Musical Theater Research ProjectJanuary, 2001
When I began the Musical Theater Research Project in 1996 my plan was to provide our musical theatre students with the opportunity to experience the history and traditions of America's theatrical past. The idea was simple: Why not present concert versions of some of America's vast musical theater treasures that were historically important to the development of the form, but had not been staged since their original runs? So, we began with FLORODORA to experience what audiences over 100 years ago had made America's first blockbuster. The following year, THE PRINCE OF PILSEN helped us to understand how the eventual mixture of nationalities in the US had affected musical comedy. In 1998 we presented FIE! FIE! FI-FI!, an all-male college romp from 1915, and in 1999 A TRIP TO CHINATOWN afforded us the opportunity to present a popular musical vaudeville from the 1880's. Last year we even attempted a Ziegfeld production in miniature when we performed the once popular SALLY, an extravagant musical that had been written to show off the talents of the now forgotten Broadway diva Marilyn Miller. This year we are pleased to present the1919 version of IRENE.
With the end of World War I in 1918, America was seeking entertainment that was light and funny, in direct contrast to the years of seriousness and decimation that had just ended. IRENE, with its "Cinderella" plot, was an immediate success, and produced two standards: "Alice Blue Gown" and "Castle of Dreams." If the latter song sounds somewhat familiar to your classically trained ears, it could be that you remember its melody from Chopin's Minute Waltz--a habit of borrowing from the Polish composer that songwriters Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy would continue in "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." "Cinderella" plots became very popular as a direct result of the success of IRENE. Take a moment to run through your mind the various "beautiful-but-poor-girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks-marries-rich-and-handsome-young-man" plots of dozens of musicals up through "Crazy for You."
Please bear in mind that this is not the 1973 Broadway revival that starred Debbie Reynolds. That production was heavily rewritten for modern audiences and only retained 5 of the original 14 musical numbers. You will be seeing a reconstruction of the original version that ran for 670 performances--a Broadway record that remained unbroken until OKLAHOMA surpassed it 25 years later. The score that we are using, with music by Tierney and lyrics by McCarthy, was printed as a direct result of the equally successful 1920 London production, but it does not include any of the lyric changes that were made for British audiences. The original book, by James Montgomery, proved to be elusive. Our version tonight is based on Montgomery's proposed 1949 revival entitled ALICE BLUE GOWN, which was never produced. I located it at the Library of Congress, and through various published synopses and first-hand accounts of the 1919 production, I was able to separate the original material from Montgomery's rewrite. Actually, it wasn't very difficult. The score provided the original scene structure and Montgomery's later additions to the script were easily detected because his knowledge of theatrical jargon had vastly improved over the 30 years between the 1919 production and the proposed 1949 revival. Additionally, certain changes in public taste and public law had occurred that made it necessary for Montgomery to, not exactly rewrite, but to add new material that de-emphasized certain personality traits of one major character.
If any one component of IRENE has drastically changed while remaining basically the same it is the character of Madame Lucy. In fact, the conflict between freedom of expression and political censorship over the past century of Broadway's history can pretty much be viewed through this character's evolvement from 1919 to today. As originally written by James Montgomery, the character of Madame Lucy is a male dress designer whose inclusion in the plot of IRENE serves as a catalyst through which Irene realizes her ultimate dream to marry a millionaire. As such, Madame Lucy has remained a central character of IRENE throughout the many versions of the show.
In the early part of the last century, writers and producers began to test the limits of public taste by introducing characters and situations that were more and more adult in nature. And, by 1926, things had gotten so out of hand that Mayor Jimmy Walker signed what became known as the "padlock" law. According to law, a theater’s doors would be padlocked and its cast would be imprisoned for presenting material that was found offensive to the public. Offensive material included sex without marriage, homosexuality, prostitution, and any other outward portrayal of sexuality. And, in 1927, Mae West actually spent 3 days in prison for writing and starring in her play SEX. But, when IRENE opened in 1919 there were no padlock laws on the books, and so, the character of Madame Lucy was written as a flamboyant male dressmaker who makes no apologies for his apparent loathing of the female sex. Over the next 50 years Madame Lucy would remain as a leading character in the subsequent movie and stage revivals of IRENE, but not without changing drastically with the times. Although the 1926 silent movie starring Collen Moore as Irene relegates Madame Lucy to a relatively minor character, the 1940 sound remake of IRENE had Ray Milland portraying the leading man Donald Marshall as a closet fashion designer (under the name of Madame Lucy) in order to woo and wed Anna Neagle's Irene. And, in the 1973 revival, Madame Lucy becomes the long-lost lover of Mrs. O'Dare. In the 1949 proposed revival written by James Montgomery, the author cautions the director that the character 'is not written from a 'fairy' viewpoint." Montgomery states that "this man is 100 percent masculine." Then, the author proceeds with his play without changing a word of dialog from the 1919 version. If it is not apparent to anyone reading the script that Madame Lucy is an early attempt at shocking audiences with a gay stereotype, it will become apparent when the other characters in the play constantly refer to the man as "she" and "her." What had happened between the 30 years of the original production and the proposed revival was that Broadway tastes had changed. The era of Rodgers and Hammerstein had ushered in the musical as "family entertainment" and Montgomery, in a bow to public taste, felt compelled to state Madame Lucy's "100 percent" masculinity. He even hastily added a final scene where Madame Lucy not only marries Jane Gilmore, but fathers a son, albeit a son who sings Judy Garland's "The Trolley Song" in his crib. All this while Mrs. O'Dare is constantly referring to Madame Lucy as "Nancy." For our production, all the new material has been cut to get as close to the original play as possible.
IRENE is a star vehicle. The character must act, sing, and dance. She has the bulk of the musical numbers, many of which are throwbacks to operetta, but she must be equally at ease singing—what was new for 1919—jazz. The original Irene, Edith Day, was such a success in the role that she also starred in the London production the following year. Once in Great Britain, Miss Day stayed in England for the remainder of her career. She was so popular with audiences that a cocktail was named for her. Served in a champagne glass, the Edith Day Cocktail contains gin, grapefruit juice, sugar, and an egg white. I don't suggest you try it.
I certainly hope you enjoy our production. The students have worked very hard over the past two weeks (yes, we only get two weeks of rehearsal for the Music Theater Project) and I think that they have learned a great deal from this experience. I wish to thank my choreographer, Katie Schickert, who has provided some of best dance sequences this side of Broadway, and who always seems to understand my "two-left feet" dance vocabulary. Also, I'd like to thank the best cast I've ever had the pleasure of working with as a director. They have made what could have been just a task into a rewarding experience. And, last, but certainly not least, I'd like to thank Nicolas Catravas, our musical director and accompanist. Nicolas and I have been the two constants of the Musical Theatre Research Project for the past 6 years. His dedication and devotion, not to mention his extraordinary pianistic talent, has never ceased to amaze me. I am truly grateful to him for working with us each year.
Now, I am proud to present IRENE. I hope you enjoy the show.