By Peter Filichia —
Two hundred years ago this week, a star was born.
Edmund Kean was a journeyman actor until January 26, 1814. On that night, he played Shylock at the Drury Lane, London’s most famous theater. His portrayal of Shakespeare’s sometimes-victimized and sometimes-vicious Jew in The Merchant of Venice made him the 19th century’s first superstar. The fine-looking butch actor would eventually conquer Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, too.
So I had my own little Edmund Kean celebration to mark the event.
First I remembered that heavenly September 20, 1977, when I went to the fondly remembered Meat and Potatoes Theatre Company, where many an old play was resurrected. This time it was Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1953 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ 1836 play Kean.
All would-be playwrights and novelists should pay attention to and learn from one exchange between two women.
The first one said, “I went to the theater last night and saw the most magnificent actor.”
You’re expecting that the second woman said “Oh? Who?” so that the first woman could say, “His name is Edmund Kean, and …”
No. Sartre and/or Dumas was smarter than we. For after the first woman said “I went to the theater last night and saw the most magnificent actor,” the second woman smiled sweetly and simply said, “Then you saw Kean.”
Concise! Economical! Exposition eliminated faster! It also immediately characterized the second woman as a smart one who has her finger on the cultural pulse.
Next I watched Kean, the 1924 film – a silent, of course – that had been adapted from the same play. Once again I was reminded that what’s considered handsome in one age is not considered handsome in another, for Ivan Mozzhukhin appeared to me to be a mixture of Danny Kaye and another silent star (albeit in sound movies): Harpo Marx.
It’s a fascinating film. The first ten minutes show Kean playing Romeo, and every time a title card is shown, it always features one of Romeo’s lines and never one of Juliet’s. At the curtain call, only Kean comes out. Not even his Juliet shares the stage with him.
Much is made in the Sartre/Dumas play that Kean is not only broke, but that he also owes a phenomenal number of francs. Because he is not a credit to his creditors, Kean must pull many a ruse to outwit them. Here’s where the camera opens up the action, by having Kean don a disguise, escape and go night-clubbing. The film shows what must be another ten minutes of him drinking and dancing — which does lend itself to a musical, doesn’t it?
That brings us to Kean, the 1961 musical that was dogged by bad luck. A few years before his death, I became friendly with bookwriter Peter (1776) Stone, the three-time Tony-winning librettist who started his musical theater career by adapting Kean.
Stone told me that when he was living in Paris in 1953, he saw the first production of the Sartre adaptation and was tremendously taken with it. When he returned to New York in the late ‘50s, his agent Robert Lantz asked him if I’d like to write the book for this musical version of Kean that he was producing with Alfred Drake in the lead.
How could Stone say no? After he had moved to New York from California in the late ‘40s, the first show he saw was Kiss Me, Kate in which Drake starred and conquered. In fact, in 1990, when the Tony Awards committee decided on giving Drake an “Honor for Excellence in the Theatre,” Stone insisted that he be the one to bestow the prize – and did.
Stone also told me that one of the first things he did was seek advice from Frank Loesser, who was always gracious in helping newcomers – including Sherman Edwards on 1776, Meredith Willson with The Music Man, and Adler and Ross on The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. He learned what every bookwriter had to face: if you write a good scene, it will be appropriated by your songwriters. He mentioned that “Let’s Improvise,” one of the most impressive of the many impressive cuts on Kean’s original cast album, was much influenced by what he had originally written as a book scene.
I’m here to say he was telling the truth. In 1998, at a tribute to Stone by the York Theatre Company, his original scene was read. It was amazingly close to what Robert Wright and George Forrest musicalized.
Stone also had an inspired idea for the end of the show. In the original play, Kean infuriates the Prince of Wales, which turns the noble and every commoner against him. He falls into obscurity and dies. Stone, however, found a happier ending: Kean would say he was sorry from the stage, but would use Shakespeare’s dialogue to apologize. That not only kept him from actually humbling himself, but also supported one of the musicals main themes: that Kean couldn’t separate himself from any of the roles he played.
All well and great – but Stone said that he spent days finding the right quotations from Shakespeare to make the scene work. Of course, Wright and Forrest immediately set it to music as “Apology?” Note the question mark to stress that the true level of apology is up for debate. Think of “Apology” as a highbrow version of “Rose’s Turn.”
Stone had fond memories of the Boston tryout, where the reviews were rapturous. But he said that Wright and Forrest became smug and didn’t do enough work. How well I remember the way that Stone put it: “In Philadelphia and then on Broadway, the show got worse by not getting better — which is death. Then Drake became ill,” he said diplomatically, avoiding the long-heard rumors that the star’s drinking problems did in the show.
Perhaps, but Drake was superb on Nov. 12, 1961 when he recorded this album in what would be his last great burst of vocal glory. Yes, he did well a dozen years later by Gigi, but the songs weren’t as demanding as they were here. He conquers “Sweet Danger,” a bolt-of-lightning ballad; the romantic “Elena,” in which he champions one of his loves; then in “Civilized People,” he shows how funny he can be: Kean the tomcat tries to stop a catfight between Elena and her rival Anna, both of whom are vying for his affections.
That was the thing about Drake: this dynamic, virile man had a sense of humor and a way with comedy. Anyone who’s listened to Kiss Me, Kate learned that in “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” when Drake suddenly put a silly spin on the word “Alice.” It was completely unexpected in the midst of this fervent song.
Drake also shines in “To Look upon My Love,” in which he tells his manservant Solomon about Elena – all as Solomon is reminding him of how penniless he has become. “That’s it!” Drake roars, after one too many reminders of insolvency. “You’ve shattered my mood!” And he proves it by then singing the song in a minor key.
What a great idea from Robert Wright and George Forrest. By 1961, Broadway was only seeing them as mere “adapters” who took classical composers’ work and massaged it into such musicals as Song of Norway, Kismet and a few others. Here we hear them as genuine composers as well as lyricists in this elegant score.
Yes – elegant: that’s the word for Kean. How many overtures start with a harpsichord? Then comes the rumble of the brass to tease us into “Sweet Danger” before we get an opening number that is certainly sui generis: “Penny Plain, Twopence Colored.”
It’s sung by Christie, a street peddler who’s selling “beauteous pictures of Edmund Kean / in Hamlet, Lear and Cymbeline.” And you thought merchandising at shows was a recent phenomenon! No, there it was in the early 1800s, where Christie sold a black-and-white photo of Kean for a penny and a color one for twice as much. (Prices have gone up, haven’t they?)
“Penny Plain, Twopence Colored” may very well have the most glorious melisma in the history of musical theater. It’s many measures long, exquisitely sung by Alfred De Sio and brings the number to a lovely conclusion.
Happily, there are still twelve more songs to go.