The Best Broadway Musical You’ve Never Heard of

Image from wikipedia

For the past few weeks, I’ve been ambivalent about posting on my blog. I’m tired of serious topics, tired of politics–tired, it seems, of just about everything. I’m not interested in adding to any online conversations, in garnering more hits, in making this blog anything but a personal record of thoughts and ideas that should interest no one so much as myself. That, it seems to me, is a good enough reason to stop writing completely.

And yet here I am, writing a blog on a topic of marginal interest to 99.9% of humanity. In a way, it’s just like the old days, when I routinely held classes on Victorian literature at the rural community college where I taught. Perhaps the best, indeed the only reason, for me to write anything at this point is simply because it interests me, on the off-chance that it might actually interest one or two other readers in the vast cultural repository that is the blogosphere. We can go with that, anyway. So, today I’m posting about a fascinating (but utterly trivial) discovery I made about an almost forgotten Broadway musical that, in my opinion, deserved a lot more attention than it ever received.

Last week, I happened to listen to one of my favorite radio shows: “Footlight Parade” with Bill Rudman. I like Broadway musicals, but I have a decided preference for pre-1970s Broadway, and Rudman often spends time on the oldies. The episode I listened to was “Classical Goes Broadway,” and I found it very enjoyable. Better yet, it led me to explore one Broadway musical in particular, a klunker (98 performances) produced in 1961 that was based on Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata, called The Happiest Girl in the World.

I’m interested in any adaptation of Lysistrata, because I’ve just finished reading it as part of my university re-dux syllabus. Let me pause here to say that the original play is well worth reading: it’s about the women of Athens protesting their city’s endless war with Sparta by withholding sex from their husbands. In an interesting side plot which gets much less attention than Lysistrata’s plan to end the war, all the old women of the city take over the treasury and barricade themselves in, freezing war expenditures. Indeed, their actions have as much to do with Lysistrata (the heroine) achieving peace as the young women’s sex boycott. Power rests not only with young women, but with old women, says Aristophanes–a lesson we would do well to remember.

Before hearing of The Happiest Girl, the only adaptation of Lysistrata I knew of was a strange episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mrs. Howell convinces Marianne and Ginger to join her in a revolt against male obnoxiousness by completely boycotting the company of the men and moving to the other side of the island; obviously, as always on the desert island, no mention of sex occurs. You can’t withhold what isn’t given in the first place, I guess.

Back to the topic at hand, I have to thank Bill Rudman for setting me on a search that has taken up several days of my rather sparsely filled schedule. It turns out that The Happiest Girl is well worth spending a bit of time on–not, perhaps, as much time as I have spent, but still worth some attention.

The wikipedia entry gives some bare details about the musical, and the soundtrack is available on Spotify. If you give it a listen, the first thing you’ll notice is that the music sounds familiar, because it is recycled from the opus of Jacques Offenbach, the composer who is responsible for the “Can-Can” as well as “Barcarolle.” This alone might put listeners off; we still follow the Romantic Era’s prejudice in favor of “original” work, despite the fact that there is, in fact, nothing that is truly original. Perhaps, with the penchant for Broadway “repackagings” such as Mamma Mia and Beautiful, audiences might be more understanding of recycled work these days, but at the same time, I’m not sure lack of originality had anything to do with The Happiest Girl‘s failure at the Box Office. As I’ll discuss below, Leonard Bernstein’s amazing treatment of Candide fared even worse than The Happiest Girl back in 1956, with almost a third fewer performances before it closed, and it contained some amazing music that Bernstein himself composed.

According to Jaime J. Weinman, in his excellent blog on The Happiest Girl, the musical was doomed to failure because it relied on well-known melodies that originated from operetta at a moment in time in which mock operetta was decisively passe. Weinman points to Candide‘s dismal 78 performances just a few years earlier. Sadly, artists can’t always time their work with their audience’s taste in mind, and many a fine work of art has gone unappreciated because popular tastes shifted unpredictably. (I’ve always put Shirley Jones into this category. Her massive talent, evident in Oklahoma and The Music Man, was worth so much more than what she became famous for–Mrs. Partridge of the 1970s television sitcom The Partridge Family–and all because popular taste had shifted from grand musicals to paltry rom-com schmaltz.)

The music alone from The Happiest Girl is worth a listen, but the lyrics are what make the soundtrack really intriguing. Written by Yip Harburg, the same lyricist who gave us songs from The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, as well as the songs “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” in addition to one of my personal favorites, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” the songs burst with a clever but subtle humor. For example, in the song “The Glory that is Greece,” there’s a not-so-veiled reference to the classical penchant for bisexuality in Greek mythology. The song insists on the pre-eminence of Greece (more on this in a moment), and urges, as a few reasons why Greece should be celebrated, “Strike up the cymbals for the glory that is Greece/ The land of lute and lyre and the golden fleece/ We give you sex/ that’s ambi-dex/ we give you Oedipus for future wrecks.” Harburg is clearly having fun with his lyrics, the kind of fun that makes you listen twice (or more) to them.

Of course, no video recording of the musical exists, and so, to understand how it works, I took the trouble to look up the script and read it while listening to the soundtrack. Doing so showed me two things: first, Fred Saidy and Henry Myers, who wrote the book for The Happiest Girl in the World, departed freely from Aristophanes’s play, often shifting the perspective from events in Athens to those on Mount Olympus; and second, there are numerous topical references to contemporary events in the script, which are all obscured in the soundtrack. In other words, if you don’t read the script along with the soundtrack, you’re really missing the most important part. For example, one of the first things I noticed was that the musical shifts the names of the gods from their Greek forms to the Roman ones. I initially assumed this was an egregious mistake, or perhaps a dumbing-down of the original material, but now I am convinced that this was done on purpose. Using “Jupiter” instead of “Zeus,” for example, plays into more familiar usage (thanks to the naming of the planets in our solar system), while also forcing the audience to take the play as a less than accurate version of Aristophanes’s play, which in turn makes it more applicable to contemporary times.

As a case in point, take a look at the following statement by Pluto (who takes on the role of a kind of trickster, a Paradise-Lost-Satan antihero determined to mess with humanity and bring it down). Pluto masquerades as various people throughout the play, and early in the first act, he declares, “In my present alias as Chief of State of Athens, I’ve been waging awar against Sparta for the past twenty years. You have your hot wars and your cold wars. I’m conducting a sort of cool war. We’ve been doing very well. We’ve gained 80 yards in the past 12 months.” This is clearly a direct reference to the US-USSR Cold War that had been ongoing since the end of WWII. In addition, minutes later, Pluto must field the criticism of one of his advisors, who blames him for a military defeat by saying, “Your fault! Choosing a young, romantic General!” Pluto’s answer is, in 1961, poignant, referring as it does to the young JFK in his first months as president. Indeed, Pluto responds, “How dare you! Youth in high places is the latest thing. Rather chic, don’t you think?”

Reading the script also allowed me to see the way the play sets Greece up as an obvious analogy to the United States, an analogy that wasn’t clear to me from listening to the music alone, although it was there all along. Consider the following lines from “The Glory that Is Greece,” in which Pluto boasts that Greece is “the only great democracy on Earth,” continuing ,”Each backward nation is our protege and ward/ We bring them culture with our cultivated sword/ We set them free from tyranny/ And woe to the foe who refuses to be free.” Harburg is lampooning the aggressive stance of the United States in its drive to make the world safe for democracy.

Another song, “The Greek Marine” is a direct rip-off of the United States Marine Corps Hymn, using the melody and merely substituting “Macedonia” for “Montezuma.” The song paints the image of a worldwide empire swollen on its hubris: “From the shores of Macedonia/ We will set the whole world free./ We will blot out Babylonia/ And mop up Thermopylae.” In the conversation afterwards, Pluto deflects criticism, defending a Greek surprise attack on the enemy by explaining it was merely “preventive retaliation,” using the very language of gunboat diplomacy before it was invented.

In a departure from the original play, the action then shifts to Mount Olympus, where the Greek gods are in a panic over the war breaking out again, because they are tired of the nuisance of hearing the Greek women praying for peace. In an attempt to come up with a solution, Juno says, “I know! Inspire their wisest men to work on the peace problem — their statesmen and philosophers.” Jupiter’s answer is caustic: “Statesmen! Philosophers! They’ve ravaged the earth! Why even Diana [a junior goddess] here could do better.”

And Diana does do better: it turns out that she’s the origin of the idea of withholding sex from the warriors until they promise to end the war. A perpetual virgin herself, she has been watching human behavior from Mount Olympus and has discovered that even hale and hearty men turn into quivering jello when sex is denied them. She carefully avoids mentioning sex outright, however, and the song in which she introduces this idea, “Whatever That May Be,” is delightful in its innuendo and clever rhyme, containing vintage Yip Harburg lyrics to describe sex: The man “offers her/ The whole big world/ For something that/ The maid has got/ Why, each new tot / That is begat / Cannot be got/ without that that / Whatever that may be…”

And so the gods decide to send Diana down to earth to suggest her idea of a sex boycott to the Greek women, using Lysistrata as her spokeswoman. After which, all of Mount Olympus breaks out into a lively song, “Eureka!,” declaring victory: “We’ve got the girl to put the gods back on god’s earth again / Diana will solve the paradox / and save paradise.” Which, they add, is a darn good thing, since as Diana points out in the song; “We got to last until at least A.D.”

These clever lyrics continue in Pluto’s number “Vive la Virtue” which explains the whole virgin/whore complex: “This is man’s ambivalent taste/ Whatever is chased has got to be chaste/ Paradox is deep in his blood/ He’s after the rose but leaps at the bud.” However, the standout song of the musical has to be “Adrift on a Star,” set to the music of Offenbach’s “Barcarolle,” an understated love song that reminds us that the Harburg who created “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” also created the ballad “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This peculiar but lovely song asks existential questions in the most delightful melody, even containing a bit of self-referentiality: “Is there a bright shining goal/ Ending this brief barcarolle?” These lyrics are certainly a reference to life in general, but also to Offenbach’s song itself, perhaps the most famous barcarolle ever composed. Indeed, according to Bill Rudman, “‘Adrift on a Star’ was Harburg’s personal favorite among all his lyrics,” which, given his prodigious output, is saying quite a lot.

There are continual surprises in The Happiest Girl in the World, one of which is a clear reference to the 1956 Broadway musical My Fair Lady (the film had not yet been made) in a line from the song “That’ll Be The Day,” in which the Greek men attest that they’ll never succumb to their women’s demands: They’ll take back their wives, they say, “as soon as the rain in Spain is pink champagne.” It seems Harburg is not above making pointed jabs to other, competing musicals.

One of the highlights of The Happiest Girl occurs when Pluto appears as Aristophanes, telling the women holding the citadel that he is actually writing a play about them, another touch of self-referentiality. The women, flattered by his attention, ask if they qualify for being in a play. His answer: “Eminently. You are touchy, immature, and unreasonable. Prime requisites for theatrical characters.” One wonders whether Pluto is talking about characters in plays or the actors who depict them. He goes further, however. A few lines later, he declares, “At the first sign of reasonable behavior by people in plays, the dramatic literature of the world would collapse.” The criticism is both sharp and funny, and perhaps true as well.

All in all, The Happiest Girl in the World, which I’d never heard of, occupied my time and attention for longer than I care to admit. Undoubtedly a box-office failure with a mere 98 performances, it proves interesting for its connection to ancient literature (sorry, Aristophanes), as well as for its clever use of language, its piercing wit, and its references to topical events. And, while I will never get back the four days I’ve spent immersing myself in it, I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on it at all.

One thought on “The Best Broadway Musical You’ve Never Heard of

  1. Suzanne, this is really interesting. I will certainly have to check out the musical and script. I plan on sharing this with the book group.

    Like

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