Here’s a musical that Moliere and Eugene Ionesco might have loved.
It’s also one that Kurt Weill could have written had he lived nineteen years longer and had moved off-Broadway. Its song “The Clothes Make the Man” is a title worthy of Weill’s longtime collaborator Bertolt Brecht.
Such is the world of PROMENADE, which is receiving a concert rendering at Encores! Off-Center this week.
The musical is off-the-beaten-path – and so was the venue in which this wildly original musical started life in 1965. The Judson Memorial Church is where Rev. Al Carmines was in service and in residence. Between its walls he’d often mount his off-the-wall musicals.
This time Carmines collaborated with a bookwriter destined to be honored on Christopher Street’s Playwrights Walk of Fame: Maria Irene Fornes.
For those who are curious but won’t be anywhere near West Fifty-Fifth Street on July 10th and 11th, there’s the cast album from the production that opened on June 4, 1969. It debuted at a brand-new off-Broadway theater, and, in the show’s honor, the playhouse was named The Promenade.
While two convicts – solely named 105 and 106 – are trying to dig their way out of prison, their Jailer complains that he’s had the tougher day. This correction officer has been bedding some inmates’ wives and girlfriends – and that takes it out of a man.
The Jailer’s is so exhausted from copulating that he doesn’t notice that 105 and 106 have dug their way out of prison.
They wind up at a posh party. For good reason the show’s logo references a young nude woman’s jumping out of a cake, for that happens in the show.
(Remember: PROMENADE opened fewer than nine months after HAIR, which introduced unclothed bodies to the New York stage.)
The high-toned society ladies at the party surprise when they sing that they’d like to be naked, too. Carmines wrote them an operetta-like melody to contrast with their baser – and real – feelings.
Much of the show deals with the haves vs. the have-nots. That’s in keeping with Moliere’s favorite theme that those relegated to the underclass are ultimately smarter than their so-called betters. The fiscally-challenged have cultivated street smarts that the rich haven’t learned due to their rarified living.
Case in point: When 105 and 106 help themselves to some fat cats’ possessions, one cries out “Where is my pearl stickpin?!” before another says “Where is my monogram?!” The implication is that these people are so clueless that they wouldn’t even know who they are without identifying labels.
Society has stripped 105 and 106 of their names and identities yet the high muckety-mucks don’t fare much better. Carmines and Fornes only give them single initials instead of full last names: Miss I, Miss O and Miss U rub elbows with Mr. R, Mr. S and Mr. T.
One wouldn’t be surprised to see Ionesco smile at such lines as “God gave us understanding just to confuse us” or “Every time he plucked petals from a flower, the answer was always ‘She loves me not.’”
That last one leads to Carmines’ “Unrequited Love,” a true valse macabre.
When a man is hit by a car and says he’s cold, 105 and 106 take pity on him and literally take the shirts off their backs to ease his chilliness. The Jailer who’s been looking high, low and in between for the fugitives sees the shirt that says “105” and cries out “That’s one of them!” When he turns the injured man around and sees “106,” he yells “That’s the other one!”
Wouldn’t Ionesco have loved that one?
The gag also ties into the feelings that many young people – then definitely PROMENADE’s target audience – believed at the time: New York’s Finest wasn’t so fine.
A show that’s fifty-four years old must endure some concepts showing their overlong shelf-life. One song extolls the virtues of cigarette smoking, but even the Surgeon General would find Carmines’ Weillian air a breeze of fresh air.
“Besides,” says longtime Broadway observer Paul Roberts, “that song could just as easily be called ‘The Toothpick Song’ as ‘The Cigarette Song.’”
(Make no sense? All right – but the explanation is the type that PROMENADE loves to give.)
One sequence that we hope stays dated is one where soldiers go to war. Given that 1969 was the half-way mark of America’s involvement in Vietnam, PROMENADE commented on young men who either endured the draft or volunteered because life had given them few if any other opportunities. “A Poor Man” comments on this, with “poor” meant in both senses of the word.
This is a bigger issue than the one that got also as much attention from America’s middle-aged middle class. “This is my son,” says Miss R before adding “He needs a haircut.”
Although the original cast featured two future Tony-winners – Madeline (THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG) Kahn and George S. (IRENE) Irving – they left the show before the recording was made. But we still have Shannon Bolin, the wife that Joe Hardy missed in DAMN YANKEES, and Alice Playten, the original Ermengarde in HELLO, DOLLY!
Bolin gets “I Saw a Man,” the eleven o’clocker in which she proclaims “I know everything,” before admitting “Half of it I really know; the rest I made up.”
(That’s probably true of all of us.)
Playten is Miss U, who explains in song that she’s “Capricious and Fickle” for good reason: that’s the way men have treated her.
The conclusion reached at the end of this rich vs. poor tale is a twentieth century take on Marie Antoinette’s alleged eighteenth century remark: “For those who have no cake, there’s plenty of bread.” There’ll also be plenty to enjoy both through PROMENADE’S cast album and its airing this week at Encores!