CHRISTINE FOR HOLI By Peter Filichia
So what’s this holiday called Holi?
I’d never heard of it until I saw it listed on my iPhone’s Calendar section.
Googling taught me that Holi is a Hindu spring festival that started in India but has spread to other areas of Asia and parts of the Western world. It’s also known as “The Festival of Love” and “The Festival of Colors.”
We’re experiencing Holi this week. In honor of it, let’s all play the original cast album of CHRISTINE, which takes place in India. It’s the musical version of MY INDIAN FAMILY, a 1945 novel by Hilda Wernher – a pseudonym for Elizabeth Dank, who wrote four books set in India.
The cover of the original cast album is indeed its own Festival of Colors. CHRISTINE is in vermilion below star Maureen O’Hara’s name which is emblazoned in pink. And why shouldn’t she be above the title? By 1960 (when the show opened at what is now the Richard Rodgers Theatre), O’Hara had been in more than three dozen films.
Four, by the way, have been made into musicals: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (which became A TIME FOR SINGING), THE QUIET MAN (later DONNYBROOK!) and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, which you can hear on Masterworks Broadway as HERE’S LOVE.
There aren’t many Hollywood stars who can claim to have played Buffalo Bill’s wife, Lady Godiva and one of Hollywood’s most fetchingly named characters – Lolita O’Shea – in THEY MET IN ARGENTINA.
Above her name on the CHRISTINE album are eight little drawings in oval-shaped panels that show three men and four women in Indian dress buttressing one woman in a business suit. Just from those you can tell that CHRISTINE is one of those fish-out-of-water shows: British woman travels to India and finds herself in culture shock.
No, it’s worse than that: Lady Christine FitzSimmons came to Akbarabad because her daughter Mary Ann had married an Indian doctor. Once she arrives, she learns that Mary Ann had died in childbirth.
That’s amazingly serious stuff for a 1960 book musical – especially one that opened immediately after the happy-go-lucky BYE BYE BIRDIE and was next followed by the buoyant IRMA LA DOUCE.
If that isn’t enough, Christine becomes enamored of her son-in-law – and he with her, too.
Well, there’s your “Festival of Love” for Holi.
Less than a decade earlier, THE KING AND I had a Western woman and an Eastern man meet and come to love each other. However, Rodgers and Hammerstein ensured that the two never even kissed. CHRISTINE, only nine years later, certainly upped the ante.
It paid the price for it, too. CHRISTINE played all of twelve performances.
With such a poor pedigree, a recording would seem to be out of the question. A musical that had run so short a time had never received an original cast album. Goddard Lieberson, then president of Columbia Records, certainly wasn’t contractually bound to bring such a commercial failure into the studio.
And yet he must have greatly believed in the score, for he did. And when Goddard Lieberson offered Broadway aficionados a recording in which he believed, they listened.
Some call the score operetta-like, which a not unfair assessment. What’s remarkable, though, is the music marked a highly adventurous outing for Sammy Fain, who was better known for catchy-tuned pop hits.
Younger listeners may not know “I’ll Be Seeing You” or “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” but certainly their forebears did. Lest we brand Fain a lightweight, note that he was nominated for no fewer than nine Oscars and even won two.
“Secret Love” became a Number One hit both in America and in England (and an unofficial gay anthem). “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” is the song that the Plaids in FOREVER PLAID considered their ultimate challenge. (It’s one reason why they saved it for their finale.)
Fain never had much luck on Broadway; his scores ran from the ridiculous (ANKLES AWEIGH) to the sublime (FLAHOOLEY). With CHRISTINE, he deserves credit for really stretching himself.
I’ll admit, though, that I always think of the film PILLOW TALK when I hear CHRISTINE’s title song. If you’ve never seen this 1959 film, it concerns Brad Allen, a composer-lyricist who romances a woman by writing a song specifically tailored in her honor.
What Allen has done, though, is write one all-purpose song that allows him to simply plug in the woman’s name at the end of a line. So he sings “You are my inspiration, Marie” when he’s courting Marie and “You are my inspiration, Eileen” when she’s his fille du jour.
I’ve always heard that this was actually true of a songwriter who did this to impress women. Could it have been Fain? The show’s title song goes “Don’t run away from, love, Christine; don’t turn away from love, Christine … I need you by my side, Christine; my arms are open wide, Christine.”
To be fair, CHRISTINE’s lyrics were by Paul Francis Webster (who had penned lyrics to both of Fain’s Academy Award-winners). For all we know, he might have done his job first and then given the words to Fain to set to music.
Only two Nobel Prize-winners in literature have ever written a book for a musical. Derek Wolcott, the 1992 winner, did THE CAPEMAN for Paul Simon in 1997. But Pearl S. Buck was the first to have that distinction through CHRISTINE. In 1938, she was also the first woman to receive it in that category.
Her 1932 Pulitzer Prize-winning THE GOOD EARTH certainly helped her cause. That novel dealt with China, so the two producers – both neophytes who never again braved Broadway – might have felt that India was close enough for Buck to know about it.
Charles K. Peck, Jr., a screenwriter with an Oscar nomination for a now-forgotten movie, got Buck started with an outline of MY INDIAN FAMILY. She then took over, but when trouble surfaced in Philadelphia, Peck returned. Because O’Hara was famous in films for playing many an Irish colleen, he made the decision to change her from a British Lady to one from the Emerald Island.
Buck changed the way Mary Ann had died; in the novel, she was killed in a car accident while Hilda was driving. She also made much of Christine having a hard time becoming accustomed to Indian food. Buck also stressed customs that were alien to Broadway audiences; when an Indian needs new clothes, he visits relatives and borrows theirs. When he’s sick, friends come to visit, for their presence alone is expected to cure him.
Sexist attitudes would make CHRISTINE a dubious bet for revival. At an Indian dinner, men are always served before women. A woman from a “good” family was never seen walking alone in town. And how about this one: a woman for her entire life was under the authority of three men: her father, her husband and her SON.
But many an American housewife who caught CHRISTINE must have sharply elbowed her husband when the show established that in India men were fully expected to help with domestic chores.
So give a listen to CHRISTINE during this Holi time of The Festival of Love and The Festival of Colors. To note the latter event, watch “Quintet” in the WEST SIDE STORY film. While Tony is singing his final notes, you can see the CHRISTINE three-sheet (or, as it’s more commonly called, poster) plastered on the wall next to him. Yes, the show ran all of ten days, but it’ll always be around, thanks to that perennial.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday atwww.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.