So, after writing the scores to HELLO, DOLLY! in 1964 and MAME in 1966, what could Jerry Herman do for an encore?
In 1967, when DOLLY was on course to becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history, Herman announced that he’d tackle Jean Giraudoux’s fanciful comedy THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT.
What? Both Dolly and Mame were all-American women who spent much of their stories in New York City, a locale close to 6,000 miles away from Paris, which Countess Aurelia, The Madwoman of Chaillot, calls home.
Could the composer-lyricist of two of Broadway’s greatest title songs and production numbers for leading ladies Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury now write in a French vein for a charming little fantasy?
Longtime Broadway observers felt that Herman had some gall to presume that he could write Gallic.
Some will rebut that MILK AND HONEY, Herman’s first score in 1961, was set in Israel, more than 9,000 miles away from New York, and that he did well by it. Exhibit A: Herman’s Best Score Tony nomination in a season where he was competing with Noel Coward, John Kander, Harold Rome, Wright and Forrest, Dietz and Schwartz, Strouse and Adams as well as Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. All were denied a Tony honor, despite their excellent scores.
However, although MILK AND HONEY’s action took place in Israel, its three main characters were American-born. Thus Phil Arkin (Robert Weede) and Ruth Stein (Mimi Benzell) were given music that reflected their roots. As for Clara Weiss, played by Yiddish theater favorite Molly Picon, her music was more Second Avenue than genuinely Semitic.
What many naysayers didn’t know was that Herman had a history with Giraudoux’s play. While he studied at The University of Miami, he played The Mute there. After that, he always kept the play in his mind as one he’d like to musicalize.
And while this one would be nothing like MAME, Herman wanted to work again with its bookwriters Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee; former Agnes Gooch Jane Connell (as Gabrielle, The Madwoman of Montmartre) and, (much) more to the point, Angela Lansbury as Aurelia.
DEAR WORLD, as the musical was now called, booked Boston for its one pre-Broadway tryout for November 11 through December 14, 1968. And why not? It’s where MAME had had its final out-of-town break-in and had overwhelmed its audiences with top-notch entertainment. With five of MAME’s staff members on board, it just had to be another freewheeling, razzmatazz smash.
That’s not what Herman had in mind. He envisioned an intimate show for this small story that really involved wishful thinking. If entrepreneurs were intent on ruining Paris by digging in its streets for oil, all a madwoman had to do was open a trap door to the city’s famous sewers, get the men down there and slam the door shut.
Problem solved! Case literally closed! Fini!
Furrowing your brow, are you? MADWOMAN is one of those fairy tales that make you wish the world were that way. But it seemed all too simplistic after what the country had endured up to that point in 1968: the many violent protests against the Vietnam War and its numerous escalations; the horrifying riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. All these made DEAR WORLD’s simplistic solutions seem silly.
The first full-page ad in the Boston Globe didn’t help. It offered no logo, but simply showed Lansbury looking elegant and sophisticated in a white mink. So, imagine what the audience at the Colonial Theatre thought when she entered looking like the wrath of God. Guess they didn’t read the fine print that admitted the musical was based on something involving a madwoman …
Two directors came and went before Joe Layton took over. At a time when shows that had had out-of-town break-ins offered one or two New York previews, DEAR WORLD played 45 (from December 18, 1968 to February 5, 1969). Alas, the lengthy delay suggested to the public and critics that the show would never be any good.
In fact, on April 20, 1969, when the Tonys were dispensed – 71 days after the show’s official premiere – Alexander H. Cohen, producer of the awards, started his pre-show introduction by dryly saying, “Welcome to the final preview of DEAR WORLD…”
Cohen, not so incidentally, was mocking himself, for he had produced DEAR WORLD. At least Angela Lansbury got a well-deserved Tony. Only the sets received another Tony nomination, for Oliver Smith was at his best when designing European locales.
So, why this obituary now for this 54-year-old musical? Because DEAR WORLD has been on many of our minds and CD players since its concert revival in February. Donna Murphy was every bit as extraordinary as Lansbury (I saw both), but those who weren’t there will never know that, because this was one of many Encores! productions that went unrecorded.
But there is that original cast album which will show you that indeed Herman could stretch himself over the Atlantic Ocean and straight into the heart of France’s capital city. He went for irony in the opening number “The Spring of Next Year,” a swirling Parisian waltz with lyrics that belied the melody; here the bad guys were planning to ruin the city, but, because that was music to their ears, three-quarter time – the most romantic tempo of all – was apt.
Aurelia’s well-adjusted optimism was displayed in “Each Tomorrow Morning” and was shown to evaporate during “I Don’t Want to Know.”
When we talk about great songs added out of town – from “I’m Still Here” to “I’m Goin’ Back” – we should add “I Don’t Want to Know.” (Chita Rivera in her recently released memoir displays her admiration for this song not once but twice.) It offers Aurelia’s insistence that she only wants to be aware of the finer things in life.
(She’s got a point.)
You know Herman and matchmakers: Dolly, of course, but even Mame and Clara put their hands in to see that the right people got together. Aurelia follows suit, urging young Julian (Kurt Peterson), who’s been timid with the lovely Nina (Pamela Hall) to “Kiss Her Now.” The song starts softly and builds to a crescendo to show how insistent Aurelia is on this issue. She does get her way, which sends Julian and Nina well on their way to bliss.
Their union provides Aurelia with a strange type of surrogate romance, which she expresses in “And I Was Beautiful.” There’s a lot of Miss Havisham in her, for she admits that “he walked away, and took my smile with him,” in one of Herman’s most poignant lyrics.
But the pièce de résistance is “The Tea Party.” It’s hard enough to write a quodlibet – “You’re Just in Love,” “Old-Fashioned Wedding” – where one person signs a melody, another then sings another and then the two miraculously blend when both singers repeat what was sung before.
So, having Aurelia and Gabrielle do a quodlibet would be arduous enough. Here again Herman went the extra many miles to bring in Constance, The Madwoman of the Flea Market, to provide a third section. All three would repeat their melodies.
And “Dear World,” that notorious title song? Herman went on record stating that he eventually agreed with all the critics, theatergoers and cast-album listeners who didn’t like it. The melody does sport Herman’s trademark cheeriness, but it also offers some grisly images when urging our planet to “get well soon.” Starting with “Please take your medicine, dear world” and then employing such words as wounded, poisoned, ambulance, blinded and dozens of like-minded ones didn’t make for an audience pleaser.
Well, nobody’s perfect. But let’s look at the glass as close to being filled, as Herman achieved the mood, ambience and character with so many of his songs.
So, why didn’t he get a Best Score nomination? No one did. The 1968-69 season was one of those weird ones in which the Tonys decided that a show that won Best Musical would simply garner trophies for the composer, lyricist and bookwriter – and DEAR WORLD wasn’t even nominated. Truth to tell, had there been such a prize that season, Burt Bacharach and Hal David would have won for PROMISES, PROMISES.
That result, however, wouldn’t have negated Herman’s achievement. Please take a listen now, dear friends …
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.