Androcles at Last!
By Peter Filichia
Do I hear a waltz? Of course I do. Isn’t Androcles and the Lion by Richard Rodgers? And getting a song in three-quarter time is a given in any of the legendary composer’s scores.
Here in this 1967 TV musical, the waltz is the first song, just as it was in Jumbo, Carousel, Two by Two and Oklahoma! “Velvet Paws” happens after meek tailor Androcles removes a large, pain-inducing thorn from the paw of an otherwise ferocious lion. (You’d think a king of beasts would be able to pull it out with his teeth, but then there’d be no story.)
After that incident, however, matters get thorny for Androcles. Because he’s a devout Christian living in polytheistic ancient Rome, Caesar has him thrown into the Coliseum to be consumed by a hungry lion. But the carnivore turns out to be the same animal that Androcles had taken out of pain. The lion doesn’t have to hear the 1974 Candide revival to know that “As you’d have done, do unto others.” He remembers the random act of kindness and spares the tailor’s life.
And so, Androcles and the Lion dance to a reprise of “Velvet Paws.” If you missed seeing them cavort on the Nov. 15, 1967 broadcast (which hasn’t resurfaced in any video format), at least you can hear the stirring Rodgers waltz now that Masterworks Broadway has re-released this long-out-of-print recording on CD and digital download.
It’s not a soundtrack, in that it doesn’t come from the track of the sound of the actual telecast. The cast went into a studio and recorded the entire score as well as a generous sampling of dialogue both from George Bernard Shaw’s original 1912 play and Peter Stone’s teleplay. (The latter would later write 1776 and then do Two by Two with Rodgers.)
So we get the scene in which Megaera, Androcles’ wife, henpecks her husband so thoroughly that his entire body must be totally ventilated. He’s played by Norman Wisdom, who months before had received a Tony nomination for Walking Happy, and she’s portrayed by Patricia Routledge, who months later would win a Tony for Darling of the Day.
Experiencing every performance by Routledge, now famous as Hyacinth Bucket, should be on everyone’s bucket list. No, she doesn’t sing here, and, yes, she disappears after the first scene. But what a scene it is! Listen to her shriek when frightened, drop her voice low when she’s insulted and endlessly criticize her husband. (Someone ought to tell her that even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness.)
Although Megaera insists that she comes from a better background than Androcles, she speaks with a distinct Cockney accent (saying “‘ome” for “home” and “hathiest” for “atheist”) while he does not. As was the case in so many Biblical movies of the ‘50s, every Roman officer speaks The King’s English with a decidedly British accent. That’s especially true of Caesar, who has the erudition you’d expect from Noel Coward. Note his extended “r’s” on “grrrand,” “rrrhinos” and “rrridiculous.” Rodgers knew how to write for his star. So did Stone, who gave Caesar an exclamation that Shaw didn’t use: “By Jupiter!” Do you think he was purposely referencing an earlier Rodgers hit?
Coward’s big song is “The Emperor’s Thumb” – nice and specific, the way lyrics should be. After the monarch establishes what a raised and downturned thumb mean, he adds “You’re bound to get the point.” And yet, Rodgers does have Coward sing about “kingdom come” – a phrase that originated in a Christian prayer. Was Rodgers being ironic or did he not realize the origin?
And why, you may ask were two Jews – Rodgers and Stone – attracted to Christianity? Well, on the other hand, Rodgers’ pal and Annie Get Your Gun employee Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” ‘Nuff said.
Rodgers was famous for marches, too, and not just for Siamese or Austrian children. He gives a good one to Wisdom and Coward: “Don’t Be Afraid of an Animal,” in which Androcles quells Caesar’s fears when he’s face-to-face with the lion. “For an animal is only human after all,” Androcles sings – meaning that it has its flaws and foibles, too. Robert Russell Bennett, Rodgers’ favorite orchestrator, ensured we know it’s a lyrical joke by having the brass follow it with a “that’s funny” bleat. (And speaking of orchestrations: they sound sumptuous, thanks to a veritable symphony orchestra. Hark! The herald trumpets play.)
Coward, Routledge, Wisdom: it’s shaping up to be quite a cast, isn’t it? Has there ever been a TV musical with as many names that can be found on the Tony website? Granted, Coward was never nominated for a performance, but he did get a pair of nominations in the same season (1963-64) — first for co-writing the book to The Girl Who Came to Supper and then for directing High Spirits.
While Kurt Kaznar doesn’t have much of a role here, he still received a Tony nod for originating Max Detweiler in The Sound of Music. Inga Swenson (who possessed the kind of soprano that Rodgers loved) already had two nods (for 110 in the Shade and Baker Street) before she assumed the role of Lavinia, the most loyal of Christians. Swenson is super at being supercilious with the Roman captain in love with her: John Cullum, whose future would include Tonys for both Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century.
Other future Tony-winners included Brian (The School for Wives) Bedford, who plays a smarmy Roman non-believer, and Geoffrey (The Wiz) Holder, from whom you only hear a roar: he’s The Lion. During the overture – it’s a Rodgers show; of course there’s an overture – Holder did a lion dance that bears no relationship to the one later seen in Pacific Overtures.
As for the creative staff, Stone had already received one nomination (and would eventually win three), while director-choreographer Joe Layton had already been awarded two. And Rodgers? He’d won seven, but does anyone doubt that he would have had several more if the Tonys hadn’t waited until 1947 to distribute prizes? If they’d only started when he began his Broadway career in 1919, he’d have had twenty-seven more chances for nominations and wins.
One of Rodgers’ Tony wins, by the way, was for lyrics as well as music for No Strings, his 1962 hit. Rodgers spent most of the ‘60s writing by himself, adding words and music to the State Fair remake and The Sound of Music film; the theme song for the 1964 World’s Fair; and Androcles and the Lion.
Does Rodgers’ title “Velvet Paws” seem too sentimental? One might rush to judgment and blame the lyricist, but Shaw coined the phrase in his play. It’s a lovely melody, although my favorite is “Strangers,” which Swenson and Cullum sing about their tentative relationship. It’s Rodgers in the Hammerstein mode: a sweeping, slowly elegant melody that makes room for one of Rodgers’ trademark “wrong notes” near the end. Try to get it out of your head after you hear it once.
No: don’t. Keep it there. It’s a good place for it.
While Shaw used “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Rodgers wrote his own hymn, and it stirring one it is: “Follow in Our Footsteps,” headed by Ferrovius (Ed Ames), the physically strongest Christian who nevertheless strives to be gentle. Hear how this passive-aggressive uses a loophole to at least threaten revenge after he’s been slapped and must turn the other cheek. That leads to his singing a genuine czardas called “Strength Is My Weakness” which inspires Androcles to believe “weakness is my strength.”
Some of you have already said, “But wait! ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ wasn’t written until centuries later!” Yes, Shaw wasn’t above using anachronisms. But while he refers to his emperor as Caesar, don’t assume that he was Julius (as Rodgers did in his autobiography Musical Stages). Julius Caesar died (unexpectedly) in 44 BC – nearly a century before Androcles could have possibly taken place. Perhaps the Caesar Shaw had in mind was Tiberius Caesar, who had ruled from 14 to 37 AD.
Despite the adorable logo of a lion that looks as if it would be welcome in both Hanna and Barbera’s homes, this is a sophisticated and adult work. Shaw had more on his mind than simply telling us to be nice to the lion you meet on your way up because you may need him on your way down. His play was a serious and talky examination of Christian values and the people who held them (and at least one who discarded them).
That may be why this musical Androcles and the Lion slipped into obscurity. November, 1967 may not have been an ideal time for a religious-centric musical. Nineteen months earlier, Time offered one of its most famous cover stories: “Is God Dead?”
What also didn’t help was starting the show with actors who l-u-m-b-e-r-e-d across a stage on all fours in baggy animal suits that were unworthy of the lowest-level Halloween party. Androcles and the Lion might have been more successful as an animated film.
But it succeeds in its music and lyrics. So become acquainted with Rodgers’ least-known post-war score. At the very least, don’t be a stranger to “Strangers.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.