Pipe Dream: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Raunchiest
“You know why Oscar shouldn’t have written that? He’s never been in a whorehouse in his life.”
So said Billy Rose after seeing Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream. Their 1955 musical did include a bordello, a leading lady who ran it and an ingénue who went to work in it.
Whether or not the good Mr. Hammerstein ever visited Polly Adler, only The Starkeeper knows for sure. But next week at Encores! we’ll find out how much Hammerstein rose to the erotic occasion when he wrote the book and lyrics to Pipe Dream -- the shortest-running R&H musical at 246 performances.
It was their only adaptation that failed. Hammerstein borrowed characters that John Steinbeck had first created for his novel Cannery Row and then further explored in Sweet Thursday. (The latter, incidentally, might have been a better title for the musical, given that R&H came up with a nice cakewalk that deserved to be a title tune.)
Can’t be in town to see Pipe Dream? Or can’t wait to see just how low Hammerstein could go? Come – I’ll make it easier for you.
The musical starts at 4:42 a.m., which suggests that people are up late from partying and debauching. Hardly. Doc – we never know his last name – is instead up early working at The Western Biological Laboratory in Monterey, California. (And you thought that Young Frankenstein was the only musical to have a lab setting.)
Lest we think that Doc is solely scientific, Hammerstein establishes in stage directions that his shelves contain “dictionaries, encyclopedias, poetry and plays.” (Nice to know that he subscribed to Fireside Theatre Book Club.)
Right now, Doc is pouring drops of solution from one jar to another, and then examining what he’s got under a microscope. (And you thought that Oklahoma! opened quietly.)
“Hiya, Hazel, baby,” is the Doc’s first line, suggesting that he’s a ladies’ man. Actually, Hazel is a man; he later explains that his mother had so many children, she lost track of names. Their conversation spurs Doc to sing that that it takes “All Kinds of People (to make up a world).”
Then we find that Doc has a randy side, for out of his bedroom comes Millicent “wearing a raincoat of Doc’s,” says Hammerstein’s stage direction, “over, presumably, nothing else.” One could argue that she could have come out in panties and bra. (Hold on. We will see those items later.)
Millicent asks with what he’s working, to which Doc replies, “Starfish. Ova. Sperm.” (And you thought that Let My People Come was the first show to mention sperm.)
We learn that this was a one-night stand, one that Millicent would like to continue for a few more hours. Doc says that he’s too busy working, and introduces her to Hazel. “Hazel. Maybe that explains the whole thing,” she snorts, in what may be the only gay joke that Hammerstein ever wrote.
After Millicent retreats to the bedroom, Hazel indignantly says, “You know what she thinks I am?” to which Doc says, “I got an idea.” But they dare not speak of the love that dare not speak its name.
Mac, a friend, enters with Suzy, a drifter who’d cut her hand while breaking a window in order to steal breakfast. Doc bandages her before he says he’s going to the tide pool. “What’s a tide pool?” Suzy says in a bald cue for a song. Doc delivers it. All three men sing about the “stupid sons of fishes,” which you can assess as Hammerstein’s being clever -- or demure.
Millicent emerges dressed, jealously regards the younger Suzy and doesn’t believe that she came in “to get fixed up.” Suzy, whose personality is awfully close to Jud Fry’s, snarls, “And what did you come in to get fixed up, sister?” When Mac suggests that she needs “a good kick in the pants,” Suzy says that she’s “had plenty of kicks in the pants.” (Laura Osnes, late of Bonnie & Clyde, plays the role at Encores!)
The conversation turns to The Bear Flag Café. Suzy asks if that’s “the place across the street where the lights are still on?” Considering what we’ve seen of this extraordinarily tough cookie, she would have probably called it a cathouse. Dainty, ain’t he, this Mr. Hammerstein?
And yet, don’t blame Ockie for giving the place a name that sounds more like a standard-issue watering hole. Steinbeck came up with it.
Suzy softens when telling Mac that she was reminded on her train trip here that “Everybody’s Got a Home but Me.” Here Hammerstein seems more at home, with images of windows “looking brighter than a Christmas tree.” Near song’s end, she sings, “Won’t there ever be a home for me?”
Yes, in fact -- the place across the street where the lights are still on. It happens when Fauna comes in to get a man’s opinion on moonshine. Hammerstein describes her as “soft-hearted and feels guilty if she doesn’t help somebody who needs help.” (You’ve heard of the prostitute with a heart of gold? Hammerstein gives us a madam with a heart of platinum.)
The original production offered Helen Traubel, an opera star, as Fauna. Interesting that R&H and director Harold Clurman chose a high-brow to play this low-brow. Maybe they wanted to communicate, “Don’t get upset. We don’t want to offer you anything like a real madam.”
Too bad they didn’t hire Elaine Stritch; no one would have doubted that she could run a bordello. To those who say that she wasn’t yet a big enough name, remember that of the six R&H musicals thus far, only two (South Pacific and The King and I) had star power. The others had featured comparative nobodies. And Rodgers had to have been impressed with what Stritch had done in his On Your Toes the previous year.
A listen to the original cast album shows that Traubel wanted to show off Her Beautiful Voice and worried less about character. It’s an easy prediction to make, but Leslie Uggams will be substantially better at Encores!
Fauna tells Suzy, “I’d like to help, but business is off at my place.” Leave it to Hammerstein to create a brothel that isn’t teeming with customers.
Then a cop arrives. Fauna isn’t the issue; Suzy’s breaking and entering with her hand is. He wants Suzy to leave town, and only then does Fauna offer to take the lass in. What would have been more powerful, of course, would have been Suzy’s deciding on her own that she has no choice, and must work there. Fauna may be sorry; Suzy’s dialogue continues to show she’s got a chip on her shoulder as big as the Empire State.
We switch to the townies, who try drinking “gin and bourbon and red wine.” This suggests that they’re not serious drinkers who would know better, but innocents. They do criticize the visiting Ray who’s married, has two kids and works in an office. One man sings, “If you work like a horse till the day you’re dead, you’re a part of a horse -- and it ain’t the head.” One could admire Hammerstein’s play on words, but there are 18 rhymes for “ass” in my rhyming dictionary – and I’m not even including “isinglass.”
Hammerstein also has the townies sing that they’re “as happy as candles that shine on a cake, as gay as the bells on a sleigh.” We’d expect them to be rougher. Two women – Kitty and Sonya – enter, and there’s nothing to say if they’re neighbors or whores. They ask the men to help them with their laundry, and the men do. Hammerstein’s stage direction states that “The dainty lingerie in the wash baskets is tossed around and displayed in amusing fashion by the gang.” (See? I told you we’d eventually run into panties and bras.)
The subplot involves the men trying to convince a Mexican who brought their home that he hasn’t. He’s a happy-go-lucky type who sings that women cause their trouble. Mid-song, Fauna comes in and sings, for whatever reason, “Babalu! Babulu! Babulu!” – a word most associated with the then still-popular Ricky Ricardo. The song’s title? “The Bum’s Opera.” Even here, Hammerstein must aggrandize and avoid slumming.
So is it any surprise that Fauna feels Suzy “is a complete bust” at her new profession and that Doc should “treat her as a lady”? When Doc says he will, that’s when Fauna sings that this is a “Sweet Thursday.”
Not until Scene Seven do we actually get inside The Bear Flag Café. Hammerstein’s stage directions prove Billy Rose right: “It’s a pleasant room with bright flower-littered chintz. On the card table is a Parcheesi board, and Emma and Mabel are playing.”
However, they are awaiting repeat customers: “The most boring bunch of bastards I ever met,” moans Agnes. We can give Hammerstein credit for including “bastards,” but isn’t it interesting that the complaint is that the guys are boring and not kinky?
While Fauna’s occupation is officially a madam, she dabbles in matchmaking. She’ll try to fix Suzy up with Doc. How respectable! Suzy feels unworthy, so Fauna sings – and makes Suzy repeat – “Suzy Is a Good Thing.” And damn if the cranky Suzy isn’t convinced and buys it by song’s end.
So Doc puts on a tie, takes Suzy to a restaurant, and gallantly holds the chair so she can sit down. They’re in love by the end of the scene that ends the act. Hammerstein doesn’t even dare bring up that Doc might be unnerved by Suzy’s recent occupation.
Act Two begins in the Café. Expecting a big number where the girls and their customers are seen cavorting? Forget it: everyone’s “relaxing on the morning after a strenuous night.” That avoids any on-stage scandalous behavior.
When the discussion turns to Doc and Suzy, Mabel says, “I bet they give in to each other.” Is she simply grammatically deficient, not know past tense and mean, “I bet they gave into each other”? Or is she simply making a prediction for the future? We’ll never know, for Hammerstein switches the subject to Christmas cards.
Yeah, as Fauna sings, this is “The Happiest House on the Block,” which she describes as “a little blue heaven” that’s “friendly and foolish and gay.” It’s followed by a discussion of what the theme should be for the next party. “Seventeenth-century Venice?” one asks. “The Court of the Fairy Queen?” wonders another. What they land on is – I swear it – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. By the time Hammerstein divulges that Suzy will be Snow White, many a theatergoer must have slapped his hand to his head in utter frustration. But the whores and townies are excited about “The Party That We’re Gonna Have Tomorrow Night.” Was this Hammerstein’s way of avoiding his showing us a true whorehouse party tonight?
No, the next scene gets us there. And yes, people are actually dressed as “Happys, Sneezys, Dopeys and Grumpys.” How amazing that Hammerstein didn’t have someone wearing a sweater so that he could rub balloons on it prior to sticking the things on the walls.
Well, Doc doesn’t immediately take the bait, so Suzy is crushed. When he sees that, he relents, but it’s too-little-too-late for her. “The scene builds to bedlam,” Hammerstein writes. And what exactly does that mean to him? “The guests bump into each other and start to fight.” Really? Over a little bumping?
Fauna doesn’t stop the fight, because she’s otherwise engaged in soothing – no, not Suzy, but Doc, who “weeps on her motherly bosom.” How sensitive!
The next day, Suzy gets a job as a waitress and moves into an abandoned enormous pipe. (Now you understand the title and the logo!) For a show involving a brothel, Pipe Dream gets awfully high school as Doc resists Suzy who resists him until it’s time for the show to end, when they of course reconcile with no mention of possible recriminations.
All right, Encores! is supposed to be about the music, anyway. And two things must be kept in mind about Hammerstein’s seeming prudery. First, these were the Eisenhower years. Almost a quarter century would pass before we got the much more honest The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which benefitted from a sexual revolution in between.
Secondly, Pipe Dream was apparently more frank when it hit New Haven and Boston, but audiences, especially in the latter famously repressed town, didn’t want anything naughty from R&H. So the team compromised. When that happens, the result is almost always a lesser achievement.
But Rodgers’ music is far more successful. It is melodious, with a strong variety of styles. There’s a nice Latin-flavored number, a couple of reeling waltzes, a nostalgic strut, a stirring march – hmmmm, does this mean that Richard Rodgers spent time in whorehouses? — Peter Filichia