Clearing Up Clear Day
It was the biggest disappointment of the 1965-1966 season. And many believe that the heavily rewritten On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is the biggest disappointment of the 2011-2012 season.
Not I. The new Clear Day is hardly perfect, but in many ways it improves Alan Jay Lerner’s troubled original script.
(There was never anything wrong with his lyrics or Burton Lane’s music. We even get more of each, thanks to interpolations from two Lerner-Lane films.)
Originally, psychiatrist Mark Bruckner put Daisy Gamble under hypnosis and discovered that she had been the elegant (and British) Melinda Welles in the 18th century. He fell in love with her, not Daisy. But Mark had little to do all night but react (and sing some glorious songs).
Here, Mark has more to play. Bookwriter Peter Parnell has smartly made him a widower who, years later, hasn’t been able to get over the death of his beloved wife. Oh, he’s tried dating, but in each case finds that “She Isn’t You.”
Originally, this beautiful song was sung by Edward Montcrieff, whom Daisy loved. When she caught him bedding another woman, he sang “She Wasn’t You” as an apologetic way of getting out of a sticky situation. Indeed, Melinda later told us that once they married, Edward was again unfaithful. So in the new production, Mark’s song deals with emotionally potent genuine grief – which is much stronger than Edward’s insincere seduction.
Frankly, the change makes commercial sense, too. The grieving widower who, try as he might, cannot get over his wife will be liked by straight women – a/k/a the majority of the theatergoing audience. The same theme worked well for the smash hit film Ghost (which may soon turn out to be a smash-hit Broadway musical, too).
Straight women will also relate to Parnell’s new character, Dr. Sharone Stein. She’s not only Mark’s colleague, but also his best female friend who loves him from afar. Plenty of women have been in that unlucky platonic position, too.
Another improvement: Mark has just got a big promotion in the institute, but no sooner has that happened than he’s spouting reincarnation theories. Now the boss who’d promoted him thinks that he’s made a severe mistake. The idea of a rising comet disintegrating is a dramatic addition to the script.
But the show’s most controversial change, of course, is Parnell’s turning Daisy into David Gamble (the able David Turner). He’s a young gay who isn’t ready to commit to Warren, his doting beau. David is also having trouble giving up what bothers Warren most: smoking.
(By the way, when Daisy told us that she smoked five packs a day, the 1965 audience gave out laughs of recognition. Now when David admits it, the crowd gasps in horror.)
David means well. “I’m going to be a whole different person,” he says, providing dramatic irony -- for he really becomes just that when Mark hypnotizes him; Melinda emerges, portrayed by the splendid Jessie Mueller.
What is lost here, of course, is the chance for an actress to play both roles and create a forceful tour de force. That originally happened via Barbara Harris -- who in 1961 had been so good in From the Second City that she got a Tony nod as Best Featured Musical Actress in a show that only had a few songs and wasn’t a musical.
In Clear Day, Harris was indeed as good as everybody says. In another year, she would have won the Tony (which she deserved), but that season nobody was going to beat Angela Lansbury’s Mame -- not even Gwen Verdon’s Sweet Charity.
However, the way Lerner wrote Daisy in his book – as a flibbertigibbet – was very different from the way he wrote her in his intelligent and incisive lyrics. “Hurry! It’s Lovely up Here,” in which Daisy sings to her plants and flowers, is full of delicious wordplay and puns that are beyond the ken of the Daisy who speaks. Even when she sings to her friends about her boat ride with Mark “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn,” she uses fanciful language: “Dear Mr. Cohn, if by chance you exist. Tell Mrs. Cohn you deserve to be kissed.” That isn’t the same young woman who constantly says “I mean” and “you know” in her dialogue.
Actually, the lyrical wit sits better in the mouth of the wittier David, resulting in less disconnect between dialogue and lyrics. No, Parnell doesn’t make David as fascinating as he might have, but at least he gives him an occupation: a florist. Lerner never established what Daisy did for a living. Presumably she was to be Warren’s stay-at-home wife, but even that isn’t made clear. The two-character decision also allows for a nice moment that couldn’t have happened with one actress: at one point, Mark waltzes with both David and Melinda, making for a blithe stage picture.
Mark’s falling in love with a woman who’s really a man is indeed more complicated than his falling in love with a woman who’s still a woman. Is Parnell suggesting that Mark is a latent homosexual? In the original, when Mark hypnotized a subject, he stated that when he said “Wednesday,” the subject would automatically remove a shoe and sock. In this version, Parnell has him say that the subject will take off his shirt. Hmmmm.
At the end of the first act, Mark goes to kiss David, ostensibly to kiss Melinda. My, does the blackout occur quickly! Hey, Harry, it wouldn’t have killed you or your career if you’d kissed the guy. Hugh Jackman kissed a man on stage 10 years ago, and his career hasn’t careered into oblivion.
The new gay slant does give new meaning to two Lerner lyrics that were innocuous in 1965. In “Melinda,” Mark rhetorically asks if he and Ms. Welles are “out for a gay little spin.” In “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn” when David tells his friends of his boat trip with Mark, he sings, “Next thing I knew, we were cruising.” Sarah Stiles’ Muriel -- David’s roommate -- gives a little aghast look that says, “And what do you exactly mean by ‘cruising’?”
Speaking of Muriel, there’s a marvelous moment when David visits her bedroom. Among the pillows on her bed is one that sports a big initial “M.” As Muriel urges David to “Go to Sleep” (a song from the 1970 film that sounds right here), she picks up the pillow, turns it around, and makes the “M” into a “W” – meaning “You should be with Warren.” David takes the pillow and puts the pillow right side up – meaning “I should be with Mark.” Lest you think that Parnell gave Muriel a name beginning with “M” just to set up this joke, be apprised that Muriel was indeed the name of Daisy’s best friend in the original.
(Who’s responsible for this clever bit? When I saw Stiles at the launch party for The Road to Qatar CD, I asked her and she told me: director Michael Mayer. Good for you, Michael!)
And yet, turning Daisy/Melinda into David-and-Melinda wasn’t necessary. Perhaps Parnell did it to make the show edgier. Perhaps Harry Connick, Jr. wanted to be the sole star. His performance has been as harshly criticized as – well, this rewrite. Some view Connick as “stiff,” but I say that he’s simply showing that Mark is shattered from his wife’s death. The star does, however, occasionally croon in a way that’s more Connick than Bruckner.
In both the original and the new version, Melinda dies when her ship, the Trelawney, sinks. But what was ludicrous about the original was that Daisy was about to take a plane called the Trelawney – making Mark fear that it would crash. Now when have you ever taken a commercial airplane that had a name? The best that anyone can say is that he’s visited the Spruce Goose.
Parnell also improves – albeit slightly -- one of the original’s most unconvincing moments. In the second act, Lerner put Daisy alone in Mark’s office. His stage direction said that “Daisy hits the button on a tape machine by mistake,” allowing her to hear Mark’s recordings that divulge that she’s Melinda. How convenient! How does anyone hit a tape recorder button “by mistake” when one isn’t even looking for a tape recorder?
Instead, Parnell has Sharone blatantly tell David about Melinda; that sends him to the tape recorder looking for evidence. Granted, the idea of Sharone having the hellish fury of a woman scorned is regrettable. But that she’s motivated to tell him the facts is more believable than Daisy’s just happening to hit a tape recorder button.
While Daisy’s lyrics in “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” were far too clever for the woman she is, at least the idea of the song was right. Here, when David asks “What did I have that I don’t have now?” one wants tell him, “Well, bigger breasts and wider hips for a start ...”
Okay, Mayer and Parnell didn’t want to lose one of the score’s highlights. But why didn’t they take care of this flaw: David is home alone smoking when he hears Warren entering. He quickly snuffs out the cigarette and tries to wave away the incriminating smoke. In real life, Warren would smell it, but here he doesn’t. What’s worse, however, is that the two kiss. That would certainly let Warren taste that David has been indulging. Skip the kiss, guys.
But in the original, despite Mark’s greater interest in Melinda, he did try to cure Daisy of smoking. Here he’s obsessed only with his own ends, and neglects helping her. That’s not nice, but one criticism he makes of Sharone – and two adjectives he uses to describe David – got sharp intakes of horrified breath from the audience. Parnell should have given him more sensitivity.
Still, we care about him, and even straight women who were glad that he mourned an inordinately long time for his wife will be rooting for him to move on. And that’s the crux of this Clear Day. It’s much stronger than having Mark sing “Come Back to Me” to Daisy because now he realizes he’s in love with her, not Melinda. Could anyone have ever believed that if they married, he wouldn’t spend most of his time looking for Melinda?
After David’s heart is broken, he retreats to Warren, which unfortunately comes across as a mere rebound. For a second, Mark appears to be doing the same with Sharone; he goes over to her, takes her by both hands, but – thank the Lord, Parnell and Mayer – he’s just giving her a gesture of appreciation. Connick’s demeanor makes us believe that Mark is now ready to find someone to love. That’s a much more believable ending.
And certainly there are plenty of people in the St. James who’ll be willing to lick his wounds.
— Peter Filichia