what would seem a perfect fit, falls a bit flat. I really don’t like the tempo here, either—it’s a bit too rushed, too unsyncopated, too old-fashioned. It already feels like a song from another show, giving it a Viennese tilt doesn’t make it cohere with the rest of the score. But I do like the way Minnelli ends the song with Gene high up on the  hill  far  away  from  Van,  and  us.   Wise heads chose to eliminate two other ballads, “There But For You Go I,” & “From This Day On,” which aside from being repetitive and dirge-like, were beyond Kelly’s vocal skill. The other twee love-poem, “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” sung by Charlie to his imminent bride, is actually quite nicely done—but oh, that song! The DVD extras feature all these scenes, and fascinating as they are to watch, justify their excision.

Hugh Fordin reports that Lerner himself changed the story’s leads from singers to dancers, presumably to accommodate Kelly. Kathryn Grayson was originally announced to play Fiona, and we can only be grateful that never came to pass. Then with Kelly on board, Moira Shearer (of The Red Shoes), a genuine Scotswoman was sought, but lost in scheduling conflicts. MGM’s censors let it be known that both songs of the show’s Ado Annie manqué, Meg Brockie were too risqué for the screen. Now of course that seems silly, but the implied promiscuity and loose morality was too much for 1954. The songs were scarcely missed (where “I Cain’t Say No,” and “Adelaide’s Lament” are essential and iconic I can hardly remember the title of “The Love of My Life” let alone its lyrics, or the much-too-similar “My Mother’s Wedding Day.”) With the role of Meg so neutered, MGM cast it with a minor player (Dody Heath), as with most of the rest of the cast. Starlet Elaine Stewart is given outsize billing in proportion to her role as Kelly’s shallow NY fiancé—her springboard to stardom as Princess Fakzia in The Adventures of Hajji Baba. Freed wanted Donald O’Connor for Tommy’s sidekick, Jeff, but it’s not a song & dance role, and wound up on Van Johnson’s resume instead. I feel about Johnson the way many feel about Danny Kaye: vaguely repulsed; and here he’s saddled with a role that doesn’t make him any more endearing; a soulless Irish booze-hound. He even looks the part: puffy-faced and red-eyed. What a strange part, Lerner wrote for this guy. An unabashed alcoholic & irredeemable cynic, he’s meant to contrast Tommy’s exuberance and existential longing. Instead he comes across a bore, lacking tact and curiosity, and subsequently our interest.
Brigadoon is generally considered an original musical rather than an adaptation, but in fact it relies heavily on a German story from 1862 by F.W. Gerstacker called Germelshausen. Arguably, Alan Lerner wove a tale of his own cloth, beginning with a change of locale from Germany to Scotland, but a good dose of the hamlet’s supernatural legend comes directly from Gerstacker’s tale. I have no problem with romantic fantasy, or fables of enchanted utopias—isn’t that in essence what musicals are, anyway? But this one, tho on the surface entrancing, starts to fall apart once any thought is applied to its construct. None of it makes any sense, and the more Lerner explains the “blessing” the more ridiculous it seems upon consideration. The legend is this: in order to preserve the purity of their secluded, “idyllic” village life forever, the town’s aged minister, a Mr. Forsythe,  bargained with God for a miracle: let the villagers awake each new day a hundred years later, so that the outside world has no chance to impact its evils upon it. In exchange God could take him for sacrifice. And so it was thus…

Gerstacker dated his residents back to the 13th Century, but Lerner moved it up to the more “romantic” 18th century (tho kilts were actually banned during the era in question—maybe another reason they had to flee from outside oppression: freedom for all men to hang freely.) And what was Forsythe afraid of? Witches. “Sorcerers who were takin’ the people of Scotland away from the teachings of God and putting the devil in their souls… Horrible, destructive women, I don’t suppose you have such women in your country,” says town elder, Lundie (the only man, apparently, who’s allowed to tell the tale—or maybe just the only one who understands it.). Jeff attests to present day witches, “Only we pronounce it differently.” Lundie admits they weren’t even real witches—just women of influence! Misogyny and Christian dogma are blithely asserted in this fantasy folk tale. Never mind that, what about the arrogance on Forsythe’s part? Surely everyone isn’t thrilled about being trapped in this backwoods hamlet forever. Certainly Harry Beaton (Jud Fry in kilts) isn’t, going so far as to curse the town for being the dimensions of his jail. He ends up dead, too, like Jud Fry, after a wedding. The fascist implications of Forsythe’s “Contract with God,” are not surprising given the story’s German origins—but they seem to have gone unnoticed or unchecked by Lerner.

According to Lundie, “This miracle happened 200 hundred years ago.” But no--not really. Not for him. For him and everyone else in Brigadoon, it began just 48 hours ago. Today is Friday. On Wednesday the “blessing” was cast and Forsythe vanished. “We never saw him again,” says Lundie as if it were long ago. But it’s only been two days! You see the problem? There’s an irrational logic in the town’s perspective, a confusing sense of personal knowledge and temporal experience. Lundie explains that Forsythe told him of his intentions, as if one simply makes deals with God (like Moses), and expects—in advance—that all conditions will be met. And what convoluted conditions: screwy timelines, geographical boundaries, local confinement, caveats for future alien visitors! Why jump a hundred years? Why not ten, or once a year? Why not just vanish into a fog and continue existing in safety? But never mind…

Next morning when the town awakes to Thursday it’s 100 years later. And they know this…how? Because Forsythe didn’t return? That’s hardly proof. And if they believe this magical story wouldn’t they be insatiably curious? But then no one dares stray past the boundary or the town will supposedly die. And since no one shows up till Friday, they’ve simply taken it on faith. For one day. But act as tho they’ve lived thru 200 years, and this is some longstanding tradition. It’s counter-intuitive. And lazy dramaturgy—a fault I often find in Lerner’s scripts, which begin with great ideas and inspired potential but whither from underdeveloped plotlines and overcooked metaphysical pretensions. To me what’s interesting about this story is that Tommy & Jeff’s appearance is the first confirmation they have that there is a miracle. Instead, the townsfolk walk around as if they’ve lived their lives in the “blessing”s shadow. It can’t be a “legend” to them in just 48 hours! It’s barely begun. It can only be a legend to those who stumble upon it, centuries later. And speaking of centuries…for the townsfolk to age a year, over 3 and a half millennia will have passed on earth. If they live an average lifespan, say another 40 years, we’re talking the passage of geological eons. Would the British Isles even still exist? Is this what Lundie means when he says, “Miracles require faith.”? There’s an exquisite setting (On Bway it was perhaps Oliver Smith’s most famous from the show), of an ivy-covered ruin of a cathedral. Is this meant to be Forsythe’s old church, now decayed over two centuries? Yet the rest of the village is intact from yesterday. You could drive a person crazy…

Brigadoon has very little comic relief. Jeff’s acid wit is more cynical and annoying than funny. Bawdy Meg has been erased into a cameo. And upon Tommy’s discovery of the town’s secret and the lengthy exposition that follows (and why wasn’t this told in song?) the film nearly stops dead. The story then shifts   gears   as   twilight falls (oy!) and bagpipes arise (ugh!) and we’re off to Charlie & Jean’s wedding; the scuffle with Harry Beaton; and “The Chase” to stop him from escaping and breaking the “miracle.” Here’s a song we don’t need:
               Run an’ get ‘im!
               Go an’ stop ‘im!
               Run, ye Highland men
               Or ye won’t ken another day!
Written to accommodate another DeMille ballet, it could just as easily be underscoring. It looks far too stagey on the soundstage, with the men running absurdly and suddenly bare-chested thru the Scottish night (channeling their inner Bravehearts). And then, presaging a drunken Dick Cheney, Jeff aims for grouse and kills Harry Beaton—with about as little accountability.

On Bway “The Chase” opened the second act, but the movie guts nearly all the songs that follow—which in truth are rather twee and repetitive. The movie doesn’t gain its footing again until the jarring shift to New York. But Lerner shows a heavy hand with this noisy scene. Tommy returns bewitched, bothered & bewildered (tho not, alas, in song) and Lerner sets the scene in a noisy midtown bar to represent everything negative about Tommy’s universe: pushy fiancée, unethical businessmen, braggarts, immoralists, adulterers, drunks and a now completely soul-less Jeff. Yet even with its dogmatic viewpoint the scene is one of the best; the movie suddenly springs to new life; the staging and camera movement (much as in the future Gigi’s entrance to Maxim’s) are full of detail and character. The sequence is crisp and sharp, and after all the farm-fresh peasant faces, its swell to see a few stylish ones circa Manhattan ’54. Here at last, enters MGM starlet Elaine Stewart, like some debutante contest winner for a walk-on role, to get dumped by Gene Kelly in a bar. She triggers song cues in his memory from certain words: “…house on a hill” (“Heather on the…”); “Let’s go home--“ (“To Bonnie Jean”); “If you think I’ve been waiting—“ (“…for My Dearie,”—tho here’s another dramaturgical misstep—how could Tommy remember something he never saw?

I’m more fascinated by Jeff in this scene. What’s with this guy? In Brigadoon he was nothing but annoying and drunk—not to mention an accidental killer. He barely reacts to anything; not to Tommy’s Tom-Cruise-on-Oprah’s-couch elation; not to the secret of the town’s legend; not to a nubile young lass who throws herself at his feet. He’s a drunk, and a zombie. Back in his element (a noisy midtown bar) he’s first revealed behind some gossipy women, sitting alone at a banquette, sloshed, yet somehow taking in the vapid environment around him. (He’s been drinking so steadily he doesn’t even know what he’s drinking) Lerner attempts to suggest here that Jeff is finally affected, but we haven’t seen the slightest hint of any change in him. The bartender tells him his bill is quite high. “So am I” he trills back, staggering out to his hotel apartment above (an interesting detail of how single men lived in NY at that time). Why on earth would he go back to Scotland at Tommy’s behest, especially believing it’s all in vain? And then, in the end with Tommy crossing back across centuries, where does that leave Jeff? Thanks for the ride, pal. And how the hell is he going to explain Tommy’s disappearance?

Alan Jay Lerner will figure in this narrative more prominently than anyone next to R&H. He was an astute navigator of the post-war zeitgeist and a commercial Midas, striking gold enuf to finance marginal projects and inflate his performance. His gift as a lyricist is beyond reproach (tho Sondheim acutely disagrees.) His record as a librettist is something else: full of good, even great ideas, poorly edited or sloppily assembled, reflective of his notorious behavioral traits: endless    procrastination, with bursts of creative activity, followed by evasion, flight, disappearance; rabid drug use (mostly speed), and an insatiable drive toward courtship & marriage (he had 8 wives—the second was Bway’s Fiona, Marion Bell, whose career never went further). Like his most famous collaborator, Fritz Loewe, Lerner was a high-living, big-spending, globe-trotting bon vivant.  So excuse me if I’m not buying the hokum of romanticism attached to this agrarian village of 1754. At least Shangri-La (to which Brigadoon owes more than passing resemblance) had something transcendental in its cloistered society—a rapturous sense of tranquility. Lost Horizon was about more than crossing timelines to be with your just-met girlfriend (and the consequences of leaving were personal not apocalyptic.) Bway sophisticates trumpeting “the simple life,” smacks of platitudes & phoniness to me. Sure Oklahoma! revels in optimism for a hardscrabble existence, but Hammerstein didn’t espouse that as a lifestyle choice. Maybe that’s where Brigadoon falters; too much artifice. The film is frequently faulted for its use of sets over locations, but I think that’s clouding the issue. 7 Brides for 7 Bros, which preceded it in a smash engagement at Radio City, looks just as artificial in its soundstage Pacific Northwest forests, but that didn’t keep it from getting a Best Picture nomination this same year. Brigadoon opened at the Music Hall on Sept 8th, and was a modest performer. The aforementioned 7 Brides would steal all the musical thunder for MGM this year.

I suspect my first exposure to the show was an October 1966 ABC-TV special with Robert Goulet & Peter Falk as Tommy & Jeff, and Sally Ann Howes as Fiona. In 90 minutes it used more of the score, with less of the book, and inevitably even faker sets. It didn’t hook me into the show, but perhaps gave context to a familiar I Love Lucy episode—a Scottish fantasy, clearly a parody of Brigadoon--with a legend only marginally more preposterous. “I’m in love with the dragon’s dinner,” sings Desi Arnaz in a delightfully silly Hispanic brogue. There’s more humor here than in all of L&L’s Bway operetta.
But after days of being immersed in all things Brigadoon, I’ve come to appreciate the show more than before. I’m haunted by the exquisite visual palette of the studio artisans, and several tunes continue to rattle my brain. I’d be curious to see, as Ethan Mordden has suggested, a thorough rethinking of the show (like Nicholas Hytner’s Carousel in the 90s) for its original claptrap mythology does it no favors. As for the film, in retrospect it’s been said of Minnelli that he wasn’t truly fond of the show. I can’t say that I blame him.

Next Up: Carmen Jones

Report Card:    Brigadoon
Overall Film:    C+
Bway Fidelity:  B-
Songs from Bway:  8
Songs Cut from Bway:  6
New Songs:       None
Standout Numbers: “MacConnachy Square”
               “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean”
               “Heather on the Hill” (by default)
Worst Omission:    “The Sword Dance”
Casting:      Indifferent in supporting roles
Cast from Bway:  Virgina Bosler (Jean)
Standout Cast: Kelly & Charisse (by default)
Sourthumb Cast: Van Johnson
Direction:          Minnelli Uninspired
Choreography:     Watered down DeMille
Ballet:                 C   “The Chase”
Scenic Design:  Moody dioramas, fake hills.
Costumes:          Rustic and subtle
Standout Sets:  Cathedral ruins, Fiona’s cabin
Titles:              Invitation cards on red plaid
Oscar Noms:    3: art direction, costumes, sound

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