I couldn’t believe my good fortune. In a used bookstore, I found The Great Adventure for a mere seven dollars.
Don’t recognize the title? It’s Arnold Bennett’s 1913 play which inspired the 1968 Broadway musical Darling of the Day. Last Friday, Jan. 27th marked the forty-ninth anniversary of its opening.
Two Broadway blue-chippers wrote the score: Jule Styne, most beloved for composing Gypsy, and E.Y. Harburg, best-acclaimed for his Finian’s Rainbow lyrics. At that point, they’d collectively had over thirty musicals and over sixty years of Broadway experience.
Their bookwriter, Nunnally Johnson, had received two Oscar nominations for “Best Writing, Screenplay” as the award was known then. One of them was for Holy Matrimony – an adaptation of Bennet’s novel Buried Alive – which led to his dramatizing it as The Great Adventure. (This Bennett really knew how to milk a property!)
Johnson’s track record on Broadway was less bright. Three months before Darling, his book to Henry, Sweet Henry couldn’t pass the eighty-performance mark. Still, that was eighty more than his previous musical amassed: the infamous Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Johnson was taken off that one. As for Darling, so depressed was he with the changes made to his book by two different directors that he insisted that his name be removed from the credits.
Actually, Darling’s reviews were better than its thirty-two-performance run would indicate. You’d never know there was trouble from the excellent score on the terrific original cast album – or from Patricia Routledge’s performance, which won her a Tony.
All right, she tied with Leslie Uggams in Hallelujah, Baby! – which also sported Jule Styne music. Cal Ripken’s 2,632 playing streak in major league baseball isn’t expected to be broken; Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857 career points in the National Hockey League seem unassailable, too. But just as unlikely is the possibility that any composer will see both his leading ladies win Best Actress in a Musical Tonys in the same year.
But the play’s the thing here, and a read of The Great Adventure shows what Darling kept and what was thought to have had its day. You might think that Priam Farll is an odd name for a musical’s hero – even for a Brit – but Bennett gave him a stranger name: Ilam Carve, the world-renowned painter who is reclusive to the point of never being seen.
The play starts with Albert Shawn, Ilam’s valet, deathly ill. Because Ilam very much likes him and appreciates his years of faithful service, he’s tending to Arthur’s every need. So when the doctor arrives and sees Ilam dispensing T.L.C., he assumes that he is the servant and the sick man the master. After all, a world-famous artist would presumably never wait hand, foot and everything else on a mere employee.
So when Arthur dies, the doctor assumes Ilam bit the dust and puts his name on the death certificate. Ilam now sees a chance to permanently escape from the public eye and ear. “To Get out of This World Alive,” he muses in one Darling’s best songs. Now he can just sit back and relax – and sit forward and paint.
(When I saw Married Alive, as the show was called during its Boston tryout, the mistake was less skillfully conveyed. A doddering doctor was simply careless.)
Soon after, Janet Cannot arrives from the country. She’s been in an Amalia Balash-Georg Nowak-like letter-writing relationship with Arthur and now they were to meet. Was her surname pronounced “Cannet”? If that question seems odd, note that she was renamed Alice Chalice in the musical in order to get in a funny rhyme. Perhaps Bennet first had the idea. (Whatever the case, Janet Cannet certainly rhymes better than “Dammit, Janet.”)
Janet’s a widow, for her husband died from swallowing a bristle from his toothbrush. (Did this hilarious idea spur Noël Coward, when writing Blithe Spirit, to have Elvira die from prolonged laughter while listening to the BBC Orchestra playing a classical piece? It seems to be cut from the same cloth.)
Janet isn’t sure how “Arthur” sees her: “Photographs aren’t much better than gravestones,” she says, as many a match.com subscriber would agree. But she’s hopeful enough to have spurred Styne and Harburg to write the gentle waltz “Let’s See What Happens.”
Now Ilam really wants to go incognito, for he’s smitten with Janet. He’s distracted, however, when his cousin Cyrus shows up to confirm that the body is Ilam’s – and to see what’s in the will. Ilam expects Cyrus to unmask the ruse, but because the cousins haven’t seen each other since they were twelve, Arthur’s face fools him. (It’s a good scene that didn’t make it into Married Alive.)
That Janet admits she’s never heard of Ilam rankles the artist, to his suprise. She also flatly states “I’m not a young girl. The male sex? I’ve been there before. You understand me?” That must’ve been Hot Stuff for 1913; Married Alive didn’t include it.
They repair to Putney, where Father Looe comes to call. He wants to know if the deceased was Catholic, and when “Arthur” says he was “Nothing in particular,” Father says “Then I claim him!” – and plans to bury him in the cemetery at Winchester Cathedral. Ah, but Lord and Lady Alcar believe that Ilam deserves to be interred in Westminster Abbey. They get their way, and when Ilam hears there’s a butler in the Abbey, his British propriety makes him literally faint.
Then paint. His portrait of Janet doesn’t please her. “The frame’s lovely,” she says, although she is supportive of his “hobby.” He’s content to paint landscapes and portraits and store them in their attic.
But when times get financially tough, — well, let Janet explain, as Bennett had her do to Ilam:
“One day I quietly took a picture ‘round to Bostock’s, the second-hand furniture man – he was a friend of father’s – and I asked him what he’d give me for it. He wouldn’t take it at any price. Then I asked him if he’d keep it in his shop and sell it for me on commission. It stuck in Bostock’s shop, in his window, out of his window for twelve months and more. Then one day the landlord of the Reindeer Inn saw it and bought it for six shillings because his house was in it. This was before they took him off to the lunatic asylum.”
Mr. Ebag, an art dealer looking for bargains in the country, saw the painting, recognized Ilam’s unmistakable style and finds that “Arthur” is the artist. He goes to see who he knows will be Ilam without letting him know he knows. When Ebag offers 500 pounds for a recent painting, Ilam says “It’s not for sale.” Rebuts Janet, “Oh, yes, it is!”
When word gets to London that Ilam is alive and well and living in Putney, Lord Alcar says this cannot be – for then there’d be a butler in the abbey. Everyone agrees that such a disgrace can’t be entertained for a second, so they all concur that Ilam Carve must have been the one who died and is illustriously buried there. (What a marvelous comment on class distinctions, no?)
This plot twist was improved for Darling of the Day. Priam is brought into court (a far more serious and threatening place than a Lord’s home), where he, not the Lord, says there just cannot be a “Butler in the Abbey.” Priam’s pointing out the ramifications of a valet’s resting in Westminster results in one of Harburg’s best-ever lyrics: “Shakespeare will be shaken and awaken Francis Bacon, and they’ll each deny the other wrote King Lear.”
Harburg and Styne obviously wrote good material for Routledge; you don’t win a Tony without it. Once Alice Chalice gets to know Henry Leek (as Arthur was renamed for Darling), she succumbs in the spritely charmer “It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love.” When she and “Henry” are officially enamored, Alice sings the absolutely beautiful “That Something Extra Special” to which Styne gave an extra-special “wrong” note. Routledge’s piece de resistance, though, occurred when Alice realized to whom she was actually married. She vowed to her village chums never to become high-and-mighty. “Not on Your Nellie,” she sang in a rollicking showstopper.
“Not on Your Nellie” was performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, February 11, 1968, but even those of us who have plenty of Sullivan’s Broadway musical excerpts in our collections can’t find anyone who has this one. Thank heavens that we have the original cast album of Darling of the Day to keep alive the sound of the song and the performance.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.