By Peter Filichia —
You may know Song of Norway, for which Robert Wright and George (“Chet”) Forrest adapted melodies from Norwegian classical composer Edvard Grieg. In the ‘40s, it ran two years and was eventually made into a feature film.
You undoubtedly know Kismet, for which the same Wright and Forrest adapted melodies from Russian classical composer Alexander Borodin. In the ‘50s, it ran sixteen months, won the Tony Award® as Best Musical and was also made into a feature film as well as a TV special.
But you may not know another musical for which Wright and Forrest adapted no one’s melodies. For Kean, a 1961 short-lived show, the team wrote from scratch a grand and ambitious score full of clever lyrics and magnificent music.
Well, almost. One song, “Willow, Willow, Willow,” has a lyric by William Shakespeare. It comes from Othello, in which Desdemona sings it. Now, with a different melody, it soars again. How lucky we are to have it and the original cast recording back with us again.
Kean was based on the life of London-born Edmund Kean (1789-1833), who was considered the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. He delivered his first acting job at ten – albeit not on stage; he pretended to be deaf and lame so that he wouldn’t have to work as a cabin boy on a ship.
But by 14, young Edmund had made it to the stage, playing Hamlet in the provinces. Soon after, he was making command appearances for King George III.
There’s an irony here. The book for Kean was written by Peter Stone, who had Kean say that “performing for King George III was the highest honor.” But eight years later in 1776, Stone was writing for characters that had very different opinions of King George III.
One of the most famous of London theaters today is the Drury Lane, but historians note that it almost went bankrupt in 1814. Kean’s success as Shylock, quickly followed by his Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear – and both Othello and Iago — turned the theater around.
When you’re that accomplished, women will flock to you. Into Kean’s life two fall: Elena, a countess whom he loves, and Anna, a would-be actress whom he mentors. There are the usual complications of such a triangle, but the stakes go higher. When Kean is on stage and sees that the Prince of Wales has Elena in his royal box – and that they’re blatantly mocking Anna – he breaks character and berates both of them. (That Kean is, as usual, a little intoxicated doesn’t help.) His rant gets him in serious trouble with the monarchy and his fans, and he must apologize publically.
The musical was based on the 1836 play Kean that had been written by Alexander Dumas pere. An example of how skillful it is can be seen from one exchange. Two women are talking, and one says, “I saw the most magnificent actor last night.” Lesser playwrights would have the other woman say, “Who?” but Dumas had her simply state, “Then you saw Kean.”
The project actually originated with Alfred Drake, who had the requisite grandeur and charisma, not to mention the voice. But Drake was ideally cast in another way: Kean was said to be short, and Drake was as well — five foot seven — although both seemed larger on stage.
Chita Rivera once told me that she agreed to be in Zenda, a 1963 musical that would close in California, because Drake would be in it. “I had seen Alfred Drake on stage, and I was so blown away by him. I thought he was the most amazing creature I’d ever seen, a real Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I told my agent I’d do anything to work with him. And I walked in on the first day of rehearsal and there was this small little man with a nondescript face. It wasn’t the same Alfred Drake I had seen on stage, and I realized that once he put on the mustache and pants and open shirt and started with the swashbuckling, that’s when the magnetism kicked in.”
Drake had the magnetism for Kean, too. Although it was a heady show, it would have lasted longer had Drake not begun to miss performances – some say from illness, some say from drinking. But he certainly delivered a sober and galvanizing performance on the day of the recording session.
As is the case with many stars, he keeps us waiting for him. The recording opens with a harpsichord, setting the mood for the early 19th century. After a short overture, another Alfred, named DeSio, plays a souvenir vendor at the theater. (And you thought merchandising was a recent innovation.)
He’s selling “pictures of Edmund Kean, in Hamlet, Lear and Cymbeline.” One might smirk that Wright and Forrest chose “Cymbeline” because it rhymes with “Kean,” but the actor did spend some of 1823 appearing in the play (as Posthumus, not the title character, for that isn’t a very large role).
The pictures cost “Penny Plain, Twopence Colored,” which is the title of this glorious opening song that sports one of the most fetching melismas in the history of musicals.
Can you say “melisma”? It’s the term used when a word is stretched over two or more notes: “Thanks a lot, King, says I-I,” sings Eliza in My Fair Lady. “Where-air-air-air-air is love?” asks Oliver in his musical. And while Conrad Birdie’s entreaty to “Bay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-be, gi-ive me one last kiss” would seem to involve the longest, the melisma that DeSio beautifully delivers over six measures is lengthier still and far more exquisite. It and the song are easily worth the price of the album – and Drake hasn’t even come on yet.
But prepare yourself for Drake’s last great burst of vocal glory. Although he would make six more Broadway appearances in the next fourteen years, only one would be in a musical: Gigi, in which he played “the Maurice Chevalier role.” At Lincoln Center, he did reprise his role in Kismet. He was marvelous in both, too, but his songs in each were not musical mountains to climb. Kean’s were, and Drake showed that he could scale the heights (and the scales) in ravishing form.
First comes the plaintive “Man and Shadow,” in which Kean acknowledges that people love him for his abilities and not for himself. In those days, acting was such a scorned profession that performers weren’t allowed to vote. So consorting with a countess would mean “Sweet Danger,” a splendid ballad. (How splendid, you ask? Judy Garland even recorded it. And one can’t say that she did it because her label – Capitol – had the cast album rights; those were held by Columbia.)
Also enchanting is “To Look upon My Love.” The title alone suggests elegance, doesn’t it? Here Kean is looking forward to seeing Elena, but his dresser interrupts to remind him of his massive debts. Eventually Kean must face reality, as the key changes from a confident major to a mournful minor. As for “Elena,” the song is so winning that if Kean had been as successful as West Side Story, many girls today would have been named Elena instead of Maria.
When Elena and Anna inadvertently meet, Drake tries to play peacemaker in “Civilized People.” It’s the most polite catfight you’ll ever hear. The song also serves to remind us that Drake could play comedy as well as play serious and sing extraordinarily.
Drake gets a highbrow version of “Rose’s Turn” in “Apology.” He’ll tell the prince and his public that he’s sorry – but does so by using quotations from Shakespeare. This does not come from Dumas, but was conceived by the songwriters and Stone. Here Kean comes to terms with the fact that in his case, man and actor are one and the same, and he’ll happily live with it.
Kean opened on Nov. 2, 1961 and was gone on Jan. 20, 1962 after 92 performances and was pretty much forgotten by Tony® time. Drake got a nomination, and so did Pembroke Davenport for his conducting, but they respectively lost to Robert Morse and Elliot Lawrence of How to Succeed.
Nevertheless, here is this album that has survived for nearly half a century. You’ll find it much more than keen.
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.