The Fig Leaves Are Falling Will Rise Again
Forty-four years ago this week, The Fig Leaves Are Falling became the first new musical of 1969.
And forty-four years ago this week, The Fig Leaves Are Falling became the first new musical of 1969 to close.
The show, with a book and lyrics by Allan Sherman and music by Albert Hague, is best remembered for two elements. One is Dorothy Loudon, who received a Tony nomination, which isn’t an easy feat when you’re in a four-performance flop.
“She was so spectacular with her eleven o’clock number,” says her castmate Ed Gaynes. “On closing night the audience cheered and applauded so hard and for so long that she actually had to do it again.”
As astonishing as that is, Fig Leaves is arguably better-known as the musical that raffled off a dead chicken late in the show. Talk about second-act trouble! More than one critic said that the show involved more turkey than chicken.
Alas, we won’t have Loudon in the upcoming production of The Fig Leaves Are Falling. But we won’t have the chicken, either. This version, produced and directed by Ben West, is one he’s rewritten, too, with blessings from the late creators’ sons Robert Sherman and Andrew Hague.
It’s not West’s first resuscitation of a troubled failure. Decades after How Now, Dow Jones, originally produced in 1967, and Platinum, first seen in 1978, West rewrote and rearranged those two flops, too. Next week, through his UnsungMusicalsCo. – and with more than a little financial help from producer Roben Dunkin – West will display his Fig Leaves.
“It’s my third George Abbott musical,” West says proudly, citing the esteemed director who was once known as Mr. Broadway. How Now, Dow Jones and Barefoot Boy with Cheek, a 1941 short-runner, were the other two.
If it weren’t How Now, we wouldn’t be seeing Fig Leaves. “After a performance of How Now, I was approached by Elliot Lanes,” says West, citing the Washington, DC theater critic. “He asked me if I’d ever looked into Fig Leaves. I hadn’t even heard of it.”
Soon after West started his research, he was glad for the suggestion. He was able to foist some of the blame on a troubled production. The original director, Jack Klugman – yes, that Jack Klugman whom we lost last month – bailed shortly before rehearsals were to start. The 81-year-old George Abbott was hastily brought in, but even he couldn’t convince third-billed Jules Munshin to stay with the show. Kenneth Kimmins, his understudy, assumed his role. Not bringing in an actor with analogous name value – and letting an understudy take over – usually means the production has already surrendered.
West did find, however, that Sherman had a good idea for a musical. Harry Stone (Barry Nelson) is a hard-working executive who has little time or energy to notice a young woman in his office, one Pookie Chapman (Jenny O’Hara). Although he’s a couple of decades older, she’s attracted to him, which she makes quite clear. Harry resists, for he’s been married a long time to Lillian (Dorothy Loudon) and wants to stay true. But, my, that Pookie is awfully cute ...
A lesser writer would have made Harry immediately cheat. But Sherman instead had Harry go home to Larchmont and tell Lillian that he wants them to take a spontaneous vacation. His goal, which of course he doesn’t state, is that the trip will invigorate a sagging marriage that’s bordering on celibacy for both. Once he’s revitalized, he’ll easily be able to forget about Pookie.
Lillian, however, acts as if Harry’s crazy to even suggest a vacation. She brings up the practicalities: the kids, the dogs, the PTA meeting and all those other suburban responsibilities. She can’t possibly go anywhere now.
Harry can – into Pookie’s arms. He tried his best with Lillian, but given that she spurned him, he now has at least a semi-clear conscience with which to have an affair. But soon after he starts feeling passion if not love, Lillian is feeling guilty that she threw gallons of cold water on his magnanimous gesture. She agrees: “Let’s go somewhere.” Trouble is, Harry already has.
And yet, when a middle-aged man takes up with a much younger “girl,” he’s got to become involved with her youthful concerns, causes and values that don’t speak to him. What’s more, when they go out with her friends, Harry’s always the youngest, which makes him increasingly uncomfortable. Might he have been better off to have accepted Lillian’s apology and offer?
It’s a solid enough premise, but West found scenes involving protest marches and what were then known as “love-ins” as embarrassing. “What I never did find,” he says, “is a script that I could identify as definitive.”
So he’s taken his scissors and gluepot, and has done some juggling – so much so that “Juggling,” once a prominent number in the show, is gone along with four others. West has also added a framework: Charley, Harry’s friend and neighbor (the Munshin/Kimmins role), hosts a television series called The Fig Leaves Are Falling. He made some tiny cosmetic changes, such as getting rid of Pookie’s name because he felt it diminished the character. West renamed her Jenny in honor of Jenny O’Hara, who created her. (He’s retained the name Lillian, although the esteemed Natalie Venetia Belcon is playing her.)
But he’s made some major changes, too. As a result, West knows that there is one contingent to whom his Fig Leaves will never appeal: the purists who aren’t much interested in seeing a flop of yore even if it’s wildly improved. They want to see the show reproduced letter-for-letter and song for song.
“I can absolutely appreciate a differing opinion and would certainly understand the choice not to see our production,” concedes West. “I would also say that I am a traditionalist myself with tremendous respect for the creators of this great art form. I love the classic musical theatre style. Unfortunately, unless one has a video recording, one will never really see what a show was, even with the same material and staging. I’m not saying that’s good or bad,” he stresses. “It’s simply a fact. That said, for a subsequent production to utilize the same material as the original is certainly possible. Is that enough, though?
“My hope is to present the most exciting, fun and entertaining productions that I am able to -- by selecting shows for which I have a deep passion and a specific vision. It is important to me to treat every project as a living, breathing creature such that the artists involved have the freedom to form their own interpretations of the piece without feeling bound by the parameters of what may have worked wonderfully for the original team. The result is hopefully an engaging show that has grown out of and is specific to its participating artists (even if the material is pre-existing and virtually unchanged).
“There are several shows whose material as a whole has ignited a sharp vision for me: Barefoot Boy with Cheek, Skyscraper and Top Banana among them. In these cases, we would be presenting a show whose text is essentially the same as that of the original. In the case of Fig Leaves, however, it was specifically its central story and its stylistic presentational structure that struck me. And so, with the intention of focusing in on the core narrative and further heightening the vaudevillian feel of the piece, I began to adapt the material -- specifically trying to utilize as much of what was originally written (pre-Broadway included) as possible.
“Is our Fig Leaves different from the original production? Yes. And, I would argue, no more or less valid. It’s simply different: an entity on its own, a new production that does not seek to dismiss, undermine or ‘fix’ the original, but rather simply to entertain. Whether or not we succeed, I leave to the audience, critics and historians.
“But I’ll tell you this,” he says, strengthening his jaw. “It’s closer to the original than the recent On a Clear Day was to the original On a Clear Day.”
The Fig Leaves Are Falling plays Jan. 10-26 at The Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th St., New York City. Call (212) 868-4444 or visit SmartTix.com.
— Peter Filichia