How did you mark both the birth date and death date of one William Shakespeare – the 452nd anniversary of the former and the 400th of the latter?
Did you play The Boys from Syracuse (based on The Comedy of Errors)? West Side Story (inspired by Romeo and Juliet)? Your Own Thing? (a loose adaptation of Twelfth Night?)
Or Salad Days?
And why, you ask, do I mention Salad Days — the biggest British smash-hit musical of the ‘50s, running no fewer than 2,283 performances? Because Shakespeare wrote those three plays during his own salad days? No – The Comedy of Errors, which is hardly a masterpiece, was among his first plays, and written long before he was able to cement his reputation as The Bard.
Most Shakespearean scholars would agree that Antony and Cleopatra, written in 1607, was written after his salad days. But without it, we wouldn’t even have that expression.
For near the end of Act One, Cleopatra regrets that she took on Julius Caesar as a lover and blames her decision on “my salad days, when I was green in judgment.”
And if Shakespeare hadn’t coined the phrase, what would Julian Slade, composer and co-lyricist-and-librettist with Dorothy Reynolds, have called their 1954 musical whose original cast album has now again become available through Masterworks Broadway?
When 1954 began, this was not an issue for the two, for not until February did they even know they were going to write a musical. Reynolds certainly didn’t see it on the horizon because she was an actress with the Bristol Old Vic. But Denis Carey, who then ran the company, felt he needed something lighthearted for the third slot of his summer season. Why he chose to stage such doleful works as Murder in the Cathedral and Graham Greene’s The Living Room — about two elderly sisters fearing death, partly because they live with their brother who’s a disabled priest — will never be made clear. But he obviously knew he needed some summer fun, so he commissioned Slade and Reynolds to write a musical that, by the way, would open in three months.
Well, as the ol’ expression goes, “Work takes as long as you have to do it.” Slade and Reynolds had their show ready for a May 1 opening.
Some will look at the plot and assume they wrote the show in three days. Salad Days certainly belongs in the realm of fantasy.
Timothy and Jane are recent college grads who are being plagued by their parents. His wants him to start on his career while hers simply wants her to get married. So they become man and wife just to keep her Mom and Dad happy.
But how can Timothy get his folks off his back? Luck plays a part. (It often does in musicals written in three months.) An unnamed Tramp saunters by with a piano. Usually, hobos only own minimal belongings which they keep in a wrapped-up handkerchief that’s tied to the end of a shoulder-worthy stick, but this guy walks around with a piano. Now he’s going to be busy tending to other things – we’re not told what – he needs someone to look after the piano, and he’ll pay seven pounds a week to do it.
Soon after you’d ask yourself the question “Why would a tramp encumber himself with a piano?” you’d follow it with “How can a hobo have that much money to burn?” But indeed The Tramp does make the offer to the newlyweds to be caretakers to “Minnie,” as he’s affectionately dubbed the instrument — and the kids agree. Presto! Timothy’s got a job!
End of show? Hardly. We’re only in the midst of Act One, Scene Four – where we learn that Minnie has some special powers. Whenever “she’s” played (and Timothy knows how to tickle those eighty-eight ivories), anyone who’s listening is automatically compelled to dance.
See? Here’s another way in which Salad Days was ahead of its time. A magical-realism musical!
But Timothy’s mother – a part that Reynolds wrote for herself – and his father still aren’t pleased with his, um, career choice. Many more oddities will turn up before Salad Days finishes the final of its dozen songs: a mute, blackmailer, a burlesque theater, a flying saucer and The Minister of Pleasure worrying that Minnie will bring too much uncensored fun to the masses. (This last one might well have been a commentary on the Lord Chamberlain, whose approval was needed for any first-class West End show to proceed, and whose moral standards were substantially higher than many theatergoers.)
With all this going on, no wonder everyone’s “Out of Breath,” the fun-filled song that brings the first act to a conclusion. My personal favorite, however, is Timothy and Jane’s first song together about not second-guessing their decisions: “We said we wouldn’t look back.”
Although song titles usually have each word capitalized (save prepositions and articles), Slade and Reynolds followed the Gilbert & Sullivan tradition of making them look like sentences. However, the score doesn’t sound at all G&S-ish – although it certainly sounds pre-Lloyd Webber British musical theater. It’s all very genteel and so twee that tweens and teens of today probably won’t be interested.
Well, it IS sixty-two years old, an age usually associated with senior citizenship. There’s no doubt that Salad Days sounds like, to use the British expression, “an old-age pensioner.”
Eleanor Drew (Jane) has that elegant and lofty soprano that we know and (either) love (or hate). As for Timothy, John Warner (not the John Warner who became Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth husband) may not have looked like David Niven (if you know who he is), but he sounds as if he could be. When he sings, you can almost see his debonair mustache underlined by a smile that could best be termed “jolly.”
Drew and Warner’s voices don’t sound particularly young. And yet, and yet … as square as it appears to be, Salad Days’ story does have a generational conflict at its core, anticipating the later parental rebellions that Baby Boomers made famous in the ‘60s.
Although I could have sworn I once heard of an American production of Salad Days, neither ibdb.com nor iobdb.com lists one, and William Tolbert’s Broadway Bound, which details out-of-town closers, doesn’t mention one, either. Too British? Well, not for the Dutch, for Salad Days, under the title Pas Op! Kijk Niet Om – meaning Beware! Don’t Look! – played The Hague only a year later. And then in 1962, a Dutch made-for-TV moved had its World Television Premiere as O, Kijk Mij Nou, which translates to Oh, Look at Me – which just happens to be the name of one of the songs in the show.
By the way, because “salad days” originally referred to Julius Caesar, is this where the term “Caesar salad” originated? In fact, no. Back in 1924, a San Diego restaurateur named Caesar Cardini invented the appetizer on the Fourth of July, when, to be frank, he ran out of his usual salad dressing, still had customers and had to make do with what he had. It became a sensation and led to a lucrative time that could be described as the salad days of Caesar salad.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.