Have there been twelve musical versions of Twelfth Night? Perhaps not, but I count at least seven that have seen the light of New York stages: Love and Let Love (1967); Music Is (1976); Play On! (1997); What You Will (2001); Illyria (2002) and, to a lesser degree, All Shook Up, the 2005 musical that peppered Elvis Presley songs in between some of Shakespeare’s merry plot.
Last but hardly least, there was Your Own Thing, the musical version of Twelfth Night that debuted on the thirteenth night of January in 1968, forty-five years ago this week. The musical at the off-Broadway Orpheum had a book by Donald Driver and score by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar.
It ran longer than those other six added together.
Ironically, Love and Let Love closed after fourteen performances on the day that the Your Own Thing team read its fine reviews. Among the quotations: “Cheerful, joyful and blissfully irreverent.” (Barnes, Times); “Fascinating, comic and theatrical.” (Gottfried, Women’s Wear Daily) and “Praise to all concerned” (Oppenheimer, Newsday). At the risk of hurting The Bard’s feelings, let’s also include Jerry Tallmer’s opinion in the Post: “A swinging show that I enjoyed better than I ever will Twelfth Night.”
As a result, Tallmer must have groaned soon after he’d taken his seat and found that the first words of the musical were “If music be the food of love, play on” – for this is the first line of Twelfth Night, too. However, he must have brightened when he heard it followed with the quip, “I can’t remember if that’s Marlowe or Bacon.” No, this wasn’t going to be your great-great-great-great grandfather’s Twelfth Night.
Tallmer must have appreciated Driver’s most daring move: to drop Twelfth Night’s Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, Feste and – yes — Malvolio. Eliminating Malvolio might not have been anticipated; the man who wore crossed garters over yellow stockings — because he believes a woman requested it — would have updated nicely into a Nehru jacket over a tie-dyed T-shirt that sported love beads and a peace-symbol medallion.
But Driver and his songsmiths apparently felt they had plenty of plot, what with the adventures of Sebastian and Viola, fraternal twins who greatly resemble each other. After they endure a shipwreck, Sebastian arrives in Illyria and meets Olivia, the owner of a disco who’s ten years his senior. She’s attracted to him, but she’s afraid to let the cougar inside her roar. He comes to terms with “The Middle Years” in one of the score’s nicer moments. It’s so nice, in fact, they did it twice: Olivia sings her point of view in a reprise.
Meanwhile, Viola lands in another part of the city where she meets Orson, manager of a rock band called the Apocalypse. The quartet’s big song is a solid-as-a-rock rock anthem of unapologetic self-actualization: “I’m Me.”
Because one of the Apocalypse had quit, the three remaining musicians are apoplectic; this was, after all, the era of the “Fab Four” Beatles and not the three Andrews Sisters. In other words, the Apocalypse needed four things long before The Baker and his Wife did.
To get the job in the all-male band, Viola pretends to be Charlie – and passes, because she’s dressed in the 1968 unisex fashions that were then very much in vogue. “I can’t tell the boys from the girls, anyway” said John Wayne — to which Humphrey Bogart quipped, “You do have a problem.”
So does Orson. He’s romantically attracted to the person he thinks is Charlie but is actually Viola. In those days before the Stonewall Inn gay revolution, this was a substantial problem. He certainly could expect no help or sympathy from Bogart or Wayne.
Needless to say, these Hollywood legends weren’t in the original cast, and they didn’t answer the call for replacements as the 933-performance run continued. Your Own Thing was able to showcase them thanks to what was then cutting-edge technology: voice-overs said in tandem with slide projections.
Also making video cameo appearances were names that still have historical value (Queen Elizabeth I), have slowly faded (W.C. Fields), are now hard to recall (Senator Everett M. Dirksen, R-IL) and are still very much with us: Buddha and, as Michelangelo pictured him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God. Whenever one of these wanted to speak his mind, the words were flashed above his photo in a cartoon balloon.
As up-to-date as Your Own Thing then was, the writers retained a good deal of Shakespeare. Hester and Apolinar only had to provide a melody for “Come Away, Death” and “She Never Told Her Love,” for the Bard had written their lyrics nearly 370 years earlier. They were, in fact, originally songs with melodies long lost to us. Twelfth Night originally had six songs, which has spurred many Shakespearean scholars to maintain that the first musical version of Twelfth Night was Twelfth Night itself.
Few might have expected that Driver’s book would contain any Shakespeare, but Driver retained an inordinate amount. The twenty-four lines that the Bard used to open Act One Scene Two (“What country is this?” “This is Illyria, lady.”) are cited virtually verbatim here. However, Shakespeare didn’t have then-New York Mayor John Lindsay saying (via voice-over), “Illyria is a Fun City. Cough, cough.”
To those who weren’t around then: Mayor Lindsay had insisted that New York was “still a fun city” during a transit strike, and the term came back to haunt him. That’s why, six weeks before Your Own Thing would open, Marlyn Mason was singing to Brenda Vaccaro in How Now, Dow Jones that New York was “this big so-called city of fun.”
“Flowers,” in which Viola worries that the city in which she’s now living may be too impersonal, is catchy. “Be Gentle,” which could serve as a guide for lovers everywhere, is sensitive. Nevertheless, esteemed Boston drama critic Elliot Norton, then a sexagenarian, shrewdly noticed that “Don’t Leave Me” and “When You’re Young and in Love” were endearingly old-world titles for supposedly new-age songs.
The up-tempo numbers are good, too, such as the title song. What’s interesting is that as the years passed, what was then called “The Now Generation” took the advice given in that song: “There’ll come a day when the world’ll need you / There’ll come a day when the world’ll heed you … You may change someday / You may find another way.”
And the Now Generation did, becoming brokers, bankers, traders and presidents. In contrast, Leland Palmer, the original Viola, chose to follow a religious route (which pretty much kept her from continuing in professional theater).
What’s more, Your Own Thing represented a first for the New York Drama Critics Circle. Never before had it given its “Best Musical” prize to an off-Broadway show that had no plans to move uptown. These critics even preferred it to another off-Broadway musical that did move to the Main Stem: Hair.
Although Your Own Thing was sold to Hollywood, no movie was ever made. Its LP, cassette and (needless to say) 8-track tape all went out of print. All this proves that Shakespeare didn’t lie when he said, “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” And yet, although Your Own Thing rarely gets a production, its original cast album eventually resurfaced on CD and digital download.
And while the Apocalypse insisted that “Our generation can’t live in the past,” Baby Boomers who hear Your Own Thing will be joyfully thankful for the trip back. Younger listeners might not damn the show as dated, but might see it as an endearing period piece. It could be “their thing,” too.