FIE! FIE! FI-FI!
Musical Theater Research ProjectJanuary, 1998
An F. Scott Fitzgerald musical? you’re thinking. Yes, Fitzgerald did try his hand at musical comedy just once. When he was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Princeton University he provided the book and the lyrics for “Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!”, a presentation of the Princeton University Triangle Club. Four undergraduate students—Dudley Griffin, Alfred Booth, Paul Dickey, and W.M. Spencer, provided the score. After a successful run at the university, the show, like all Triangle shows, went on tour during the Christmas vacation.
Unlike previous years, this year’s presentation really focuses on the show’s book and lyrics and not the music. We were very lucky in that The John Church Co. published the entire score, but finding the whole of Fitzgerald’s text proved to be a problem. When Fitzgerald’s script was selected, the president of the Triangle Club, Walker Ellis, began revisions to expand his role of Sady Hanks. Opening night the program carried the credit: Book by Walker M. Ellis, Lyrics by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald preferred to call Walker’s work on the book a reconstruction. There are only two surviving copies of Fitzgerald’s script—Ellis’ revised copy is at the Princeton University Library, and a copy marked by J.B. Everett, the original Dr. Blossom, and the full score were published in facsimile last year as part of the Fitzgerald centennial. We are using the latter version which comes as close as possible to Fitzgerald’s original. Everett wrote in all Ellis’ changes, but crossed out many of Fitzgerald’s lines. The task became discovering what was crossed out to get to Fitzgerald’s original. In some ways we were pleasantly surprised to find material much better than Ellis’ revision. In other’s we discovered obvious reasons for a re-write. But this evening you will see “Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!” as originally intended by F. Scott Fitzgerald—warts and all.
There are many references in the show that today’s audiences may not understand. For instance a “Bowery Salon” was a bar frequented by sailors and wharf rats; wrist watches were considered effeminate before the 1920s; and a very popular phrase of the day was: Pins and needles/Needles and pins/When a man marries his trouble begins. The character of Mrs. Bovine mangles this last line, and a few others you may know.
Fitzgerald was cast in the role of Celeste, but due to his poor grades could not appear in the show and the role went to one of the composers, Dudley Griffin. That did not stop him from having his picture taken as a chorus girl. Being a chorus girl in a Triangle show was by far the sought after role. At a time when co-educational schools were rare, both sexes in a play were portrayed by the available student body. Therefore, it was not unusual to view a Princeton show with men dressed as women. It was no more unusual than attending an all girl performance of “Hamlet” at Vassar. Remember the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, in the century before, had made quite an impression as the despondent Dane.
The only material added to this performance of “Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!” is the “bits” or “shtick.” These gags were once the stock and trade of all comedy performers: prate falls, double takes, and broad comedy. The play, as written, does provide one classic truth of comedy: No matter how weak the material, a man in a dress is funny. It still works today. Think of “Tootsie,” Milton Berle, or “The Birdcage.” The reverse is not necessarily as true. Women dressed as men tend to make a statement. Men dressed as women are just funny. And, some men dressed as women are hilarious.
As you can see, this year we have a set, thanks to a production last semester of “The Boyfriend.” Their setting of the 1920s French Riviera was not too far removed from our setting of 1914 Monte Carlo. And, we have costumes this year—a far cry from the concert versions we have done in the past.
This has been a furious three-week rehearsal period, but it has also been the most enjoyable production I have worked on in my career. Many rehearsals were spent in uncontrollable laughter, and much of the shtick came from the actors themselves. I’d like to thank them for their excellent work and for taking the risk of performing in an 85-year-old musical comedy with the style of seasoned professionals. I also would like to thank Maureen Codelka, our music director, who provided the vocal arrangements you will hear tonight, and Dr. Nicolas Catravas who is, as always, a model of dedication and a veritable symphony at the keyboard.
I would also like to thank Hugh Wachter of the Princeton Club of Washington for supplying me with background information on the original production. His article about our production in the club’s newsletter provided me with a sweet surprise when Princeton alumnus Lambert Heyniger contacted me to see if his father C. Lambert Heyniger had appeared in the original production. I told Mr. Heyniger that his father had indeed appeared in the production as Fernando Del Monte. “Your father must have had a fabulous voice,” I told him. “Del Monte’s music was not only frequent, but difficult.” “My father,” Mr. Heyniger told me, “was 6"7' and a member of the Princeton football team. He was offered a contract to the Metropolitan Opera while still an undergraduate.” Mr. Heyniger plans to attend one of our performances this weekend.
Thank you and I hope that you will enjoy the performance.