BEING EARNEST: Being a Musical

Excellent lyricist Anne Croswell once told me how she spent her time on a certain afternoon in the late ‘50s.

“I’d been fired,” she said, “so I went home, poured myself a stiff drink, turned on the TV and saw Anna Russell as Lady Bracknell in the Matinee Theatre production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. “

(By the way, can you imagine that as daytime programming today?)

Continued Croswell, “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that make a neat musical?’ Understand, I didn’t know this play beforehand, and had no idea it was a world-wide classic. Had I known that it was a masterpiece, I wouldn’t have touched it.”

However, she did, and the result was ERNEST IN LOVE, the 1960 off-Broadway musical with her fine lyrics and Lee Pockriss’ oh-so-right music.

And yet, fewer than three months later it had closed. That run, however, was twice as long as the one managed by the musical OH, ERNEST! on Broadway in 1927. That was better still than the Alec Wilder-Ethan Ayer-Arnold Sundgaard NOBODY’S EARNEST in 1973, which died in Williamstown.

Yeah, musicalizing a masterpiece is murderously hard if not foolhardy. Before we chide Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska for attempting BEING EARNEST, let’s at least give them credit for a novel take. They’ve set Oscar Wilde’s perfect comedy in London’s swinging ‘60s.

(Well, maybe it’s not so novel. Fifty years ago this past February, Brandeis University did an updated then-contemporary “mod” version of Wilde’s comedy. It started with Algernon not playing a piano as he did in the original play, but a sitar, the instrument that was then all the rage in rock.)

Now at Greater Boston Stage in Stoneham, Massachusetts, BEING EARNEST is having its East Coast premiere. The music carries an atypical double credit: Gordon and Gruska BOTH wrote it. Usually when two collaborators do a show, one writes music while the other tackles book and lyrics; here they’re solely Gordon’s.

Not, as was established in a classic sitcom, that there’s anything wrong with that.

In case you, like Croswell, don’t know the original play, it involves Algernon Moncrieff and Cecily Cardew, who fall in love at first sight. She, however, thinks that he’s Ernest Worthing, the estranged brother of Jack Worthing.

Actually, Ernest doesn’t exist, but is a “person” whom Jack uses as an excuse to get out of something he doesn’t want to do.

Similarly speaking, Jack’s friend Algernon has created a fictional Mr. Bunbury to extricate himself from social situations. He wants to marry Gwendolen Fairfax, and her mother – the aforementioned Lady Bracknell – entertains the notion until she learns that Algernon is illegitimate and was left as a newborn in a handbag in Victoria Station.

Croswell used the situation to have Lady Bracknell declare in song “A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother.” Nothing that Gordon has written in his song, simply called “Handbag,” can compare to her lines: “I’d welcome to my bosom any BACHELOR / whose family was highly regarded / But I cannot let my daughter a SATCHEL, OR / a parcel that someone discarded.”

Although a surprising amount of the score is in three-quarter time – a tempo not remotely associated with this decade – the music is otherwise amiably right with conventions from the ‘60s abounding. The performer(s) singing solos or duets are suddenly joined by the other actors who function as back-up singers and then disappear when the song is over.

Some songs use the ukulele that was the trademark of Tiny Tim (not the Dickens character, but – oh, don’t ask). Many ballads have lyrics that seem more sincere than the love songs heard back then. Most ditties, though, are correct to be in the style of what Herman’s Hermits and Harpers Bizarre once recorded.

(That’s not a misspelling; that ‘60s group did use ‘Bizarre’ as its surname — although compared to what we hear today, its members were hardly bizarre. To experience their easy-on-the-ears sound, check out their then-updated rendition of “Anything Goes” at the beginning of THE BOYS IN THE BAND film.)

Nick Oberstein has designed a handsome unit set that adapts nicely for the second location that Act Two requires. Strange, though, that Oberstein didn’t ever use paisley wallpaper, which was SO au courant then.

Here’s betting, however, if Oberstein had had more money at his disposal he’d have a wall peppered with tiny doors that the seven actors could suddenly open, say a line and then close. That’s what a popular segment of the late ‘60s smash-hit TV series LAUGH-IN did.

For Gordon and Gruska start each of the two acts by having  cast members deliver famous Wilde epigrams straight out to the audience. Well, how can you go wrong with such delicious lines as “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months” or “One can survive everything, nowadays, except death, and live down everything except a good reputation”?

Once Gordon got to lines that directly come from Wilde’s play, he saw some need for updating: “Wait in the car” rather than “carriage.” “What brings you to town?” now uses “Carnaby Street” as the destination; that was the epicenter of swingin’ London during that time.

Anyone would have difficulty speaking lines while eating cucumber sandwiches and muffins, but Michael Jennings Mahoney as Algernon seems to be having more trouble than most actors would.

For that matter, many pungently funny lines as well as those of – pun intended – vital importance are utterly lost because director-choreographer Ilyse Robbins has some of her actors (all fine, by the way) turn their backs to the audience when they spew out Wilde’s best zingers.

For some reason, Robbins has made an exception with (the adept) Ephie Aardema. When Cecily gets a punch line, she spins around and says it directly to the audience as much as Ethel Merman ever did.

Robbins has done well by the musical, though, in making it a slick entertainment. Many productions of the play have used one actor to play Lane, the butler seen in the first act, and Merriman, the one who’s used in the second. Robbins or her authors wisely noted that Canon Chasuble is never on stage when they are, so she’s had Will McGarrahan play all three characters. He’s accomplished in the trio of roles and is most amusing as Lane with his Beatles haircut.

In the end, BEING EARNEST emerges as an affable variation on a theme. And yet, the moment it’s over, you may well be inclined to check out THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST via a local production, the 1952 film or either of the 1992 or 2002 remakes. That way you could experience all the wonderful wit you missed because songs replaced so much of it.