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October 17, 2014


Long before FLOYD COLLINS had its off-Broadway debut and BILLY ELLIOT had its Best Musical Tony-winning run, another musical had already dealt with the world of mines and mining: A TIME FOR SINGING.

It’s one of only five Oscar-winning films to become Broadway musicals, although AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is scheduled and REBECCA is – never mind. But of the five (ALL ABOUT EVE, THE APARTMENT, GRAND HOTEL, ROCKY and, in a manner of speaking, HAMLET), A TIME FOR SINGING, opening on May 21, 1966 was the first.

It was the musical version of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, the 1941 Best Picture, to the horror of cineastes who will always believe that CITIZEN KANE should have taken the prize. (Lord knows how many votes William Randolph Hearst, Kane’s “inspiration,” bought to siphon away an Orson Welles victory.)

A TIME FOR SINGING was one of the most ambitious musicals of its era, and producer Alexander H. Cohen deserves credit for trying something so bold. Those who weren’t around for its Boston tryout, 10 previews or 41 performances will be surprised at the show’s strengths when they attend the Musicals in Mufti presentation at the York Theatre Company from Oct. 25 through Nov. 2.

Some who show up at Citicorp may know much of the score, thanks to the original cast album that was recorded and issued by Warner Brothers. But like FOLLIES (a show to which A TIME FOR SINGING has probably never been compared), the album omitted some songs (four) and greatly truncated others to fit everything onto one long-playing record.

Hey, we were lucky to get it. Back then, only a dozen musicals that had run fewer performances than A TIME FOR SINGING got original Broadway cast albums. Now at York we’ll hear every Gerald Freedman lyric and all of John Morris’ music that made it to Broadway.

Did some eyebrows just go up? “John Morris?” you’re saying. “The same guy who wrote the music for ‘Love Power,’ that Dick Shawn song from the original THE PRODUCERS?” Yup, same guy – but A TIME FOR SINGING shows that Morris, who’ll be 88 this weekend, had a lot more in him than that purposely lousy song.

Hail to him and Freedman for daring to take on the daunting task of musicalizing HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. Few now know Richard Llewellyn’s novel, but it once had quite a pedigree. It was a National Book Award winner in 1939, which prompted Darryl F. Zanuck to pay $300,000 for the film rights. It was money well-spent, for the movie received 10 Oscar nominations – no 1941 film, not even KANE, did better – and was the highest-grossing picture of the year.

So a great deal would be expected from any musical version – especially because many at the time blanched when hearing “They’re making a musical out of THAT?!?!” The setting was a small, soot-covered Wales town in which two important characters are killed in mine accidents and a woman reluctantly marries for money, not love, and lives to regret it.

But a look at the film shows a good deal of music in it. The miners tend to sing on their way to work, as if to bolster their spirits, and to express themselves when times get tough and mere words won’t do. As a line goes in the film, “Singing is in my people as sight is in the eye.”

The big mistake of Cohen’s production was Tessie O’Shea as Beth. She’s the matriarch of the Morgan brood who gave birth to a half-dozen sons (one was played by George Hearn in his Broadway debut) and one daughter (portrayed by Shani Wallis, who had Nancy in OLIVER! in her future, but no more Broadway appearances). O’Shea, known as “Two Ton Tessie,” was a marvelous British musical hall performer who replicated that sound and era in a long medley in 1963’s THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER. Noel Coward’s musicalization of THE SLEEPING PRINCE only lasted 113 performances, making O’Shea the first to win the Best Featured Actress Tony for a musical that had run that short a time.

Take it from someone who saw O’Shea during the Boston tryout, she simply didn’t have – or show – the gravitas of a mother who’s had to raise seven kids on her husband’s and sons’ small salaries. O’Shea was the type who liked to kick her heels even when she was standing still, and she just couldn’t turn off her ebullience for a musical tragedy.

Take a look at Sara Allgood’s Oscar-nominated performance, especially when she’s standing at the site of a very serious mining accident. No one has to tell her that her beloved husband (the Oscar-winning Donald Crisp) has died. She knows, and yet, she shows us that she’s been preparing for this day all her life, knowing that working in the mines often results in this fate. While she was a rock, O’Shea was a pebble.

Similarly speaking, Laurence Naismith, who’d most recently been seen on Broadway as the jolly Kris Kringle in HERE’S LOVE, had too much of a twinkle in his eye to play no-nonsense patriarch “Dada.” One of the themes of the film is that the older generation has a hard time convincing the younger that it has all the right answers. Dada’s five working-age sons believe that they should start a union because the mine owner has ordered a pay cut; Dada forbids it as “socialist nonsense,” and when the lads rebut, he demands to know “Who gave you permission to speak?” They are convinced that father does not know best and move out.

Huw (pronounced “Hugh”) doesn’t, for he’s but a child. Getting a talented lad to play the role must have been a challenge, for Frank Griso, whom director Freedman eventually chose, wasn’t good (as a listen to the cast album will prove). It was his one-and-only Broadway appearance; the same year, he did a made-for-TV movie, and then apparently left the business.

In both the novel and film, Huw is a grown man who narrates and takes us back to his childhood when all the mining and family strife was happening. Why Freedman decided to make David Griffith, the local minister, the narrator of the musical is a question left unanswered. This is a coming-of-age story, and we should see it through the eyes of a child who was forced to grow up in a hurry.

One song that made it to Broadway but not the album is “What a Party!” and deals with Huw’s learning to box so that he can pummel the local bullies. It’s pretty good, and should be an Act One highlight at York.

Not that Minister Griffith is irrelevant to the story. The one Morgan daughter falls in love with him, and sings “Oh, How I Adore Your Name.” (Perhaps that’s because she’s been saddled with the moniker Angharad, and any name looks good after that.)

When she finds that Griffith loves her, too, she sings the one conventional song in an unconventional score, the joyous waltz “When He Looks at Me.” But Angharad has turned the head of the mine owner’s son. Griffith tells her to marry the man, because a minister and social activist can’t provide or give enough of himself to make her happy.

This should have been a song. Maybe it was, and was cut. Many times, Musicals in Mufti have restored excised songs. Perhaps director Michael Montel will find this one and others to surprise us.

What surprised Walter Kerr in 1966 was the abundance of music. His opinion: “A TIME FOR SINGING spends too much of its time singing. Just as a scene threatens to be verbally interesting, they go walloping off into a bleat that neither satisfies the scene nor justifies itself independently. The entertainment has too much drama to be a good musical and too much music to be good drama.”

Kerr’s review might lead us to infer that A TIME FOR SINGING was ahead of its time. The British musical would soon have a policy of “all-music, all-the-time” and wound up with a batch of Tony-winners and l-o-n-g runs that were inconceivable in Kerr’s time. Maybe A TIME FOR SINGING’s time has come. We’ll all see starting next week.

         — Peter Filichia

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