As Charles Strouse wrote in his 2008 memoir PUT ON A HAPPY FACE, “Throughout history, the strongest drives in human beings are the seeking of food, shelter, sex, and the rewriting of someone else’s musical.”
And while I’d add clothes to the list, I will now prove Strouse right on his fourth item.
When I first saw DEAR WORLD during its 1968 Boston tryout, I blinked in open-mouthed astonishment at its all-too-pat, all-too-unbelievable ending. Aurelia, a self-proclaimed Countess – better-known as The Madwoman of Chaillot – is appalled at the rich and powerful men who are out to destroy Paris’ beautiful buildings and parks. They’ve heard there’s plenty of valuable oil underneath them, and they want it.
So how does Aurelia conquer of them? She opens a trap door which they all benignly enter; after they descend some steps, she closes it. And that’s the end of them and their threat.
If only! Jean Giradoux, whose 1943 play was the basis for this Jerry Herman-Lawrence & Lee musical, had written a fantasy. The musical, however, seemed based in reality, despite Aurelia’s eccentricities that were matched by her two equally off-the-wall friends Constance and Gabrielle.
DEAR WORLD’s original director was the now-forgotten Lucia Victor, followed by Peter Glenville and Joe Layton. Too bad nobody thought of summoning Jerome Robbins, because he probably would have made the type of suggestion he’d made six years earlier.
You may well have heard the story that when A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM was dying in Washington, Robbins was called in for advice. He told first-time composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim that the charming and elegant ditty “Love Is in the Air” was the wrong way to start a show that then delivered non-stop, raucous humor. What was needed, Robbins said, was a song that would inform the attendees that they’d be seeing a comedy tonight.
So Sondheim went to his hotel room, wrote “Comedy Tonight” (still one of the best opening numbers of Golden Age musicals) and was rewarded with his longest-running hit.
(He once swore to me that’s all it took. Tape available upon request.)
So in DEAR WORLD, if you want to get rid of bad guys so matter-of-factly, tell the audience it’ll see a fantasy tonight. Have a witty opening number replete with famous fairy tale tropes, but establish what’ll happen is in “Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy?” That way, after Aurelia blithely rids the town of the ne’er-do-wells, theatergoers will smile and chuckle instead of furrowing their brows in frustration.
One other thing: DEAR WORLD’s title song has come in for plenty of criticism during the last half-century. Even Herman himself often knocked his brisk-tempo’d march which was not so far afield from his famous title songs for MAME and HELLO, DOLLY!
Truth to tell, it did stick out like a sore thumb, hand and arm, for the rest of his score is beautifully and tenderly Gallic, in keeping with time and place.
Herman’s lyrics for the song have taken a beating, too, and not without cause: “Please take your medicine, dear world” … “stand on your crutches with pride” … “get off that critical list” … “we want you dancing” … and, last and probably worst, “We’re not quite ready to trade you for the moon.”
Aurelia began it in the original production, and was joined by many characters and ensemble members en route to a Big Razz-Ma-Tazz Finish. For this Encores! Concert, director Josh Rhodes chose an alternate approach that the creators had later devised: Parisians sing it without Aurelia.
Before I offer yet a different alternative, let’s talk about Aurelia’s dottier-than-she friends Constance and Gabrielle. The former hears more voices than Joan of Arc would have dared to allege; the latter enjoys communicating with her invisible and imaginary dog.
In musicalizing all three in “The Tea Party,” Herman outdid himself. That he gave each character her own delightful song was impressive enough. But then he had each of the three reprise her section as all sang together. To do this with two songs is challenging enough; managing three would seem downright impossible. But Herman did it.
In my three previous trips to various DEAR WORLDS, the audience has always adored “The Tea Party,” but the crowd at Encores! seemed even more enraptured. The applause was the type that built and built, and after it peaked and started to descend, the audience decided that it hadn’t been enthusiastic enough, so it ramped up he applause to a higer level than the high one it had given it seconds earlier.
So wouldn’t we want to see these three do another number? And wouldn’t the ideal choice be “Dear World”?
The average Parisian doesn’t seem to be the type that would invoke the images that Herman wrote for his title song. But the eccentric three would make them seem endearing and believable, now that we’ve come to know them. For that matter, each madwoman could try to playfully one up the other with a fanciful image. Don’t you think that one of these lovable loonies would be far more inclined to sing “We’re not quite ready to trade you for the moon” than Jean Q. Public would?
While we’re at it, let’s see if we can improve BAD CINDERELLA.
There’s a good idea here: Cinderella lives in a town whose inhabitants are obsessed by looks. “Beauty is our duty,” they sing with utter confidence and without irony. That rankles Cinderella, who’s a Goth Girl.
(Did she need to look somewhere between disheveled to threatening to make the point that people shouldn’t make beauty their be-all and end-all goal? Cinderella could have been dressed in so-called “sensible” clothes, which still would have made her objection to knee-jerk beauty just as strong and valid.)
Meanwhile, Prince Sebastian has troubles of his own. With his older brother M.I.A. in a recent war, his Queen mother wants him to get married. Here comes the fancy ball, to which Sebastian isn’t looking forward, for he’s already met Cinderella and likes her.
We’re not surprised that the Queen wouldn’t take to this utter commoner, but can you buy that a queen who’s as manipulative as Aggravain in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS would leave the selection of her son’s bride to utter chance? But that’s what Queen does, deeming that whomever Sebastian happens to be kissing at the stroke of midnight will be the new princess.
That’s not the show’s biggest problem. After Cinderella gets a (very) quick visit from her Fairy Godmother (never has the role been smaller), she’s off to the ball where she looks like a trillion. Sebastian not only doesn’t recognize her, but he also doesn’t express any interest.
Here’s where the show goes off the rails, over the cliff and into the river. The next time Cinderella seers Sebastian, she unleashes her fury that Sebastian didn’t recognize her. Worse, Sebastian comes off as namby-pamby, because he doesn’t stick up for himself, but feels guilty.
How about this instead? Cinderella is THRILLED that Sebastian’s head wasn’t turned by a pretty face atop a beautifully dressed body. Now she knows for sure he loves her just the way she is. In essence, he passed a test, and now they can live happily ever after.
Credit where it’s due, initial bookwriter Emerald Fennell or subsequent one Alexis Scheer (or even composer Andrew Lloyd Webber or lyricist David Zippel) has thought of a good idea on how to enhance the story of Cinderella’s two stepsisters: if the Prince chooses one, the other will be furious. Has this likely result ever occurred to you? (It never has to me.)
Aside from that, we have an overlong second act with a moderately appealing deus ex machine ending that – to be fair – is a real audience pleaser. But so much of the existing story doesn’t make sense on a basic level, and if it were omitted, BAD CNDERELLA could be told in 90 intermissionless minutes. Always leave ‘em wanting more.
So, Charles Strouse, I’m guilty as charged as one of those human beings who wants to rewrite musicals. And if you’re interested in hearing how I could fix your beleaguered 1966 musical about Superman, you know where to find me.