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Before There Was Sweet Charity

Before There Was Sweet Charity, There Was Sweet Irma

By Peter Filichia —

Who’d expect that Irma La Douce could still be bought 50 years after she reached New York?

True, Irma, who arrived here on Sept. 29, 1960, isn’t seen very often anymore. Says Mel Miller, who produced Irma La Douce at his Musicals Tonight! in 2008, “It took me 10 years to get the rights. I think I got them simply because I made clear I was only doing a limited engagement of a couple of weeks off-Broadway. I never got a clear answer why there’s never been a Broadway revival. I’ve heard that it’s a money disagreement between the original French authors and the ones who translated it into English.” Ken Bloom, co-author of Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All-Time, says that’s what he’s been told, too.

Well, money is always an issue with someone of Irma’s profession … but Irma can still be heard loud and clear. Ever since her original Broadway cast album landed in stores in October 10, 1960, she’s been delighting our ears, if not our eyes.

Irma’s career started in 1956 at a small theater in Paris, courtesy of bookwriter-lyricist Alexandre Breffort and composer Marguerite Monnot; she had composed “Milord” and plenty of other hits for Edith Piaf. It was still running two years later when it started a four-year run in London, after wordsmiths Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman translated it. Then came Broadway – while both of the previous productions were still on the boards.

From its very first measures, Irma showed it was going to be a different kind of musical. How many overtures count as their most valuable instruments an accordion, xylophone and trombone? Then came a swirling waltz, the type of melody French composers do best. The “Valse Milieu,” which our narrator Bob-Le-Hotu sang, included a quick glossary of the show’s most important words. “The milieu,” Bob bragged, “is a part of Paris not even all Parisians know.” Here, no one would say such incendiary words as “prostitute,” “whore” or even “tart”; the euphemism employed for the employed Irma is “poule.” Don’t say “procurer” or, God forbid, “pimp” either; “mec” is the preferred choice of word.

You may assume while listening to this song that Clive Revill – later Broadway’s Fagin in Oliver! – made a verbal slip-up. “Don’t sturn away your face” he sings instead of “Don’t turn away your face.” But Irma’s London cast album shows that Revill says “sturn” there, too. Go figure.

In “Sons of France,” in which we meet various mecs (portrayed as adorably as the gamblers in Guys and Dolls), you may hear two familiar voices. One belongs to George S. Irving, who made Irma the 11th of his eventual 31 Broadway shows – so far. Although Irving will soon celebrate his 88th birthday, he’s still very much with us, and will reprise his 1979 role in I Remember Mama at Musicals in Mufti before the year is out.

You may also recognize Fred Gwynne’s voice. He later had success on TV as Francis Muldoon on Car 54, Where Are You? and then as the paterfamilias of The Munsters. In “Sons of France,” he’s asked to sing low, which is effortless for this natural bass; then he must go high, which is not as easy for him.

Perhaps this is why, when Gwynne did Here’s Love three years later, his song “The Plastic Alligator” went unrecorded. It was actually expected to be on the record and listed on the original LP cover, but the cut never made the cut. (In case you’ve always wondered what it sounded like, take it from someone who saw Here’s Love some months after he bought the cast album: it had the same melody as “That Man over There.”)

A look at the original French titles of Irma’s songs shows that More, Heneker and Norman didn’t settle for a literal translation. “The Bridge of Caulaincourt” – where Irma and law student Nestor meet — began life as “Me V’la, Te V’la” (“Here I Am, You’re Here.”) “Elle a Du Chien” – “It Was the Dog” – became “She’s Got the Lot,” in which Irma’s charms are stressed. This song has a nice pun that fits with its tango tempo. For after a mec sings that “You cannot resist the way she makes café,” the chorus sings “Ole!” – not only a homonym for “Au lait,” of course, but two syllables that also are right at home in a tango.

“Avec Les Anges” – “With Angels,” which is the heavenly way Irma and Nestor feel about each other – became “Our Language of Love” between the two. With its new English lyric, it may not have become a standard, but in a time when Stonewall was almost a decade away, this song became a gay bar hit. “We have our own special code: No need to speak; no need to sing; when just a glance means everything.” It was a worthy successor to “Secret Love.”

Of course, now that Nestor’s in love with Irma, he doesn’t like her line of work. Thus, he dons a false beard and becomes “Monsieur Oscar,” who pays Irma enough so that she won’t have to accept any other customers. Irma’s so happy that she celebrates with the rollicking “Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc.” Here Elizabeth Seal gives us a hint of what a good love-maker Irma must be. She verbally goes up the entire scale with a melisma on “Dis” that lasts a full seven seconds. If she can do that to a word, imagine what she can do to a man.

Seal, by the way, got the seal of approval from the Tony® voters in the 1960-61 balloting. Winning Best Actress in a Musical was a most impressive achievement when one looks at the competition: Nancy Walker (Do Re Mi), Carol Channing (Show Girl) and no less than Julie Andrews for Camelot. You have to be pretty good to beat those three.

It was the only appearance Seal ever made in a Broadway musical. Although Michael Bennett originally hired her to play Cassie in the original London cast of A Chorus Line, he fired her during rehearsals. Seal may have just been a one-hit wonder, but she was a wonder nonetheless as this recording demonstrates.

Back to the plot: supporting Irma means that Nestor must take a second job which makes him a “Wreck of a Mec” (originally “Le Cave a Irma” – “Irma’s Cellar”). Eventually Nestor has no choice but to “kill” Oscar. That’s a short-term solution, for Nestor gets convicted and is sent to Devil’s Island. Originally he sang “L’Aventure Est Morte” – “The Adventure Is Dead” – but the three English lyricists made the lyric into the slightly more optimistic “From a Prison Cell.”

Now that Irma’s alone – and pregnant – she sings a title song in which she muses about her life. Keen ears will note that it uses the same melody as “Valse Milieu.” (And you thought that Les Miserables was the first French musical to recycle a melody and put new lyrics to it!)

Nestor and his fellow inmates escape and head back to Paris, grateful for “The Freedom of the Seas.” Wonder if any of Breffort’s French lyrics had word-play as deft as the one where the guys describe themselves as “riff-raff refugees.” That covers three out of the five vowel sounds in far fewer words.

Alas, the guys take a wrong turn and wind up in the North Pole. Here we get some dance music that was written by the then-unknown John Kander. It would be the last time that Kander would pen “only” dance music; afterward, he was too busy writing the actual music to musicals, 14 of which have since made it to Broadway. But what fun to hear Kander’s “Arctic Ballet.” Some of its music anticipates the “Hot Honey Rag” that Kander would write for Chicago 15 years later.

Nestor gets back to Paris, although because he hasn’t shaved in weeks, Irma assumes he’s Monsieur Oscar. Not to worry; they straighten it out just before Irma gives birth. The rather pedestrian-sounding “Il Est Ne” became “Christmas Child.” All right, the More-Heneker-Norman triumvirate didn’t get a holiday standard out of it, but their English lyric would seem to carry more weight.

If Irma La Douce were revived today, many people would say “Oh! I see they made a musical out of that movie Irma La Douce.” The reason, of course, is that when Billy Wilder co-adapted and directed the 1963 film version, he dropped virtually all of the songs. Oh, Shirley MacLaine’s Irma did go atop a pool table where she and some bar regulars semi-warbled “Dis-Donc.” But that seemed to be an impromptu pub experience rather than A Production Numba. Let’s hope that theatergoers will again have the chance to experience Irma in the flesh. But we still have her in the voice.

Peter Filichia writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at