The Oliver Messel Suite By Peter Filichia
Listened to HOUSE OF FLOWERS, GIGI and L’IL ABNER last week.
(I’d advise you to do the same THIS week. There are many pleasures to be had.
Why these three albums? They’d seem to have as little in common as the places in which they were respectively set: The French West Indies of FLOWERS is very far away from the France of GIGI, let alone LI’L ABNER’s mythical Dogpatch.
Many feel that Pearl Bailey reached her apotheosis in HELLO, DOLLY! Yes, she was sensational in it and was an important component in DOLLY’s breaking MY FAIR LADY’s longest-running-musical record. But I’d say she was at her most effervescent in 1954’s In the order that I listened: HOUSE OF FLOWERS.
Bailey was famous for her much-planned “ad-libs,” and one shows up in “Has (sic) I Let You Down?” Even without it, this is one of the stunning numbers from composer Harold Arlen, who’ll always be known for THE WIZARD OF OZ, and lyricist Truman Capote, who’ll always be known for other things.
However, one of the great treats of the album is its generous amount of dance music by Peter Matz. Barbra Streisand fans certainly know his name, for he orchestrated her early albums. But before she came along, he was on Broadway creating such a wondrous Caribbean musical atmosphere that he was hired to do the same for JAMAICA.
If I recall correctly, he did that one just as splendidly. (I’ll listen this week just to make sure.)
GIGI deserves a good deal of credit for creating an overture that included none of the hit songs from the Oscar-winning film. Back in 1973, Broadway was intent on saying “We’re giving you something new” even while it was giving you something old.
Speaking of new, did Alan Jay Lerner write the ever-so-slightly ribald encore for “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” for this production? Or did he write it way-back-when for the 1958 film, only to hear the MGM powers-that-be judge it too salacious?
Lerner really outdid himself with “The Contract,” a nine-minute negotiation over a pre-nuptial agreement. Who’d ever think THAT could become a song? (Why, Alan Jay Lerner, of course.
Despite the fact that L’IL ABNER has a number of jokes that don’t land today – that’s the downside of topical humor – you wouldn’t know it from the cast album. The Gene de Paul-Johnny Mercer score sounds fresh because none of its ideas for songs relied on what was happening in 1956. The score is such a delight that after I finished listening, I went to the soundtrack from the 1959 film and had a great time all over again.
And what spurred my listening to this trio? It all began from my watching a certain film on Turner Classic Movies. Just the title alone will tell you that the 1966 Cannes Film Festival committee didn’t consider it for its Palme D’Or Award.
It’ called NOT WITH MY WIFE, YOU DON’T!
It sounds like a low-wattage British sex farce, but that Larry Gelbart, one of my favorite writers, worked on the screenplay, got me watching.
Gelbart wrote one of Broadway’s funniest musicals (CITY OF ANGELS), co-wrote another (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) and penned the hilarious hit comedy SLY FOX. In addition, he made M*A*S*H a TV classic.
Gelbart’s name came between Norman Panama’s and Peter Barnes’ before the credit “Story by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank.”
Frankly, Frank’s not co-writing the screenplay boded ominously. Previously, he and Panama had worked in some capacity on no fewer than twenty films; for sixteen of them, they co-wrote the screenplays. Why didn’t they collaborate on this one?
Frank was probably busy co-writing the screenplay for A FUNNY THING. But isn’t it a funny thing that Gelbart opted not to adapt his own property but collaborate on (or just doctor?) NOT WITH MY WIFE instead?
Anyway, imagine my astonishment a few minutes into the film when Colonel Ferris (Tony Curtis) greets General Parker (Carroll O’Connor) at Heathrow Airport in London and says “Sir, I reserved the Oliver Messel Suite for you in the Dorchester Hotel.”
Oliver Messel?! OLIVER MESSEL?!?! How did HIS name get into this comedy?! He was the set designer for HOUSE OF FLOWERS and GIGI!
Is the reason for my listening to those albums coming into focus now? Here’s the rest of the explanation: Panama and Frank in 1956 wrote and co-produced the hit Broadway musical LI’L ABNER.
But Messel didn’t do the sets for that. So how did his name wind up in the film?
Ibdb.com has that marvelous feature at the bottom of each person’s entry that allows you to see if he or she worked with someone else. But it revealed that Gelbart never collaborated on anything with Panama, Frank, Barnes OR Messel – at least nothing that reached Broadway.
Well, Messel could have worked with one of them on a show that didn’t brave Broadway. So I checked that marvelous book, BROADWAY BOUND by William Torbert Leonard which deals with shows that closed out-of-town.
It too revealed nothing.
A look at imdb.com also showed no affinities.
Ah, but leave it to Google! It revealed a Playbill article that stated Burt Shevelove – who co-wrote FORUM’s book with Gelbart – stayed “at scenic designer Oliver Messel’s lavish home, where the guest list for dinners or parties included Cecil Beaton, Ned Sherrin, Emlyn and Molly Williams, Coral Browne, Ingrid Bergman, Michael Redgrave and none other than Queen Elizabeth II.”
We can assume, then, can’t we, that Shevelove’s writing partner Gelbart was invited, too?
This also started me wondering about TWANG!! (and, yes, the title was followed by not one but two exclamation points). It was the last produced musical written by Lionel Bart, to whom we’ll always be grateful for OLIVER! Shevelove directed this 1965 fanciful spoof of Robin Hood and Messel designed it. Wonder which of them got the other involved?
But after all this sleuthing, I decided just for the fun of it to see if such a thing as The Oliver Messel Suite ever existed in the London’s posh Dorchester Hotel.
Lo and behold, not only did it, but it also does to this very day. Should you care to rent it, it’ll set you back 3,950 pounds a night – which translates to $5,179 in American money.
Granted, it also includes a “welcome bottle of Krug Grande NV champagne.” Frankly, at that price, the bubbly should flow out of the tap.
Needless to say, The Oliver Messel Suite wasn’t that expensive in 1966 when Colonel Ferris reserved it for General Parker. But you can bet it still cost a bundle back then.
So THAT’S where taxpayers’ money goes …
Well, anyway, anything that spurred me to revisit HOUSE OF FLOWERS, GIGI and LI’L ABNER is a good thing. It would be for you, too.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.