By Peter Filichia —
These days, there are some small recording companies that occasionally record cast albums for musicals that last a week or less. But paradoxically, in the Golden Age of Broadway Musicals – roughly considered to be 1943 to 1965 — there weren’t many.
You may have assumed that the first was Anyone Can Whistle (nine performances in 1964) or, if you include operas that had played Broadway, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Maria Golovin (five performances in 1958).
But between these, in 1962, Columbia recorded Half-Past Wednesday, which opened on April 6, 1962 and closed the next night after its second performance.
So why was the label willing to record it? The answer can be found in the typeface: Half-Past Wednesday was in teeny type, while the word Rumpelstiltskin was four times as large and came across as the real title.
Thus, the musical fairy tale could be marketed as a children’s record. In fact, some time later, it was reissued on Harmony, then Columbia’s budget label, which offered many recordings to the under-ten set – with the same diminutive Half-Past Wednesday and much bolder Rumpelstiltskin. Now it’s available again.
It’s one of the Grimm Brothers’ strangest tales, but a listen to Half-Past Wednesday (the name that true musical theater enthusiasts prefer) shows that Robert Colby (music and lyrics), Nita Jones (lyrics) and Anna Marie Barlow (bookwriter) brought a great deal of themselves to the story. The show deserved a much, much much longer run.
First, they fleshed out the story. While the Grimms said that the miller “went to speak to the king,” they created a much more believable situation: the kingdom has an annual fair to which everyone brings His Highness a present. When the miller’s grain doesn’t impress the king, in desperation he says that his daughter Erelda can spin straw into gold. The creators also added that the kingdom is bankrupt and the people are overtaxed, so greed isn’t solely what motivates the king – although he does sing “What’s the Good of Being King (If the King Is Poor)?”
The Grimms had the king say he’d marry the lass if she continued her alchemy. But the adapters created a comic monarch, which is why Dom DeLuise was cast. At least Half-Past Wednesday ran twice as long as DeLuise’s first off- Broadway musical: Another Evening with Harry Stoones, the one-night flop in which he co-starred with another unknown named Barbra Streisand.
So the new writers instead have a prince fall in love with Erelda – and, significantly, before she spins a single straw into gold. The prince shows his sincerity in the waltz “You’re the Sweet Beginning” which he ends with the whimsical “You’re a fairy tale come true.” (He does not sing, “I shall marry the miller’s daughter.”)
That the prince loves her is nice, but Erelda has no idea how she’ll extricate herself from her father’s crazy pledge – until a strange, short man appears. “Your hair is lettuce green,” she exclaims in astonishment, for back then, unlike today, no one had green hair.
The visitor won’t say his name, but Colby assigns him four quarter notes — A-F-D-C – to represent it. And of course the notes are played by Off-Broadway’s Most Valuable Instrument in the ’60s: the xylophone.
“I’m anything but nice, I’m anything but good,” the stranger warns, in essence agreeing with Little Red Riding Hood’s ungrammatical assertion that “nice is different than good” in Into the Woods. Still, as anti-social as the visitor is, he is willing to do the job. “The Spinning Song” is one of those nifty double-time show songs that modulates as the task at hand is getting completed.
Of course, the king wants Erelda to spin more. And while the prince says “It isn’t fair,” both the king and townspeople ask “Why, what’s not fair about no more taxes and no more debt?” It’s a good question.
The Grimms took two nights before their imp demanded that he get the couple’s first-born child in exchange for his upcoming spinning. The musical’s writers smartly cut it to one. (The best musicals make things happen fast.)
Erelda immediately agrees, and a year later, both the king and the miller celebrate that each is a “Grandfather” in a true razz-ma-tazz show song. Playing the miller, incidentally, was Robert Fitch, who in fifteen years would have his best role when he originated the role of Rooster in Annie.
The little straw-spinner shows up to ruin the party and demand the child. When he’s accused of having no heart, he sings that that’s not true: while his father wasn’t human, his mother was, so he has half a heart. Listen carefully to his song “To Wit – To Whoo,” in which he says he’s “pulled in two directions.” Record producer Clifford Snyder had our anti-hero often alternate his lines between the left and right speakers; in this era, stereo was a bigger king than Dom DeLuise.
But half a heart is better than none, and that’s the motivation the authors assign him for giving Erelda the chance to guess his name by half-past Wednesday.
Once he gives the challenge, everyone goes crazy trying to come up with a four-syllable name with the accent on the third syllable. If you have little children, be prepared for their asking to hear this song over and over. They’ll giggle incessantly over the names that are guessed: Belly-button, Needle-nose, Puppy-toes, Knuckle-ears, Pickle-popper , Winkle-dinkle and Diaper-sniper. Certainly this is the first musical (but not the last) to mention the name “Skimbleshanks,” too. (Why no one guesses the far more common “Alexander” is anyone’s guess.)
And for all his talk about being neither nice nor good, even strange, short men need love, too. So when his adversaries spy on him, they hear his introspective soft-shoe, in which he muses that everybody needs “Companionship.” That even includes Noah, whom, he says, even built a “companion ship.”
How he longs for the day when the child will “look up at me and say, ‘Rumpelstiltskin!’” That’s how the voyeurs discover his name – in a far more clever way than just having him sing it aloud, as the Grimms had him do.
Half-Past Wednesday certainly doesn’t sound as if it only ran two performances. It’s a quality work with great imagination. I say you’ll enjoy it from that first four-note phrase – or my name is Rumpelstiltskin.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.