What’s the best way to celebrate the 80th anniversary of World War II’s “Operation Mincemeat”?
No, don’t go into your kitchen to mix currants, raisins, sugar, apples, candied citrus peel and spices to create the delicious foodstuff. There are, after all, 70 calories in a mere teaspoon.
Forego the treat and instead treat yourself to the London cast album of OPERATION MINCEMEAT. It’s not only The Little Show That Could but also The Little Show That Did Succeed.
Who would have thought that an outlandish ruse perpetrated by the British military in World War II would be fodder for a good musical?
David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts, that’s who. The members of a troupe fancifully named SplitLip provided the book, music and lyrics for the show that began modestly at a small London venue four years ago. All but Hagan joined newcomers Jak Malone and Claire-Marie Hall to play a dozen characters. After displaying their wares in three intimate playhouses, they made their way to the West End’s Fortune Theatre in March.
The limited engagement was expected to end by now, but business soon warranted an extension to August 19 … then September 23 … and now November 4. Don’t be surprised, though, if those who enjoy mincemeat at their Christmas dinners will follow it with a trip to OPERATION MINCEMEAT. For that matter, the same may hold true for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in 2024.
“Operation Mincemeat” was an off-the-wall chancy wartime plan that would more likely seem to be the basis of a farcical wartime comedy. But happen it did, and the musical celebrates those who concocted the ruse.
In “Born to Lead,” we meet two who hoped to flummox the increasingly powerful Nazis: Charles Cholmondeley, a scientist, and Ewen Montagu, another British Naval Intelligence officer. All are worried that “Sicily, that strong-hold of the Hun” is “packed with a hundred thousand German men.” How to get it back?
“Gotta make Hitler believe Sicily isn’t where we’re gonna be,” they sing. To ensure that “hundreds and thousands of Germans get off our property,” they realize that “if you want to beat them Jerries” (a purposely unflattering term that many of us first heard in BYE BYE BIRDIE) “you gotta call upon the visionaries.” Perhaps they’ll “figure out how we set a fake campaign.”
Easier said than sung. In the song “God, That’s Brilliant,” everyone tries to formulate a plan that is indeed brilliant and one that God will bless. Floating one idea is British Naval Officer Ian Fleming – yes, that Ian Fleming, who was years away for making the number 007 famous. His suggestion? “All we need is a shiny tuxedo, and my design for a submarine car; about seven pretty ladies, Aston Martins or Mercedes.”
No one agreed, but the show fancifully insinuates (or pretends) that the seeds of Fleming’s future James Bond novels started here.
Charles becomes so discouraged at not thinking of a workable plan that he sings in a feverish patter song, “I wish I was a maggot or a tadpole or a termite or a wasp … to escape this hell.” But Montagu finally comes up with a brainstorm that he believes will baffle Nazi brains.
It all starts with the hope that “a body can be found that will look to an expert freshly drowned.” And how could this be “the key to taking Sicily back by force?” Charles wonders.
Famed British pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury will help. He sings that he has bodies of “old ladies to adolescents in all stages of putrescence” but finds the freshest one that could pass for a drowned man; the corpse will then be put into a Marine’s uniform and have a briefcase handcuffed to his hand. Inside it will be the plans that say the Allied Forces intend to attack the Germans in Greece and Sardinia.
In fact, the military has no intention whatsoever of doing this. What is planned is to put both corpse and briefcase in a submarine bound for the Spanish coast; there, they’ll be released into the ocean. The hope is that the body will wash ashore where the Germans will get hold of it. They’ll read the plans and move their forces from Sicily to protect their interests in Greece and Sardinia. With so few German soldiers left on Sicily, the Allies will have a much easier task in retaking it.
Charles is skeptical – who wouldn’t be? Actually, two office workers aren’t: Hester Leggett and Jean Leslie. These women saw the war as a chance to do more than keep house. In “All the Ladies,” they sing, “The men said ‘Ciao!’ and it’s our turn now!”
Hester, in fact, will write another piece of paper that will be placed inside the suitcase to make the stunt seem more believable: a “Dear Bill” love letter full of affection and informative details of what was going on back home.
(Interesting that Hester doesn’t write a “Dear John” letter that women have probably written to soldiers since the Punic Wars telling the men that in their absence they’ve found someone new …)
But could these papers convince the Nazis to send their men to two other countries and leave Sicily at risk? The night after the submarine’s launch, Charles is dubious, but in “Just for Tonight,” his colleagues rationalize, “Our plan is signed, sealed, delivered and tomorrow it could all go wrong, so Charlie, let’s live it up tonight.”
(Is that a cue for a production number, or what?)
Luckily for the Allies, a fisherman finds the washed-ashore body and the Nazis get a look at it and – huzzah! – buy the ruse. This was a time when they felt invincible; hence, the song “Das Übermensch” (“The Superman”), where they crow, “Now watch us as every single enemy of truth disappears! And did we mention that this Reich will last a thousand years?”
In so many plans, there’s an unplanned complication. It’s well expressed here in “The Ballad of Willie Watkins,” about a pilot who almost inadvertently ruins the ruse. In “Spilsbury (Reprise),” hear what threatens to turn this hero into a zero.
As for the music, we’re in an era where theatergoers want to hear rock even in shows that take place before rock existed. And yet, what’s fascinating about OPERATION MINCEMEAT is that its music does resemble what one heard in the 1940s, but orchestrator Steve Sidwell gives each song a rock-oriented overlay.
If the title OPERATION MINCEMEAT sounds vaguely familiar, you may have heard it two years ago when director John Madden filmed the same story. On the other hand, you may well have missed it; it received lackluster reviews, no significant nominations (let alone awards) and grossed a mere $15 million worldwide.
That unhappy fate has not met the musical. We associate the number 56 with Joe DiMaggio because of his hitting streak that lasted that many games in 1941. For 57, The Heinz Corporation comes to mind with its offering that many varieties. (It actually has many more.) But now we can associate the number 58 with OPERATION MINCEMEAT, because for the first time, critics gave it that many five-star reviews. In fact, one appraiser said, “Unfortunately, five stars is the limit. I would happily give many more.”
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.