QUEEN OF THE THEATRE By Peter Filichia
This week marks the birthday of someone who was as interested in theater as we are.
Not musical theater, no, because that art form hadn’t yet been born when Queen Elizabeth I of England was on September 7, 1533. But as we approach the 486th anniversary of her coming into the world, let’s celebrate this avid theater enthusiast.
Besides, there are those historians who think that the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn actually wrote some of the plays attributed to one William Shakespeare.
Wouldn’t it be something if Elizabeth had actually written TWELFTH NIGHT? After all, some say that 1601 hit was in essence The First Musical, for it included six songs.
Could be, could be. Elizabeth was noted for her love of music; she played several instruments and employed seventy musicians in her castle. So who knows? Maybe if she did write the play, she might have said “What if I add a few ditties?”
And if Her Majesty had written that 1601 hit, what would she have thought of YOUR OWN THING? That’s its musical version which was the off-Broadway surprise success of the 1967-68 season.
When The New York Drama Critics Circle convened to choose The Best Musical of the Season, four abstained (courteously, we presume) while nine of the sixteen who did cast ballots selected this Danny Apolinar-Hal Hester collaboration.
Although the score was then-contemporary (or mod, if you will), the tunes today still come across as fun, attractive, soaring and sensitive.
Fewer than two dozen musicals have ever been issued as mass-market paperbacks; in 1970, YOUR OWN THING became one of the handful. It was, to be sure, packaged with TWELFTH NIGHT so one could compare and contrast.
If Elizabeth were able to have paid a royal visit to our shores when it was hitting bookstores, she probably would have read it from cover to cover. All the way she would have been remarking on the wonders of this new-fangled thing called the paperback.
And if Her Royal Highness had been amazed by a softcover book, what would she have thought of film? YOUR OWN THING almost became one, for it was sold to Hollywood for $750,000. Considering that the stage show cost around $25,000, the backers got back many a pretty penny (and even prettier dollars) for their investment.
Irene G. Dash, in her well-researched and nicely written SHAKESPEARE AND THE AMERICAN MUSICAL, found the unused screenplay. Then she spent a few paragraphs telling the differences between the stage show and the planned film.
QEI might very well have especially liked YOUR OWN THING because she was seen in it. No, she wasn’t an actual character but she appeared thanks to slide projections (a brand-new device back then) along with John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Jesus Christ and others.
If the Queen’s being relegated to a slide might have had her sniff “We are not amused,” she might have felt better about her appearance in the 1976 musical REX. This was Richard Rodgers’ penultimate show and, as of this writing, Sheldon Harnick’s last full set of produced lyrics.
Rodgers was famous for his waltzes, and he started REX with a dandy: “No Song More Pleasing.” Some would argue that the score DID have a song more pleasing: “Away from You,” which Henry sang to Anne while courting her.
Anne was played by Penny Fuller, and if later anyone thought that Elizabeth was the spitting image of her mother, there was good reason: Penny Fuller played both parts.
Although Fuller had played Eve in APPLAUSE, her Elizabeth had nothing in common with the former Gertrude Slescynski. This princess was a nice and charming young woman who told her brother Edward – first in line to the throne — that he’d warm up to being king “In Time.” The song has a lovely tick-tock melody to match simple but hardly simplistic lyrics.
Take a look at the 1575 portrait of Elizabeth in the National Gallery and you’ll see that the monarch had red hair. Thus she would have been drawn to REDHEAD, the musical that gave Gwen Verdon her fourth Tony.
Verdon usually played ladies of questionable virtue, but here was a real change of pace for the star. Essie Whimple, living in 1880s London, feared that she’d become what women back then dreaded becoming: An Old Maid. Would Essie’s plaintive “The Right Finger of My Left Hand” have resonated with The Virgin Queen, or would she have thought Essie silly for not asking herself “Why do I think I am nothing without a man?”
Rumor has it that Elizabeth asked Shakespeare to write a play where Falstaff, whom she so admired in HENRY IV, PART ONE, would fall in love. If she enjoyed the knight’s bumbling attempts to seduce two wives, she would have laughed heartily at OH CAPTAIN! when Henry St. James, who was juggling a wife in London and a lover in Paris, got caught. She might have also liked the score written by three-time Oscar-winners Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.
Portraying St. James (not at the St. James, but the Alvin) was Tony Randall. This 1958 musical was the only one that THE ODD COUPLE star ever did on Broadway. As he was fond of telling people, Herald-Tribune dance critic Walter Terry said that when Randall danced, he “tortured the air.”
You won’t get that on the original cast album. What is of greater interest to musical theater enthusiasts (if not Elizabeth) is that the OH CAPTAIN! cast included Susan Johnson in her first musical to reach Broadway after THE MOST HAPPY FELLA.
(Alas, THE CAREFREE HEART – a musical version of Moliere’s THE DOCTOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF — had closed on the road some months before.)
Johnson played neither St. James’ wife nor mistress, but an entertainer who sang “Give It All You Got.” If you know anything about Johnson, you know she did just that in a performance that had to be fit for a Queen.
Jule Styne wrote so many brash Broadway melodies – “Everything’s Coming up Roses” (GYPSY), “I’m Goin’ Back” (BELLS ARE RINGING), “Hello, Hazel” (HAZEL FLAGG) – that we forget that he, like Elizabeth, was born in England. Elizabeth might well have enjoyed his elegant score for DARLING OF THE DAY (with its witty E.Y. Harburg lyrics worthy of – yes – Shakespeare).
The Queen might well have nodded in recognition when hearing Patricia Routledge ask “Where would Britain be without a gentleman’s gentleman?” given that Elizabeth had quite a few them waiting on her hand, foot and every other part of her body.
And whether or not King Arthur and his round table actually existed – most historians say they didn’t – Lerner and Loewe’s CAMELOT might have helped Elizabeth make up her mind on the matter.
If Elizabeth thought that Shakespeare’s comedies were great fun, she would have probably roared (as the rest of us have) if she’d lived to see Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. Even without any knowledge of that masterpiece, she (and you) would enjoy ERNEST IN LOVE, its off-Broadway musical version that debuted on May 4, 1960.
The score does sound authentically Victorian England, which is impressive when one considers that its composer was one Lee Pockriss. Less than a month after ERNEST had debuted, he saw the song he co-wrote with Paul Vance released, quickly hit Number One and sold more than a million copies. Its title? “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
Pockriss was in loftier territory with wordsmith Anne Croswell, who delivered one of my all-time favorite lyrics. Lady Bracknell takes great umbrage after Jack – a potential husband for her daughter Gwendolyn – had informed her that he was abandoned by his parents and left in a cloakroom in Victoria Station (The Brighton Line, in case you’re wondering.)
Sang the haughty Lady, “I’d welcome to my bosom any bachelor whose fam’ly was highly regarded. But I cannot let my daughter wed a satchel, or a parcel that someone discarded.” Elizabeth AND Shakespeare would have loved that one.
And if the Queen had been around from 1956 on, she might have raved as much as everyone else about MY FAIR LADY.
However, she might have taken greater umbrage than Lady Bracknell’s when hearing “Just You Wait.” For after Eliza fantasizes that the King would wish that all of England sing her praises, she responds with “Thanks a lot, King.”
After hearing that, Elizabeth’s haughty side might well have had her bolt up from her seat in the royal box and yell to Eliza “That’s ‘Your Majesty’ to you!”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.