By Peter Filichia —
If you planned to see that Broadway revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, alas, it’s too late. It closed on June 26 after 189 performances – which is the longest run that any Broadway production of Oscar Wilde’s play had had in nine tries.
But you can still hear the musical version of the play: Ernest in Love, a 1960 off-Broadway musical whose original cast album is now available through an MP3 download.
Actually, Ernest in Love happened because of a controversial Christmas song (if you can imagine such a thing). In December, 1956, a young writer named Anne Croswell was toiling for a TV show called Washington Square . The show needed a Christmas song, so Croswell wrote the lyric for “Here’s Christmas.” She was mighty proud of her work, and wasn’t surprised when the show’s producer asked to see her. Now the compliments would come!
Not at all. Instead, the producer told her to replace the words “snow,” “cold winter days,” “fireside’s glow,” and “sleighs.” Croswell exclaimed, “That’s the whole song!” but the producer reminded her that their show was broadcast from sea to shining sea – “and,” he added, “it doesn’t snow in California.”
Croswell rebutted that “White Christmas” had done well throughout the land, which started an argument that led to her being fired. She went home, poured a drink and turned on the TV to find a Matinee Theatre production of The Importance of Being Earnest with Anna Russell as Lady Bracknell. (Can you imagine such a thing on daytime network TV today?)
She enjoyed traveling back to 1895 London and watching the story of Jack and Gwendolen, deeply in love, to the horror of her mother Lady Bracknell; Jack, you see, is hardly in the social register. That Jack’s ward Cecily falls in love with his friend Algernon added to the fun. Croswell also chortled at how each used the name “Ernest” to further his plans.
Best of all, Croswell saw musical possibilities in the play. The first sixteen composers she approached did not, until Lee Pockriss did. Because of Croswell’s TV connections, they wrote their adaptation as an hour-long musical for the tube. Such 60-minute musicals were quite common in the ‘50s, in the era when the networks had loftier goals than they do now.
Who’s Ernest? debuted on The U.S. Steel Hour on Oct. 9, 1957 to a large appreciative audience and solid reviews. Variety said the collaborators had written “a charming score.” The songs included “Mr. Bunbury,” about the joys of having an imaginary friend; “Perfection,” Jack’s description of Gwendolen; “A Wicked Man,” a person whom Cecily is excited at the prospect of meeting; “Lost,” in which Algernon courts Cecily; “My Very First Impression,” a duet between Cecily and Gwendolen when they meet; “My Eternal Devotion,” where all four lovers proclaim their love; and “Metaphorically Speaking,” for Miss Prism and Rev. Canon Chasuble, two minor past-middle-aged characters who are attracted to each other.
Said the Variety TV critic, “Any shortcomings were due to the one-hour running time.” That was enough to spur Croswell and Pockriss to expand the hour-long show for the stage. They kept their seven songs and added nine more, starting with “Come Raise the Cup,” in which tradesmen discussed the upper classes.
Croswell shrewdly added two scenes that weren’t in Wilde’s play. The first had Jack at home getting dressed and preparing to meet Gwendolen. Here he rehearses what he’ll say when he sees her: “Miss Fairfax, ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl … I have ever met since… I met you.” In fact, those are Wilde’s own words that he had Jack say in a later scene.
Then Croswell showed us Gwendolen getting dressed and preparing to meet Jack. She and her maid Alice are looking for “The Hat,” as the jaunty song goes, that will impress a man. Those who know the original play know there’s no Alice there. Let’s be glad Croswell included her, for she and fellow servant Lane will later sing a most fetching song, “You Can’t Make Love.”
So not until Scene Three did we reach what was Scene One of Wilde’s play, where Jack and Algernon get together – and Lady Bracknell enters to dismiss Jack for having been left as a foundling in a handbag in Victoria Station. Her song has the delicious title “A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother,” but even more intoxicating is one of musical theater’s most fortuitous rhymes: “I’d welcome to my bosom any bachelor (whose family was highly regarded)” but “I cannot let my daughter wed a satchel, or (a parcel that someone discarded).” As Stephen Schwartz wrote in Pippin, “It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.”
Ernest in Love opened at the since-razed Gramercy Arts at 137 East 28th Street on May 4, 1960, on the same day that Croswell and Pockriss read the not-so-glowing reviews for the off-Broadway musical that had opened the previous night: The Fantasticks. The following day, they would read reviews of their own show that were substantially better.
Needless to say, however, Ernest in Love wouldn’t run nearly as long. It closed on July 30, 1960. Lee Pockriss at least had something else to mollify him. One of his pop songs with a decidedly un-Oscar-Wildean lyric had been released the month before; on August 8, 1960, it would become the number one record in the land.
Its name was “Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.”
Well, as Lady Bracknell says, “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit.” For those who love Wilde’s play, Ernest in Love is a charming variation on a theme. Perhaps the biggest surprise in its history is that it even got produced in Japan under astonishing circumstances. The Takarazuka, the troupe that casts a woman in every role regardless of the character’s gender, staged it in 2005. (Well, after all the productions in which Lady Bracknell has been played by a man, it’s only fair that Jack, Algernon, and Chasuble get a chance to be enacted by women.)
Usually, Takarazuka does big musicals (Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s Phantom is its current attraction), because the company has a vast stage to fill. Wouldn’t nine characters look lost up there?
Not if you augment the show with an astonishingly large chorus of butlers and maids. Oscar Wilde might have been very pleased with the results. Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss certainly were.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.