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 February 22, 2013

How Donnybrook! Improves The Quiet Man

A movie becomes a Broadway musical? While we think of this as a recent phenomenon, Donnybrook! proves it isn't. Its source, The Quiet Man, hit film screens on Sept. 14, 1952. Fewer than nine years passed before its Broadway musical opened on May 18, 1961 -- and closed after two months.

Johnny Burke's excellent Irish-tinged score was preserved on one of the few cast albums that hasn't made it to CD (a legal one, anyway). Decca Broadway would like to release it, but the original contracts can't be located. Maybe we'll get an album from the revised Donnybrook! now on tap at Irish Repertory Theatre.

True, it wouldn’t quite be the same. This revisal offers three pop songs for which Burke set lyrics to Jimmy Van Heusen melodies. Donnybrook! fans will also notice the omission of “The Day the Snow Is Meltin’,” “A Toast to the Bride,” “Mr. Flynn,” “Wisha-Wurra” and “Ellen Roe.”

There was a specific reason why that last one was dropped: Ellen Roe was the new name that bookwriter Robert E. McEnroe gave the full-blooded Mary Kate from the much-acclaimed film. Here, director Charlotte Moore and her uncredited adaptor (Moore herself?) have returned to Mary Kate’s original name.

Whether the original book or the revised one made some other changes is unclear. What is Irish crystal-clear, however, is that The Quiet Man has in some ways been markedly improved.

This is a minority opinion. The Quiet Man gets four stars in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, but I feel the film is atrocious in what it says. Donnybrook! does a nice of ameliorating many of its flaws, although it doesn’t totally obliterate them.

The Quiet Man’s title character is Sean Thornton (John Wayne), who’s come to Ireland where he was born before his family whisked him off to Pittsburgh. Now he’s returned and, for sentiment’s sake, wants to buy the house in which he was born. It now belongs to the Widow Tillane, and Will Danagher has been coveting it. When Sean outbids him, he’s furious.

Complicating matters is that Mary Kate is Will’s sister, and she and Sean fall in love at first sight. But this is 1920, when an older brother held power and sway over a mere sister. “And without her brother's consent,” says professional matchmaker Michaeleen Flynn, “she would not and could not marry."

Flynn, ever anxious for a commission, decides to get Will to marry Mrs. Tillane. He says that’s what she wants – Lie #1 – but she doesn’t want to move into a house with another woman: Lie #2. If Will allowed Mary Kate to marry, then Tillane would agree. Trouble is, Mary Kate wants no one but Sean.

That Will sanctions the relationship doesn’t end Sean’s frustrations, for in ‘20s Ireland, a courtship must be chaperoned. (Flynn takes the job.) Sean is irritated by the custom, and Mary Kate’s self-proclaimed "fearful temper" makes her angry that he's angry. When Flynn observes, "Is this a courtin' or a donnybrook?" one can imagine Burke and McEnroe screening the film and having one of them jump out of his chair and scream "There's our title!"

Can you imagine John Wayne under the thumb of a chaperone? He manages to escape with Mary Kate on a bicycle built for two. (How symbolic!) At the end of the ride, she looks moonily at him and removes her bonnet. Here's her hat, Thornton: she's staying where she's at, Thornton.

They go to the local pub to see her brother. After he agrees to Sean and Mary Kate’s marriage, Mrs. Tillane turns him down in no uncertain terms. The humiliation unleashes Will’s displaced hostility and he refuses to release her immense dowry -- and slugs Thornton to boot. A flashback now informs us that Thornton was a boxer who killed a man in the ring. He then vowed never to fight again.

Mary Kate, however, assumes he's too cowardly to fight. This could all be cleared up if Thornton simply told her what had happened in his last fight, but you know "real" men; they're taciturn. (So taciturn, in fact, that up until now, much more than halfway through the film, we never knew what Sean had done for a living.)

And "real" women, according to Ireland’s value system, must provide a dowry when married. As independent as we’ve seen Mary Kate to be, she still could be the author of "Why Do I Think I'm Nothing without a Dowry?"

Between the dowry and cowardice issue, Mary Kate refuses to sleep with Sean. "What manner of man have I married?" she asks her other brother. "A better one than you know," he says tersely. She tries to see it his way, but soon comes to the conclusion that "I love him too much to be living with a man I'm ashamed of."

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but The Quiet Man thinks it does. Mary Kate decides to leave Sean, and he gets to the train just in time to pull her off – before lit-er-al-ly pulling her through the meadows and fields. Even after Mary Kate loses a shoe, Sean keeps dragging her by the arm while Victor Young's light-hearted background music suggests that this is all in good fun.

It most certainly isn’t.

Virtually the whole village follows because this type of disgrace is what passes for entertainment in a backward village. Why don't they all go to the Abbey Theatre instead?

Eventually Sean and Will fight, and to prove that such donnybrooks are in Irish blood, even the parish priest makes no effort to stop it but instead relishes the contest. Then, after Sean and Will have beaten the other to a pulp, each comes to respect the other. Now that they've passed this physical test, they're automatically the best of friends because, once again, "real" men immediately forget past grievances, for having any hard feelings is unmanly. Will also marries Mrs. Tillane for good measure.

Donnybrook! first gets us interested not in The Quiet Man, but with The Verbal Woman. Yes, it’s a chemical reaction, that's all, when she and Sean (now surnamed Enright) first lock eyes at the train station, But once she’s back home with Will and his drinking buddies, she sings “Sez I,” one of the best numbers you’ve never heard.

Here Mary Kate makes plain that where romance is concerned, “If it isn’t everything, it’s nothing.” We like her for it. Afterward, Moore has wisely inserted “When Is Sometime?” the first Burke-Van Heusen interpolation. It makes Mary Kate wonder when Mr. Right will come along. Smart: after a strong female character sings a feisty song in front of company, we like to see what she really thinks when she’s alone. This introspective song shows us that she’s vulnerable.

A more significant improvement comes when the parish priest tells Sean, “I hear you’re a boxer.” Sean admits to it but says no more. Later he hints to Mary Kate about his past, but "Something happened" is all he’ll say. He won’t even clear up Mary Kate’s misperception that he’d been beaten. "The will and the courage will come back to you," she says tenderly.

Now the other Burke-Van Heusen standards come in. Mary Kate tells her friends about love: “It Could Happen to You,” she sings, but the melody is much too American to sound right. “He Makes Me Feel I’m Lovely” -- a song from the original score that Moore saves for later and has Mary Kate sing straight out to us -- would be better used here.

Sean then sings “But Beautiful,” which also sounds American -- but so is Sean, so this one passes muster. Better still, the song allows Mary Kate to see the poetic side of his nature. More than good looks win her over.

Time comes for that second-couple-subplot that invaded many a midcentury musical. Flynn here too tells Will that the Widow Kathy Carey (as she’s been newly surnamed) is interested – but Flynn then goes to Kathy and she assumes he’s there for her. When she learns he’s pitching Will instead of woo, she’s furious. This gives her more reason to turn down Will when he proposes. And while Flynn in the film has no remorse about his lies, Flynn in the musical feels terrible about his fabrications.

That Flynn and Kathy wind up together – and not she and Will -- is more satisfying. We want them to as soon as we hear them sing, “I Wouldn’t Bet One Penny,” one of the best charm songs that you’ve never heard, either.

All right, Sean still prevents Mary Kate from leaving, but at least choreographer Barry McNabb softens the abduction by making it a comic ballet. As for the fight between Sean and Will, it’s much abbreviated from the film. And while this is an Irish show, Moore observes the tenets of ancient Greek tragedy and keeps much of the fighting off-stage.

But the best improvement has Esme, a local lass, teach Mary Kate to rethink her priorities about men and fighting. Out of this mouth of this babe comes the changing values that the next generation will bring (a la Chulalongkorn in The King and I).

As Sean, James Barbour adds a great deal of humor, a quality that Wayne didn’t often display. Jenny Powers does a fine job of showing Mary Kate’s surface strength and inner fears. Kathy Fitzgerald is a lusty delight as Widow Carey, and Sam Cohen brings in the brogue and plenty of charm.

So is Donnybrook! ripe for a major revival? No – we’re still talking about a show that insists a man isn’t a man until he wins a physical fight. Still, Moore and the Irish Repertory Theatre make it more entertaining and less offensive than it has any right and expectation to be.

         — Peter Filichia


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