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 February 8, 2013

Two Flops Get a Second Chance

On Feb. 17, 1983, I returned to New York from a two-week business trip and met my girlfriend at the O’Neill, where a friend had arranged comps for a preview of a new play. It started out terribly and devolved, so, between the play’s 11th and 12th minute, both of us figured that we had, as Phyllis Newman and Donald O’Connor deliciously sang in Olympus 7-0000, “better things to do.”

I’ve since said that if I’d have known that Moose Murders was fated to become one of Broadway’s most infamous failures, I would have stayed. But now, thanks to The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, Linda and I would get a second chance.

This time, Linda waited until intermission to leave – “although,” she told me, “I knew after 14 intelligence-insulting seconds that I’d be in the night air as soon as I could.” I, however, stayed, although I knew that I wasn’t seeing the Moose Murders that had played the O’Neill. “Shamelessly revised,” boasted the title page.

Who knows which version was the “better” one? Playwright Arthur Bicknell doesn’t seem to know if he’s written a light comedy, farce or parody of a murder mystery. What is certain is that he thinks that the physically challenged are fun to watch, for a quadriplegic and a blind man are the butt of many jokes.
The biggest surprise? The music heard on the sound system before the lights came up for Act One was – I swear it – “Greenwillow Walk” from Frank Loesser’s first flop. And speaking of Loesser, that brings us to his second flop: Pleasures and Palaces, which I saw twice at the estimable Lyric Stage in Irving, Texas two weeks ago.

It’s the story of Potemkin, the 18th century Russian military leader who was Empress Catherine the Great’s lover. “I’ll marry her and rule her,” he says.

But in 1788, Catherine lost faith that Potemkin could win the Russo-Turkish War, so she imported American Navy founder John Paul Jones to do it for her. Potemkin didn’t expect to have a rival (and there’s nothing in the show about a horse’s already being one).

Here’s one of Broadway’s great ironies: Sam Spewack’s Once upon a Russian , the play on which P&P was based, opened and closed on Feb. 17, 1961 -- and yet, that one-performance run was greater than P&P could amass on Broadway; it closed in Detroit.

When I was writing The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, people kept saying to me, “Well, Kelly for 1964-1965, right?” No: Kelly at least made it to the Broadhurst for a night. Besides, expectations were higher for P&P; Kelly had no one with the pedigree of bookwriter Spewack, the co-writer of Kiss Me, Kate and Boy Meets Girl (which closed as the 11th longest-running play in Broadway history); the composer-lyricist of Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed; and Bob Fosse as director-choreographer.

Frankly, Once upon a Russian is better than Pleasures and Palaces. Both properties have a fourth-wall Catherine sailing down a river to see the excellent new village that Potemkin has built. Because he’s only constructed the facades of the houses, he hopes that distance will keep the Empress from discovering his chicanery. In the musical he gets away with it for quite some time; in the play, she immediately sees through him.

Alas, P&P too often makes Catherine naïve if not stupid. “My Lover Is a Scoundrel,” she proudly proclaims. Yes, many women are attracted to bad boys, but you’d think an Empress wouldn’t revel in it, or reveal her mental myopia to her ladies-in-waiting.

By Act Two, after Potemkin has slept with the first attractive woman who’d come along, Catherine sings that “(I Am) Truly Loved” by him. In the play, she’d already dumped him five years earlier and had sent him into exile. Why is she so clueless here?

Banishing Potemkin must have been the original plan for the musical, too, given that it was originally called Ex-Lover. (Terrible title, no?) Perhaps Loesser, who joined Spewack as co-librettist, felt that a love story was essential.

Jones has the potential for one. Potemkin gets him drunk and puts him in bed with the free-wheeling Sura, all in hopes that Catherine will discover the two. However, Jones is too drunk even if he’d wanted to perform. Still, when he awakes, you’d think he’d actually had sex from his aghast overreaction. “I’m a Presbyterian!” he moans. “We know there is sin within us and we fight it.”

Sura, on the other hand, is amoral; she shot her husband “because I don’t believe in divorce.” (In the play, Potemkin did the shooting.) After Sura admits to lying and betraying people, this hottie gets haughty and defends herself by stating, “I have never committed politics.”

Now that Sura has met Mr. Jones, she admires him for his religious beliefs and is converted with far more success than those who try conversion therapy. We’re to laugh at her wishy-washiness, especially after she proclaims that she wants to become a “Presbyterian nun” – a big change from when she went “to finishing school -- where I finished off my teachers.”

Sura’s change-of-mind lasts until late in the second act, when she suddenly switches gears (“Whatever possessed me to become a nun?”) to say that she loves sables, caviar, pleasures and palaces – just long enough to get in a jaunty title song where she drags a mink on the floor. Song done, Sura soon reverts to Presbyterianism again (before abandoning it yet again).

Eventually we see the musical’s worst scene to which the play never stooped: Potemkin agrees to surrender to the Turks, but once they arrive, he says he wants them to surrender; if they do, he promises that a year later, he’ll then surrender; this way, they’ll both look good to their leaders. And the Turks agree. Can you remotely believe this?

Catherine eventually sees Potemkin for the stinker he is, and sentences him to death. Wouldn’t you know that he escapes and some poor sucker is executed in his place? As for Jones, he decides to help Sura: “I am an American. She shall have my aid whether she needs it or not.”

What the show really wants to do is detail the differences between the two cultures – as did a musical 10 years before P&P: Silk Stockings. That musical version of Ninotchka was the perfect ‘50s musical, because it showed new Communism as life-restricting and the American Way of Life as fun-filled and free.

The Cold War was still waging in early 1965, so Spewack and Loesser undoubtedly thought there’d be room for another musical that said “Americans, good; Russians, bad.” They overdid it by making Jones, a supporting character, too straight an arrow and Potemkin, except for a few tiny Act Two minutes, a lying, treacherous villain.

Not counting the rarely aired Señor Discretion Himself, which I haven’t heard, this is easily Loesser’s least impressive score. The Russian milieu demands much militaristic, grandiose and imperious music that isn’t much fun. Sura and Jones have a nice song when she proclaims that he is “Thunder and Lightning,” and the title song has its assets, too. But Russian music is natively heavy, and the mock-heroic melodies and stately foot-stomping stuff eventually bore. There’s only one knockout: “Ah, to Be Home Again,” sung by Jones after he’s incarcerated by Potemkin. (You know how those Soviets loved to detain Americans.)

But in the Cold War era, why write a musical in which the Russian emerges as more successful than the American? Silk Stockings was smart enough to do the reverse. Americans in the ‘60s couldn’t be expected to root for a rogue, however so-called “loveable,” considering that he represented the enemy.

Still, in terms of appeal and star power, Christopher Carl was a terrific Potemkin despite the roadblocks. Danielle Estes made Sura into a cute cupcake, while Luann Aronson gave Catherine more dignity than the writers bestowed.
As Jones, Bryant Martin did exquisitely by the role and by “Ah, to Be Home Again.” Too bad that he embarrassed himself in the press by saying that his religious beliefs prevented him from kissing a man on the lips. As if it were an erotic kiss! All that Potemkin was interested in giving was one of those “You-I-like” kisses to point out that Russians are natively free with their emotions while Americans are naturally uptight. (Think of Casablanca after Rick allows the Bulgarian refugee to win at roulette; his employee Sacha is so pleased that he quickly kisses him – prompting Rick to growl, “Go away, you crazy Russian.” That’s all it was.)

Lyric Stage’s presentation was advertised as “a concert.” You’re thinking black binders on music stands with actors looking down to read, occasionally getting lost, smiling in embarrassment and getting indulgent chuckles and applause from the crowd. Hardly. In a mere two and a half weeks, director-choreographer Ann Nieman got 44 performers off-book, blocked them, choreographed them, and gave a veritable production that was letter-perfect at its first performance.

So with all those actors to pay, Lyric scrimped on the orchestra, right? Nope: there were forty in the pit, which was raised during “Barabanchik,” the song in which Potemkin claimed victory. The audience applauded the technological rise more than the song.

Give Lyric’s founding producer Steven Jones immense credit not only for providing the large cast and orchestra, but also for letting us see and hear, for better or worse, the musical that Detroit witnessed on closing night, April 10, 1965. “That’s what we always do,” Jones says. “We make no changes but instead do the show the authors wrote.”

Thus, because of Lyric’s faithfulness, no one could say “Well, the show probably was better before they started dicking around with it,” as we say at so many other theaters that revive forgotten musicals. This is precisely what Pleasures and Palaces was. It may not have pleased the average theatergoer, but it certainly was mandatory viewing for the musical theater enthusiast.

         — Peter Filichia


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