LET’S GO BACK TO DEAR OLD SYRACUSE By Peter Filichia
Actually, logic would decree that Michael Portantiere should hold his concert version of THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE on Dec. 21, not Dec. 29.
For the twenty-first is actually “The shortest day of the year” where daylight is concerned. The Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart score sports a song by that very name.
Perhaps Portantiere was considerate in wanting to give us plenty of time to do our Christmas shopping online. Whatever the case, the chance to hear THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE is always welcomed. When Lehman Engel and Goddard Lieberson were putting together their list of pre-cast-album-era musicals that should be recorded, THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE was one of the first.
The 1938 musical is based on Shakespeare’s THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, in which two sets of identical twins are separated soon after birth. It’s never been considered one of The Bard’s best. Richard Watts, critic for The New York Post in those days, apparently agreed: “If you have been wondering all these years just what was wrong with THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, it is now possible to tell you. It has been waiting for a score by Rodgers and Hart and direction by George Abbott.”
The world had to endure sixteen years before hearing it on vinyl. By then, the nation had often heard the two most famous songs in the score: “Falling in Love with Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” The latter was even sung on a pop record by Rudy Vallee, whom many remember as J.B. Biggley in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING on stage and screen.
In the musical, a distraught Ariana, whose marriage has not met her expectations, sings “Falling in Love with Love.” Her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, spends fewer evenings at home than he does in the best little whorehouse in Greece.
So when his long-lost identical twin visits Ephesus and Ariana spots him in the street, she pulls him inside. That doesn’t do her much good, for Antipholus of Syracuse sees Ariana’s sister Luciana who sees him.
Just one look, that’s all it took.
That brings us to “This Can’t Be Love.” Musicals have offered many Love at First Sight songs: “Make Believe” (SHOW BOAT), “I Could Be Happy with You” (THE BOY FRIEND) and “Fireworks” (DO RE MI) among dozens of others. Those, however, just celebrate the glory of unmitigated love where the singers anticipate no complications. Hart’s lyrics are far more knowing: “This can’t be love, because I feel so well; no sobs, no sorrows, no sighs.”
The rest of the score is terrific, too. The Dromios, servants to the Antipholi, get comic songs with their women: “What Can You Do with a Man?” has Luce wonder about her husband Dromio of Ephesus before ruminating on “He and She” with Dromio of Syracuse. Even the courtesan gets a song about men: “Oh, Diogenes!” she pleads, “Find a man who’s honest.”
Easier said than done.
When casting, Portantiere was able to do 1) what the original stage musical could not; 2) what only half of what the 1940 film did; 3) and what the 1954 studio cast recording didn’t care to do.
My, does that sentence need explanation! Again, the issue here is identical twins. Shakespeare borrowed a plot line from “The Menaechmi”by the ancient Roman Plautus, considered the first comic playwright of worth. (Many of his plays were merged and adapted into A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM). But Plautus had one pair of identical twins involved in an adventure; Shakespeare upped the ante to two.
So what the original production of THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE could not do is secure even one pair of identical twins. With the Dromios, Abbott didn’t even try. He just accepted that one of the reasons why Rodgers and Hart wrote the show was because Hart’s brother Teddy resembled Jimmy Savo, a popular comic of the day.
(Savo, incidentally, almost got his own biomusical in 1966: LITTLE WORLD, HELLO! which was based on his 1947 memoir of the same name. It had so much in-fighting to the point where The Widow Savo threatened to take her case to the Supreme Court. Some shows close after one performance, and some close out of town; LITTLE WORLD, HELLO! “closed” four days before rehearsals were to begin.)
The 1940 BOYS FROM SYRACUSE film, however, did have identical twins – in a manner of speaking. Because film has the ability to split a screen, Allan Jones could be cast as both Antipholi and Joe Penner as both Dromios.
THAT works, but very little else does. Aside from the aforementioned “Falling in Love with Love,” “This Can’t Be Love” and “He and She,” only “Sing for Your Supper” was retained for the film; the other ten heard on the 1954 Masterworks Broadway album were excised.
What IS strange, however, is that two songs that were dropped out of town were brought back and brought into the film. How often does that happen?
But how “Falling in Love with Love” was mangled! It’s one thing for the disillusioned Ariana to sing “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe … playing the fool … juvenile fancy … I was unwise with eyes unable to see.” She has every right to feel this way.
In the film, Antipholus of Syracuse sings to Luciana – his ideal woman – the same lyrics. Make believe? Fool? Unwise? Was anyone paying attention?
On another level, the film goes for easy laughs. It uses more anachronisms than Chad Beguelin did in ALADDIN. The king’s palace is mistaken for The Palace Theatre. A war hero signs autographs. Such colloquialisms as “ain’t,” “oomph” and “wacky” are included as are “chocolate malted” and “pinochle.” Then-famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell’s opening catchphrase “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea” is part of the mix, too.
A woman involved in a chariot race sticks out her left arm before making a left turn. It’s what automobile drivers did before directional signals were invented, but the practice was not in place in B.C. – “Before Cars.”
As for the album, Lieberson saved a little money by using Jack Cassidy to play both Antipholi and, as both Dromios, Stanley Prager (whose name you might just recognize as the director of LET IT RIDE!).
Portantiere is at least going to offer one set of identical twins: John and Matthew Drinkwater will play the Antipholi. He saw them in TITANIC at Wagner College, from which he was graduated, and suggested they appear at Jim Caruso’s cast party. What fun everyone must have had in seeing them play the title characters in JEKYLL & HYDE in “The Confrontation.”
In addition, Portantiere has cast such Broadway stalwarts as Jay Aubrey Jones (CATS), Paula Leggett Chase (A CHORUS LINE) as well as cabaret legend Steve Ross and Sirius XM radio deejay Christine Pedi.
THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE plays Feinstein’s/54 Below on Wednesday, December 29th at 9:45 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $65 along with a $25 minimum. Call 646-476-3551 or visit www.54below.com. However, if you’re not in town, well, that’s what that 1954 recording is for …
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.