When we discuss musicals that have had the longest runs, we shouldn’t just limit ourselves to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE FANTASTICKS.
How about ANNE OF GREEN GABLES? Aside from the last two years when COVID stopped performances, it’s been running since 1965.
Admittedly, this didn’t happen either on Broadway or off; the closest this musical has been to ourtheater district was in 1971 when it arrived for a limited two-week engagement at City Center.
It did play London’s West End in 1969 for 300 performances, which may now sound like theatrical chump change, but was a fine total then. That production led to an Original London Cast Album that has now been re-released by Masterworks Broadway.
The run that started fifty-seven years ago, however, comes courtesy of The Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Granted, the production doesn’t play eight times a week throughout the year; it limits itself to four or five during the summer. In 2022, you can see it between June 18 and September 3. If you’re a New Yorker, it’s only a thirteen-hour car ride and –
— What’s that, you say? It’s too long a trip? It’s been so long since you’ve left the country that you don’t even remember where your passport is? Well, that’s what cast albums are for: to bring us to a musical with the least amount of inconvenience.
You’ve probably heard of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, for L.M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel has had quite a few lives of its own. There have been four theatrical films (including a 1919 silent and a 2014 short subject). On the small screen, three made-for-TV movies, one series and one mini-series have flown the airwaves.
A few musicals have been tried along the way, too.Canada’s long-runner has lyrics by Don Harron and Norman Campbell; the former provided the book and the latter the music. A little lyrical help from Mavor Moore and Elaine Campbell was apparently welcomed.
These four aren’t household theatrical names, but they created a musical that has pleased more than two million attendees.
Of course, one reason for Prince Edward Island’s intense interest in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES is that the Canadian province is the locale for L.M.Montgomery’s much-beloved story.
How beloved? Let’s put it this way: Dawn O’Day played the title role in the 1934 film version. She became so impressed with her character that she actually changed her own name to Anne Shirley. That’s how she was billed on her remaining thirty-two films.
As for L.M. Montgomery, those initials stand for Lucy Maud. In the early 20th century, even an authors of books aimed at young girls chose gender-cloaked names.
Montgomery created Anne Shirley sixteen years before cartoonist Harold Gray conceived of his Annie. Nobody’s accusing anyone of plagiarism, but one must note some of similarities between these two young girls.
Oliver Warbucks originally wanted a boy; so do Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, aging owners of a farm who need a good strapping lad to pitch in with the hard work. A mix-up gets them a girl.Now instead of a hand to help, they’d have an extra mouth to feed. So they’ll return her. (Oliver Warbucks is more accommodating, but then again, he doesn’t need any additional help around his mansion.)
Just as Annie’s optimism impresses the Hooverville residents, her Daddy-to-Be and President Roosevelt, Anne Shirley’s perky outlook clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow of the initially reluctant Matthew and the seemingly intransigent Marilla. That’s no small achievement with these taciturn, no-nonsense people who keep their emotions so buried that they’ve forgotten that they ever had them. Yes, something was missing, and here’s Anne Shirley who’ll find for them what they weren’t even seeking.
So Anne is a natively musical character, as we see in her opening song “Gee, I’m Glad I’m No One Else!” and her next one “The Facts,” which would more accurately be called “The Fabrications.” When Anne is asked to describe herself, she starts with “I’m the Lady Cordelia de Montmorency abducted when I was three.”
You may say “So much for ‘I’m glad I’m no one else.’” When you think of it, though, an orphan may make such claims, for her guess is as good as yours as to her original identity and heritage.
In ANNIE, our little hero becomes a redhead; Anne Shirley was born one, which doesn’t make her happy. When Gilbert, the most handsome boy in town, teases her about it, Anne responds by breaking a slate chalkboard over his head.
This is big news to small-town gossips. “Did You Hear?” they delightedly sing, making sure that everyone has heard. Their assessment of Anne is that “she’s a piece of Satan’s finest handiwork.”
When a neighbor criticizes the red hair, Anne tells her off, which horrifies Marilla. She demands that Anne apologize, and our overly contrite missmelodramatically demands that they “make my headstone commonplace and put my name in lower case.” So Anne may be too young to be a drama queen, but at times she is at least a drama princess.
“Back to School” has the local kids excited – yes, excited – about returning to the classroom. Sounds crazy, no? Ah, but we’re talking about the first day of school, when everyone’s happy to see friends that they hadn’t seen for months. Not much time passes before Gilbert mourns “Why ain’t it always summer?” and the others wonder “Where Did the Summer Go To?” in the score’s best song in which everyone’s “sure that all this Latin will flatten my head.”
Having a dull and by-the-book teacher is part of the problem. When Miss Stacy takes over for him, the kids are appreciably happier. Here’s a smiling and enthusiastic leader who inspires them to “Open a Window” so that they can learn about life.
(Yes, there’s a little Mame in Miss Stacy.)
What also helps Anne is that she’s getting along nicely with her neighbor Diana. She sings that they’re “Kindred Spirits” who must “solemnly swear” to always be friends – to which Diana responds, “Swearing’s a sin!” Anne calms her down and insists that they’ll be “sharing our joys – even the boys.”
Oh, isn’t THAT easier said than done? Anne isn’t guilty of a sin by swearing an oath, but she and Gilbert will each commit the deadly sin of pride in not wanting to be the first one to admit deep feelings for the other. That leads to the song “I’ll Show Him,” which could just as easily be called “I’ll Show Her,” for he and she get equal time in making that vow.
Matthew enjoys seeing Anne bloom, but certainly doesn’t enjoy going to “The General Store,” a song where he’s embarrassed to buy a new dress for the girl. Why doesn’t Marilla do it? She doesn’t come to admit her love for Anne nearly as quickly. Mathew admits in the show’s title song that the girl is “sweet and strange,” but that she must never lose the essence of her personality.
For the last 114 years in print and fifty-six years on stage, Anne of Green Gables hasn’t. Now she can once again bloom in yet another way, thanks to this new Masterworks Broadway re-release.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.