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: Beauty & the Beast

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Pirates of Penzance

February 18, 1983,  Universal  112 minutes
Only four months after my last visit I was back in New York, staying for the first time in Reno's new loft at 38 N. Moore (a block that would later be famous as the residence of JFK Jr.); where Laura was now living, sub-letting her nun's quarters on Sullivan Street. Reno was hosting a reading of my play, State of the Art (in which there was a part for Laura, playing virtually herself) and invited her friend, Ron Orbach to read the lead character (one based on my id). The very long evening reading was instructive; I had further work to do, but Orbach loved the character and the intent of the play. My own theater-going that April was nearly confined to plays as well: Caryl Churchill's Top Girls; Sam Shepard's True West, Quartermaine's Terms, 'night Mother, You Can't Take it With You with Jason Robards, and the trawling of Liz & Dick in Private Lives. The only musical I saw was Dreamgirls--for the third time. I wish I had caught On Your Toes, then in a much lauded revival, but this only shows how far my heart had strayed from my cultural roots. By then the Bway musical was, with few exceptions, in a sad, steady decline hitting its nadir fully in the '80s. Even Jerry Herman's final hit, La Cage Aux Folles, which I caught on a layover to Rome, was dispiriting in its tired way, its pandering to middle-class values; its G-rated raciness. And yet I still cherished The Golden Age and continued to study it faithfully, if privately.

But I was unable to take interest in anything earlier than Rodgers & Hart. So, no operetta, no Romberg, no Friml, no Victor Herbert, no Offenbach--tho I did kick up my heels to his can-can while still in my crib; so Baba told me. And no Gilbert & Sullivan, who thru my peripheral awareness seemed very twee and not my cup of tea. But I can now envisage a course of study within their nicely contained universe--perhaps I may get to it someday-- but thus far I have been content to remain of slight acquaintance with their oeuvre. More intriguing to me is their promoter, Richard D'Oyly Carte, the Cameron Mackintosh of the 19th Century, whose sheparding of his clients brought not only unparalleled success for G&S's comic operas, but prolonged their repertory for over a hundred years. Tho still done today by amateur groups and dedicated Savoyards, Bway has fairly ignored the G&S catalog since Joseph Papp's '81 
Pirates of Penzance.--which ran a  record two years, longer than any previous G&S production in NY. But instead of further stimulating, what until then had been a rather steady revival rate on The Big Street (tho admittedly many were brief D'Olyly Carte Opera tours), this Pirates, like some happy exclamation point, seemed to be the final word on the subject of Gilbert & Sullivan as far as Bway was concerned. No doubt time will bring forth some new look at their work(s), but for posterity we have the movie, adapted from the stage production; nicely retooled for the cinema.

Still there is that touch of mothballs about the material, if not the presentation. Gilbert's comic libretto parodies narrative tropes of the eighties--the 1880's; "tenderhearted" pirates, orphans and apprenticeship, devotion to God & Queen (Victoria). It isn't just silly, it's awfully creaky and with time grows less timeless like Shakespeare, Mozart or Ibsen, but more like a museum exhibit. Sullivan's score is noted for its absorption of Verdi, Schubert, Gounod, among other influences of the period, but to my ears it's antique, and for lack of any other description: too British. And by that I mean lacking the Jewish & African influences that evolved into the American songbook and the Golden Age of Musical Comedy. Pirates does have a few standards that have permeated the consciousness of even such G&S lunkheads as I. The M-G's patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" is a tongue-twister adapted & parodied so thoroughly (including in 2003's Thoroughly Modern Millie) nearly everyone's had some acquaintance with it. In its flow of sentence and fidelity to rhymes, it's also a distant precursor to rap. The other, and to me a surprise, is the muscular male chorale, "With Cat-like Tread" better known to us layman as "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" which builds into a thrilling show-stopper. Purists took issue with William Elliott's new orchestrations, shaking off the old D'Oyly Carte dust, but they hardly seem transgressive. I'm less enthused about the ballads, which have a decidedly 19th century pace about them, or worse such as "Oh False One, You Have Deceived Me." Wilford Leach does as good a job as possible to have these scenes play on screen, and Graciela Daniele's choreography makes for another highlight with a sort of keystone cops routine for "When a Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment." (Gilbert's song titles are all mouthfuls.) The gamboling maidens' "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain," resists interest; I keep wanting it to turn into Little Mary Sunshine's "Playing Croquet." So many longwinded declarations: "Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast?" "Away, Away, My Heart's On Fire." "Stay, We Must Not Lose Our Senses;" makes No, No, Nanette suddenly seem so thoroughly modern.
There is also a commercially released DVD of the original ("tryout") version filmed during performance at the Delacorte in Central Park in July of 1980. This Joe Papp summertime valentine brought its boatload of stars to Bway the following January. Tho without Patricia Routledge and, alas, Alice Playten, as a featured daughter of the Major-General--a credit on her resume that even many of her most ardent fans either forget,  or  like  myself,
never knew. The production, which opened with the pirate ship ("Tarantula"--great name) sailing onto the stage from behind the theater, was still a bit raw of the polish that director Wilford Leach would give it at the Uris; which he in turn only enhanced on the soundstages of Shepperton Studios in England. The picture starts in an empty theater (the Savoy?), but the curtain rises on an early Universal Pictures logo and there's no further attempt to play the comic opera with any off- or back-stage awareness. While the pirate ship was the primary scenic attraction on stage, it registers less on film than all the other whimsical settings; the mushroom palisades of the seaside; the nocturnal gardens of the Major-Gen's manor; the storybook village square with its Buddah-like Victoria shrine. These perks, and a fresh set of orchestrations tore the cobwebs off the D'Oyly Carte tradition. which itself is kidded with a climatic chase winding up on the local stage in midst of a provincial production of H.M.S. Pinafore.

Leach doesn't go Hlwd with his film casting. He doesn't have to, his Bway cast would do. Julliard alumnus Kevin Kline was just starting his film career (Pirates his second pic after Sophie's Choice.) and  after another five movies including The Big Chill and Cry Freedom he would win an Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda. He first burst upon Bway in John Houseman's Acting Company repertoire, and took the lead in their Robber Bridegroom musical opposite his Julliard girlfriend, Patti Lupone. But it was as the acrobatic b.f. of Madeline Kahn in On the Twentieth Century (for which he won a Tony) that Kline's career took off. He was the nominal Star of Pirates and deservedly took home another Tony. The obvious joy he takes in the role is matched by his finesse--acting, singing and moving spectacularly well, a true triple threat. As stage veterans, both George Rose, as Major-General Stanley, and Tony Azito as Chief of Police, earned Tony noms as well. Rose was a classical & Shakespearean actor until he was tapped to play Hobson's Choice in Walking Happy. Subsequently he had roles in Canterbury Tales, Coco, the '76 revival of My Fair Lady (as Doolittle) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood--the last two winning him Tonys. Here he's at his zany best flitting thru the woods in his cap & nightgown,
"Sighing Softly to the River." Azito was a character dancer who made an impression in Richard Foreman's Lincoln Center Threepenny Opera in '76, expanded that in Chelsea Theater's Happy End in '78, until reaching full flower in Pirates. Like all great eccentric dancers, his style was utterly unique;  his tall & lanky limbs twisting  &  spinning 
like isolated parts of mechanical wind-up toys. Estelle Parsons replaced Routledge for Bway, (and later Kaye Ballard) which tapped into her early days in the chorus of '50s musicals, Happy Hunting and Whoop Up. She soon found drama more to her calling, but after a blazing start in Hlwd in the late '60s (winning an Oscar for Bonnie & Clyde) she never quite forged the film career she deserved, so returned time & again back to the theater--well into her late 80s. For reasons unknown she was replaced in the film by Angela Lansbury--who after 4 Tonys seemed unassailable in any role. But this isn't among her finer moments: she pales next to Routledge, and it's easy to imagine Parsons was better as well. The central lovers are well-known pop stars, Linda Rondstadt and Rex Smith, both of whom prove their worth beyond stunt casting. Rondstadt--unlike virtually  everyone else  in  the  show--doesn't find the humor in her role, which is why some found her a bit bland, but she excels nicely at the vocal requirements. Rex  inbues  Frederic  with  youthful  vigor, 
and if not quite Kline's mastery of comic acting, a good yeoman's effort. They are all rather nice to look at. There is much I found to enjoy in the movie, leaning heavily on the performers and the scenery to get me over the longeurs of the script & score. For Gilbert & Sullivan lovers I couldn't imagine a better outcome. The film opened in limited release--and never went wide--earning a negligible $694,000. Universal could afford the loss with E.T. still raining money. But the next time Gilbert & Sullivan showed up on screens was in Mike Leigh's 1999 biographical comedy about the duo in crisis, Topsy Turvy--an acclaimed art-house movie but an equally modest box- office performer.

The screen Pirates missed the zeitgeist in 1983, and likewise with me, it was quickly forgotten. I rewrote State of the Art and sent it off to regional theaters across the country. The rejection letters trickled back--some boilerplate; a couple of encouraging but non-commital notes, and one that had lasting consequences. Michael Paller was a reader at the Manhattan Theater Club, and as it turned out he liked my play, but wrote to explain why MTC would never do it. We became pen-pals for a few years, penning (typing?) long biographical letters, slowly revealing our inner natures, and eventually on one of my NY jaunts we finally met, and became long-distance friends. With State of the Art  gaining no traction I moved on to my newest project: my first musical comedy libretto. The success of Tommy Tune's My One & Only proved that new shows could be written around old Gershwin tunes. I was mad for Jule Styne, and found in his Comden & Green shows lots of gems that deserved a new platform; and having read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (while in Tahiti--weird but somehow perfect) my thoughts evolved into a musical comedy about the first crew of astronauts--completely fictionalized, with the central lovers being the bachelor test-pilot and a female NASA psychologist. The co-leads being an Alpha Male (not unlike Kline's Pirate King) and his show-biz antsy wife. With songs ramsacked from Do Re Mi, Subways Are for Sleeping, Fade out Fade In. Hallelujah Baby! and Darling of the Day, it played like gangbusters in my mind. The book was fast & loose in the tradition of Abbott's Pajama Game, but the songs were to be the real selling point. Do Re Mi's "Adventure" was the character defining song of the Pilot Hero, with the cynical retort of his suffering wife. Hallelujah's "Talking to Yourself" had the four leads lost in solos while at a White House dinner, amongst the famous. Subway's "I'm Just Taking My Time" had the bachelor astronaut crooning one of Styne's best and most neglected ballads, while floating in a zero gravity  chamber (Flying by Floy). "It's Enough to Make a Girl Get Married" from Styne & Harburg's Darling of the Day, would need a new lyric for the lady doc to declare, "It's Enough to Make a Girl Stay Single"--a jaunty false protestation that felt to me as close as coming to the joy of Pajama Game's "I'm Not at All in Love" as happily possible. And "Not on Your Nellie.," serves as a solid rallying cry after early rocket failures with a salute to American ingenuity: "Not on Your Chevy," Tho a good many of the Comden & Green songs were well-suited unchanged, ("Fireworks," "Comes Once in a Lifetime,: "You Mustn't Be Discouraged" "Make Someone Happy") there were a few that needed entirely new lyrics--something I did not attempt at the time, but would find many years later, to have a rather nice talent for. I called it Give Me the Sky and I saw it as a vehicle for Kevin Kline, Bernadette Peters, & Mandy Patinkin. Returning to NY in May '84, I tried to scare up some interest in my limited connections, but it was beyond anyone's reach.

Frustrated by outsized ambitions, I decided to reach for a more accessible DIY approach: a short film (they win Oscars, you know); this one an idea I had to marry Fellini with Ingmar Berman. Three sisters gather on a beach to scatter the ashes of their mother, a famous Opera diva; in flashbacks each remembers self-defeating moments in Life with Mother. On the shore they encounter a nun, a gypsy and two flighty friends from childhood. A Bergmanesque search for meaning, in Fellini hats, and in the end a bottle washes up on shore with a note inside containing the lyrics to "3 Coins in the Fountain." It was less parody more pure theft, with an infusion of surrealism: Hiroshima Beachparty. But what I had imagined could be accomplished with a rented camera, a deserted beach, and the participation of Laura, Reno & Heddie as the three sisters, turned out to be technically far more complicated than expected, and so after reality set in, I set off to adapting the film into a play.

1983 fed my wanderlust in imagination and reality. Still in thrall of the neon vibe set by One from the Heart, I took TC to Vegas for a quick weekend in February. We stayed at the Riviera, which tho faded wasn't yet eclipsed by the theme park resorts that were built soon after. It was the start of an obsession. Over the next two years, we returned another four times, with friends and alone, sampling the first generation landmarks: Flamingo, Sands, Sahara, Dunes, reawakening my deep resonance with the desert heat & perfumed air, not to mention the mid-century glitz to illiuminate the velvet night sky.

That fall I left my beloved Nob Hill apartment to move in with TC on the bottom floor of a house on Douglass St.--a steep hill above SF's Castro district. The move prompted us both to come out to our parents; tho in my case it seemed less significant than just another brick in the wall of disappointment they had built around me. My father sensed it from an early age, and of course this musical lover & theater major was a dead giveaway, but my mother in her feeble-mindedness (and natural Russian homophobia), was taken by surprise, and later came to believe that all my flaws & failures stemmed from this "condition." Sure, from their perspective it looked scary: this was the era of the Great Plague in SF, so how could they know that TC & I were so far removed from the "gay scene" that we never really knew anyone affected by AIDS --not until years later, and even then very few. As for the Castro (which once sorta scared me) as my neighborhood, tho I was not one for bars, we did enjoy the restaraunts and the grand Castro Theater--with its live organ show before evening movies--quite regularly. We saw The Pirates of Penzance there on March 4th. By then my insatiable quest for new music had spread beyond Bway, and Ellington and the songbook vocalists and '70s rock and '80s new wave and Nino Rota and on and on...when did I have time to listen to all this? Now, thanks to my colleagues at Books Inc. I was introduced to Fela and King Sunny Ade and to what was conveniently called, "World Music," with its hynpnotic Persian, Brazilian, Indian beats. I passionately labored countless hours making adventurous mixed tapes--in varying degrees of brilliance--I was quite good at flow. Feeding the eyes, movies seduced me with far off locales, the rugged beauty of Scotland in Local Hero; the visceral heat of Java in The Year of Living Dangerously; the alluring scenes of life down under in the emerging Australian cinema, among them an irresistible bauble of a rock musical set in a gleaming Sydney, Starstruck., that struck a major chord of yearning in me for terra incognita. My diaries reveal how much I clamored for Rio at the time, but also since I'd stumbled upon an eyecatching cover of Architectual Digest (August '82) of a villa sculpted like clay on the sunkissed shores of Uruguay, reviving a mysterious attraction to this tiny nation tucked between Argentina & Brazil that I first had as a wee lad, intrigued by the idea of a city called Montevideo. It was the year Fellini became an obsession; the breathless audacity of Eight and a Half; the overlooked later films, Roma, City  of  Women; his newest
And the Ship Sails On--which featured in my own travels. For it wasn't Australia, or Rio or Uruguay that I elected to visit that October, it was 2 weeks in Italy, followed by a fortnight in Egypt. One evening just off the Via Veneto, TC & I stumbled onto a movie premiere at the very moment Fellini arrived with his wife, Giulietta Masina, for And the Ship Sails On. (Or, E La Nava Va, as it was titled there--which we saw later in un-subtitled Italian). It was our singular "Roma" moment. Egypt was an even more exotic planet--tho far less stylish, with terrible food. 
But that's another story.
In the '80s I needed a full two weeks or more to get my NY fix, and my next transfusion in May '84 was one of the better ones. For one, it included a side trip to DC to see TC's "Laura," Darcey Rosenblatt, who'd left SF to work the Green lobby. Washington was unlike any city I'd ever seen, and was quite exciting. Back in NY my old crush Gail Pike leant me her apt. on Commerce St.--down from the old Cherry Lane--while she was out of town; a clean, cheery berth in the West Village, mercifully removed from the drama of Laura & Reno in Tribeca. I saw a good amount of theater; the best being Stoppard's The Real Thing, with Jeremy Irons  & Glenn Close, and Lanford Wilson's epic, mammoth-cast Balm in Gilead, which was stolen by a fearless, unknown, Laurie Metcalf as a junkie. I was less taken with Wooster Group's North Atlantic (an East Village deconstruction of South Pacific--sort of), or Arthur Kopit's End of the World; and I just didn't find Noises Off as side-splittingly funny as everyone seemed to think it was. As for my first love, the Bway musical: O wherefore art thou in 1984? In a sorry state by most measure. An opinion not challenged by the three musicals I saw. Baby took three couples thru an unpleasantly clinical story with confessional songs by Maltby & Shire--a team I never thought better than a subpar Kander & Ebb. The latter's score for The Rink was better, but in service of a depressing mother/daughter drama concocted by Terence McNally; saved only by Chita Rivera (finally winning that Tony) & Liza Minnelli (stepping outside her Star mystique). It went down easy enuf at the theater, but the album didn't gain traction on my turntable--in these waning days of the LP. Sondheim's first show since breaking with Hal Prince: Sunday in the Park With George, was the connoisseur's pick --gift-boxed in the tiny Booth Theater like a gem from Tiffany's--manna for his growing cult. And to me another nail in the coffin of the The Golden Age of the American Musical. As far as I was concerned Bway was biding its time, waiting for the next (r)evoltuon. But at this point I could only wonder if I was ever to fall in love with it again.

Next Up: A Chorus Line

Report Card:  The Pirates of Penzance
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity:  A
Songs from Bway:  28
Songs Cut from Bway:  0
Standout Numbers:  "With Cat-like Tread" 
    "I Am a Pirate King" "When a Felon's...."
     "Sighing Softly to the River"
Casting: Mostly from Bway
Standout Cast:  Kevin Kline, Tony Azito
Cast from Bway:  Kline, Rose, Rondstadt, 
               Smith, Azito, most of the ensemble 
Direction: Jolly, mischevious, honorable
Choreography: Graciela Daniele
               doing Jerome Robbins proud
Scenic Design:  Enchanted storybook
Costumes: Uniforms & Victoriana
Titles:  Post overture, newly added,
     non-verbal village scene.
Oscar noms:  None

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