A Second Chance to Appreciate Dear World By Peter Filichia
Here’s betting that people enjoy Dear World at the York Theater Company’s Musicals in Mufti this weekend much more than audiences did in 1969.
Not just because it has a fine leading lady in Tyne Daly. After all, the original production had no less than Angela Lansbury, who, two years earlier, had won a Best Actress Tony over those two formidable Harrises (Barbara and Julie) and had sent Gwen Verdon to her first-ever Tony loss.
Lansbury was one of the reasons that people’s expectations for Dear World were stratospherically high. They always are when creators of a smash-hit announce that they’re reuniting to do a new show.
So in the summer of 1968 when the Times proclaimed “From Mame to Madwoman,” Broadway aficionados were overjoyed. Dear World, a musicalization of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, wouldn’t only have Mame’s star as Madwoman Aurelia, orchestrator Philip J. Lang and musical director Donald Pippin, but would also boast Jane Connell, formerly Lansbury’s Agnes Gooch. She’d now play Aurelia’s equally eccentric friend Gabrielle – a/k/a The Madwoman of Montmarte.
We’re not through. Dear World would be penned by Mame’s bookwriters (Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) and last but not remotely least, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman. At that time, Herman was riding higher than an elephant’s forehead. His Mame and Hello, Dolly! were still on Broadway with the latter on course to toppling My Fair Lady as Broadway’s longest-running musical. Dolly’s title song had become a Number One hit, and the title song to Mame had received more than a modicum of airplay.
So with a track record such as that, how could Dear World possibly have succeeded?
“Oops,” you’re thinking, “Peter meant to write ‘How could Dear World possibly have failed?’” Not at all; for one thing, some may have felt (or hoped) that time had come for Herman to flop. More likely, though, audiences who didn’t know Giraudoux from giraffes expected Herman to give them another wham-bam-thank-you-Jerry barnburner.
They didn’t get it and couldn’t, for The Madwoman of Chaillot is a wistful and delicate play. Aurelia hears that greedy men plan to drill into the streets of Paris to extract the oil that’s gurgling underneath. Aurelia won’t have her beloved city dotted with derricks. With a little help from her friends Gabrielle and Constance – a/k/a The Madwoman of the Flea Market (Carmen Matthews) – they’ll send them all to their doom.
Three good women beat six bad guys? Yeah, it’s wishful-thinking fantasy that played well in the optimistic time after World War II. Madwoman opened in Paris seven months after V-E Day, would be produced on Broadway in 1948 and would win that season’s New York Drama Critics Circle Award as Best Foreign Play. By the end of the turbulent ‘60s, however, its message was harder to swallow. Fewer than nine months after Dear World had opened, a film version of The Madwoman of Chaillot, with Katharine Hepburn fresh off her Oscar-win for The Lion in Winter, was a major financial catastrophe.
Giraudoux’s delicacy required a commensurate score which Herman beautifully – and surprisingly — delivered. What a shame that audiences and critics didn’t admire how much the composer-lyricist had stretched himself.
An opening number called “The Spring of Next Year” sounds lovely, and Herman’s putting it to waltz tempo would suggest that it would be lovelier still. So who’d have expected that the show would start with a Chairman of the Board and his cronies singing of all the money they’ll soon make, and never mind the industrial waste, which Herman literally cites in the lyric.
In contrast, the waltz Herman gives to his heroine is a ferocious one: “I Don’t Want to Know” has Aurelia say that she wants to live with her “head in the sand.” This is before she causes the villains to wind up with their faces in the dirt.
Those who say Lansbury is no singer – she’s never made a solo album – need to hear her at the end of this song. She holds “know” for eight solid seconds.
“Each Tomorrow Morning” has Aurelia predate Annie Warbucks’ optimism of the upcoming twenty-four hours. “And I Was Beautiful” has her look at her romantic history as half-full rather than half-empty. “Kiss Her Now” is her advice to Julian, a young man whom she knows should seize love where he can find it with Nina. By then we’ve already heard the young lass state “I’ve Never Said I Love You,” a title that suggests she’s turning down an admirer. No – the title should be punctuated: “I’ve Never Said ‘I Love You,’” for she never has uttered those three little words to anyone, but wishes she could. Nina’s saving them for the right man, and in time she’ll find him.
When a Sewerman waxes nostalgic about the superior quality of yesterday’s “Garbage,” Herman chose music’s most passionate style: a tango. “One Person” is Aurelia’s staunch march that reminds us of the power a single man or woman has without realizing it.
(Here’s a chance to note the difference between Herman and Sondheim. Both of them have written that any human being “can change the world,” but Herman in Dear World insists that one person can change it for good while Sondheim in Assassins points out that a mere single individual person can make it substantially worse.
The most ambitious piece is “The Tea Party,” in which Constance, Gabrielle and Auriela each get a song – and then sing all three together. Needless to say, that’s not easy to accomplish, but Herman did.
So what went wrong? Dear World didn’t open until it had played a whopping forty-five previews. Compare that to the musicals that opened immediately before and after it – Celebration and 1776 – each of which offered a mere five previews. And before you can say, “Yeah, but they went out of town and worked out their troubles there,” may I add that Dear World did, too. (Take it from this native Bostonian who saw it at the now-about-to-be-reborn Colonial Theatre.)
So by the time Dear World opened on Feb. 6, 1969, the many postponements that had been reported in the press made theatergoers and critics assume that the show couldn’t be any good. In fact, on April 20, 1969 — the night the Tonys would be bestowed — Alexander H. Cohen, the awards’ executive producer, came out before the show to warm up the Mark Hellinger audience by quipping “Welcome to the final preview of Dear World.” The joke was at his own expense, for he was the musical’s producer.
And yet, the night wasn’t a total loss. Angela Lansbury won her second Tony for her dynamic and yet heartbreaking performance as Aurelia, beating out two Broadway veterans (Dorothy Loudon and Maria Karnilova) and one newcomer (Jill O’Hara).
Still, Cohen also knew from the meagre grosses that Dear World was not long for this one. Indeed, a mere forty-one days later, it closed after 132 performances. It was just another disappointment for Carmen Matthews, who never had any luck with Broadway musicals; her other five averaged fourteen performances each.
Some also blamed the jaunty title song. Herman himself has admitted “This is one of the only songs I’ve ever written that I wish I hadn’t.” Actually, the melody is rather good, but one doesn’t expect a Jerry Herman lyric to include the words wounded, poisoned, sick, fever, crutches, beaten, blinded, bandage, critical list and terminal case.
Never mind. Audiences this week and next at the York will have the chance to see the worth of Dear World while being treated to a blue-chip star as Aurelia. Interestingly enough, Tyne Daly was the second actress to win a Tony for playing Rose in Gypsy after Angela Lansbury was the first to achieve the honor.
But those who can’t make the York staged reading can still hear Lansbury and a different side of Jerry Herman through Dear World’s excellent original cast album.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.