By Peter Filichia –
Roxie Hart, let alone Mrs. Lovett, wasn’t the first musical theater woman to have blood on her hands. Annina was in The Saint of Bleecker Street.
Granted, there were two profound differences between the leading female characters of Chicago and Sweeney Todd and Annina. One is that the blood on the so-called “Saint of Bleecker Street” did not result from murder, but from stigmata: the condition where one’s palms and/or feet bleed as a mirror reaction to Christ’s wounds on the cross.
What’s more, Roxie Hart’s flat-out musical comedy and even Mrs. Lovett’s Grand Guignol musical drama will never be mistaken for Gian Carlo Menotti’s genuine opera. The reason we’re discussing it in Broadway terms is because it did indeed play Broadway, when it opened – at the Broadway Theatre right on Broadway, no less – on Dec. 27, 1954.
The members of The New York Drama Critics Circle certainly were impressed. Although they could have bestowed their annual Best Musical prize on The Boy Friend, Fanny, Peter Pan, House of Flowers, Plain and Fancy, Silk Stockings or Damn Yankees, they opted for The Saint of Bleecker Street.
The Tony Award® voters felt differently. In those days, when only winners were announced and no nominees were listed, The Saint of Bleecker Street only scored in the Best Conductor and Musical Director category; Thomas Schippers won.
Louis Kronenberger, then the editor of the annual Burns Mantle Yearbook, had to include The Saint in his 1954-1955 edition — but he only listed its statistics and staff. As he wrote, “I omit with regret from this report Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street because — unlike Menotti’s previous work that appeared on Broadway — The Saint is unequivocally opera. Performing an opera in a Broadway theater no more makes it a musical play than (to borrow a phrase from Swift) being born in a stable makes a man a horse.”
We’re always saying that eight Broadway musicals have won the Pulitzer Prize, but in a way, ten have: because Menotti’s The Consul won in 1950 and The Saint of Bleecker Street emerged victorious in 1954. Granted, they didn’t win in the drama division, but in the music category. But they’re Pulitzer Prize-winners just the same.
There’s no doubt that if you listen to the original cast album of The Saint of Bleecker Street – and now you may, because it’s again available after being out-of-print since October, 1960 – you’ll find it’s a genuine opera. It is a bit of a rarity, however, for at the time there weren’t all that many contemporary English-language operas in an American setting: The Saint of Bleecker Street takes place around the map of Little Italy in New York City.
That’s surprising, given that Menotti was born in Cadegliano, Italy and his first language was Italian. As he told Beverly Sills when the New York City Opera’s revival of The Saint of Bleecker Street was broadcast April 19, 1978, he came to America when he was sixteen. Conductor Arturo Toscanini, who saw talent in the lad, spurred him to do it.
Menotti didn’t speak English then, but he certainly learned – and, to the surprise and even horror of many opera lovers – he came to prefer the language when he wrote operas. As he said on the broadcast, “I find the English language very satisfactory and sing-able, contrary to what people think. It’s better than Italian because it has many sharp accents.”
In addition to writing the music and even directing the “Broadway show,” Menotti provided his own original libretto. It tells of Annina, who’s thought to be a saint by her friends and relatives. She says that in recurrent visions, she sees Christ’s crucifixion as if she were actually there.
Now everyone is gathered on Good Friday afternoon in the cold water flat that Annina shares with her brother Michele. The assembled all believe that touching one who’s been touched by God will cure their ills and guide them towards salvation.
But Michele doesn’t share his sister’s faith and certainly doesn’t like coming home to a houseful of people. “What do you think this is, a marketplace?” he growls. (It almost is, considering the generous number of chorus people on stage. This may be a cold water flat, but what it lacks in heat it makes up for in space.)
Michele doesn’t mince words or notes. “Clowns! Leeches! Addicts!” he roars. “Shall I call the police?” That isn’t necessary; they leave, and then we hear what’s really on Michele’s mind: “If we were rich,” he says, “this wouldn’t happen. Rich people have no visions — except in hospitals,” he amends. Michele sees a definite link between faith and poverty, which prompts his powerful question: “Is this the word of God or the delusion of a sick mind?”
Five months later, we’re on Mulberry Street during the feast of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples; each year, he’s celebrated on the anniversary of his martyrdom. Even now, after Annina has apparently made a previously mute boy speak, Michele is still unconvinced. “Do you believe that you’re a saint?” he demands to know, and when Annina says no, he asks, “Then why do you let sick people come to you to be cured?” He not only calls her beliefs “childish,” but also taunts, “In school, they used to call you ‘Numbskull!'” — the first time, we presume, that that word was ever employed in an opera.
“Why would God choose you among all people?” Michele asks. Annina retorts with a line with which one can’t really argue: “Perhaps because I love Him.” A musical duel follows on matters of faith, but a bigger duel ensues, one played in counterpoint to the joyous festival music. The neighbors are intent on getting Annina away from Michele, so they tie him to a chain-link fence, outstretching wide his arms. They didn’t mean to make him look like Jesus on the cross, but he does. There’s much irony in seeing this non-religious violence as the statue is solemnly carried behind him.
On whose side was Menotti? As he said on that broadcast, he wrote “a very symbolic opera that mirrors my own spiritual conflict. I’m not a religious man, but I’m drawn to mysticism. The two main characters represent the metaphysical conflict in me. I’m Michele, but I envy Annina.”
Considering the tragedy in store for both, perhaps neither she nor he is worth envying. However, those who believe in an afterlife will rejoice in Annina’s fate and mourn Michele’s.
It doesn’t much sound like a Broadway musical, does it? And yet, there were little Broadway ingredients. Respectively playing “Second Guest” and “A Young Man” were John Reardon and Reid Shelton. The former would make most of his reputation in opera, but he would nevertheless introduce a Broadway standard – “Make Someone Happy” – in Do Re Mi. The latter would be the first of literally thousands of Daddy Warbucks in Annie. In the ensemble was another familiar name to fans of musicals: Rico Froehlich, who subsequently did eleven other Broadway shows, including Irma La Douce, Jennie, Juno and The Most Happy Fella.
While The Saint of Bleecker Street’s ninety-two performances on Broadway may seem scant, it’s an impressive number for a genuine opera. Now it can again receive many more “performances” on everything from home systems to iPods. What’s also nice is that The Saint of Bleecker Street is being released in conjunction with Menotti’s centenary, for he was born on July 7, 1911. Numerologists may say that anyone born on 7-7-11 was destined to be lucky, but a listen to this impressive work will show that talent had much more to do with Gian Carlo Menotti’s success.
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.