It’s often been said that the first sign of truly growing up occurs when people ask your age and you stop adding “and a half” to the figure.
Adrian Mole hadn’t yet reached that point, as you can tell from the title of the British musical THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE, AGED 13 ¾.
You may say, “Oh, I’ve had the cast album from this show since the eighties.” Actually, no. This is NOT the 1984 musical version that played Wyndham’s Theatre in London. It’s a new one that young adult novelist Sue Townsend herself was working on with composer-lyricist Pippa Cleary and bookwriter-lyricist Jake Brunger when she died in 2014.
Like everything else ADRIAN MOLE, it lives on, ever since Townsend’s 1982 book wound up selling 20 million copies. It led to seven sequels.
Cleary’s bouncy early-eighties-centric music won’t be the only clue that we’re in 1981. The lyrics that she and Brunger provided for “Royal Wedding” celebrate a union between a prince named Charles and his fiancée Diana.
In the recording’s first few seconds, there’s a wonderfully whimsical moment that will give you confidence that the show will have imagination. It’s New Year’s Eve in a not-so-fancy English suburb, and we’re at the final countdown to the New Year.
“Ten!” cries Mr. Lucas, the Moles’ neighbor.
“Nine!” exclaims Adrian’s would-be-love Pandora.
“Eight!” exudes Adrian’s Grandma.
“Seven!” proclaims Bert, a senior citizen whom Adrian helps.
“Six!” shouts Adrian’s mother Pauline.
And then in the “Five!” spot comes the whimsy. It’s never actually stated – for instead we get a “Woof!” from Adrian’s dog.
It’s perhaps the first bark heard in an opening number since YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN — and it may well put the same smile on your face.
“Four!” gets chimed in by George, Adrian’s father; “Three!” by Miss Elf, Adrian’s teacher. “Two!” goes to Nigel, Adrian’s best buddy and “One!” is reserved for Our Hero: Adrian Mole, three months away from his fourteenth birthday on April 2nd.
If you’re around Adrian’s age, you’ll relate to his problems with “spots.” No, they’re not in his eyes; they’re what we in America call “acne.”
If you’re substantially older and your skin is as smooth and clear as BYE BYE BIRDIE’S Kim McAfee when she was fifteen (in the stage show; it took Ann-Margret in the film a year longer), you’ll recall those times when you were never fully dressed without a tube of Clearasil.
Life is spotty for Adrian’s mother, too, albeit in a very different context. She wants to be faithful to her husband, but she no longer loves him. Heavy drinking and abusive behavior are good reasons why.
And here’s Mr. Lucas promising her a better life and “Begging You for More.” He’s sincere when he says he wants more attention and love; when he wants a kiss, however, Pauline knows that if she gives him that “you’ll be begging for more.”
Eventually she succumbs. “Perfect Mother,” her goodbye letter to Adrian, has her admit that she isn’t one. She apologizes for what she feels she must do in the score’s most poignant song.
Adults and adolescents have at least one thing in common, shown through “My Lost Love.” Not having the person you want knows no age limit. George now realizes what life without a wife means; conversely, Adrian’s “lost love” is one he hasn’t yet had: Pandora Braithwaite, the local beauty who sends every straight schoolboy’s heart racing faster than a Triple Crown winner’s at Belmont’s finish line.
So many times in stories such as this the guy doesn’t get the girl. Adrian will. Pandora admires that Adrian will “Take a Stand” against that omnipresent bugaboo of teens everywhere: The School Dress Code. “I’m a mole and not a mouse,” Adrian proclaims in a deft lyric.
So he’ll wear – horrors! – red socks to school, and Pandora joins him in the fight for hosiery freedom.
Fair heart never won fair lady, but courage and a creative brain does from time to time. Pandora officially comes to love Adrian because of his writing. (So do we.) “You’re the new Voltaire!” she says. Soon they’re planning their together-forever future. Adrian tells Pandora that he plans to “take you to Paree, eat a lot of brie — like the bourgeoisie.”
And who else but teens believe their futures will be a series of achieving lofty goals? “We will free Tibet from China, too” they proclaim. Perhaps Adrian is a little more realistic when his goal is to “stop our school from serving stew.”
Then comes July 29, 1981. To capture the elegance of Charles and Diana’s Royal Wedding, Cleary employs music’s most elegant form: the waltz. How fitting that a musical with ¾ in its title has a fine song in ¾ time.
The show gets particularly hard-hitting in a song that may represent a first in musicals: a mother-in-law berating a daughter-in-law for leaving her family. Instead of being shamed, Pauline plays the truth card: “How can you defend him?” The song ends with them singing the same words to each other, but neither Grandma nor Pauline is referring to the same two individuals when each exclaims “This is my son and you are not the perfect mother.”
Meanwhile, George has no trouble finding someone new. We can’t accuse Doreen of not making a supreme effort to be a good would-be-possible-step-mother to Adrian. Oh, she comes on strong in trying to be his “New Best Friend.” Still, Cinderella would have settled for Doreen in a hemidemisemiquaver of a heartbeat.
And an older person advising a younger one is a time-honored convention in musicals. So Adrian gets “Bert’s Advice” on Pauline and George’s breakup: “Just remember it’s not ‘cos of you. You’re their son and you will always be their joy,” before closing with another description of the lad. He must admit that Adrian is “their weird and wacky boy.”
You’ll undoubtedly identify with the adolescent Adrian when he’s having his tonsils removed. We know it’s a minor operation, but afterward Adrian feels so awful that he assumes he’ll never get better and that he’s on his deathbed.
In “If You’d Lived,” he imagines what Pandora will say at his memorial service; worse, he suspects that with him out of the way, Nigel will marry her and have children. Even worse still, there’ll be “none with spots.”
You may flinch when Track Seventeen begins, once you hear a shaky-voiced singer who sounds as if he’s the love child of Florence Foster Jenkins. Ah, but this is the annual Christmas show at Adrian’s school. Guess the drama teacher wanted to get the non-singer out of the way so that the rest of the show could shine.
It does. “The Nativity” is a minor-league JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR school Christmas show in which Adrian partakes. (“Joseph,” says Mary, after the Archangel Gabriel has visited her, “You’re not going to believe the morning I’ve just had!”) The kids’ contemporary humanization of the events continues in fun fashion.
If we’ve made it to Christmas, New Year’s Eve is on the horizon. The show ends with Adrian having made it to fourteen-and-three quarters. For that matter, Townsend’s last book — ADRIAN MOLE: THE PROSTRATE YEARS – has her hero referring to his age as thirty-nine and three-quarters. Yes, he still includes the fraction, despite most everyone else’s tendency to drop it as he ages.
In that way, Adrian Mole is much like Mame: “That’s how young I feel!”