By Peter Filichia
We’re continuing to celebrate what would have been Alan Jay Lerner’s 97th birthday on August 31. Let’s hope that he would have regarded this column as a present.
Last week, we talked about Brigadoon, Lerner’s first hit that had received raves from all nine (!) newspaper critics. Robert Coleman in the Mirror called it a “show of marked originality.” But how original? The original credits say “Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner” and “Music by Frederick Loewe” and don’t credit any source material as their two most famous hits My Fair Lady (Pygmalion) and Camelot (The Once and Future King) do.
There are those who think Brigadoon was adapted, too. Steven Suskin in his Opening Nights on Broadway tells of the controversy that started when George Jean Nathan, the famed early 20th century reviewer, “pointed out that the plot – with its modern-day adventurer stumbling upon a quaint village which appears out of the mist every hundred years, and falling in love with the local ingénue – was lifted intact from Germelshausen, an 1862 German story by Friedrich Wilhelm Gerstäcker.”
(Germelshausen. Sounds like a song from The Zulu and the Zayda, no?)
Continues Suskin, “Lerner continually and vociferously denied this assertion, claiming – after the critic’s death – that Nathan was simply jealous of his relationship with Marion Bell,” Brigadoon’s leading lady who became the second Mrs. Lerner.”
I mentioned this issue when lecturing on Brigadoon at Ohio Light Opera in July. Afterward I was approached by Steven Ledbetter, a noted musicologist who’s fluent in German. He offered me his translation of Germelshausen, which I gratefully accepted.
Ledbetter’s preface states that Germelshausen is “the single most obvious and significant source for the plot of Alan Jay Lerner’s libretto. Lerner always resisted rumors that there was a folk tale or an ‘old story’ behind his plot. But composer Frederick Loewe had been born and raised in Vienna. Among speakers of German, Gerstäcker would have been a familiar name. Loewe might well have read Germelshausen as a child or heard the story told to him. He might then have mentioned enough details of it to Lerner to give him an idea for the musical almost without his being aware of its literary origins. Certainly the basic elements of Germelshausen are so similar to those of Brigadoon that some connection seems indicated.”
Let’s see if we agree based on the work itself, which is set in the 1840’s – coincidentally enough, the time that Lerner established as Brigadoon’s last previous appearance, a hundred years before 1947. A German man named Arnold wanders (alone, unlike Tommy, who has Jeff by his side) into Germelshausen. Gerstäcker identifies him as a sketch artist by trade, which is more than Lerner tells us about Tommy; he never does reveal what the guy does for a living back in ol’ NYC.
Arnold meets Gertrude, a far less euphonious name than Fiona MacLaren. She takes him home where he meets her father, Germelshausen’s mayor, and his second wife. After they share a meal the wife “sat down at her spinning wheel in the corner and softly sang a little song about the merry life in Germelshausen.” And soon “the mayor had taken a violin in his hand and played an animated dance, and Arnold, with the beautiful Gertrude as his partner, whirled around the room so madly that he overturned the spinning wheel, toppled several chairs, ran up against the maid, who was trying to carry out the dishes, and carried on all kinds of spirited pranks, so that everyone almost died of laughter on account of it.”
Now that’s a production number! But if Lerner read it, he didn’t take it. He and Loewe instead opted for every merry villager in town to sing a quintessential opening number: “Down at MacConnachy Square.” (It soars on both the original cast album and the studio cast album with Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones.)
The Mayor then decrees that “you can go out with Gertrude and look at the village. You may not have a chance to see it again very soon,” he adds enigmatically. “But be back here by five o’clock sharp — we are celebrating a feast today.”
(Another chance for a production number!)
Gerstäcker wrote “A few minutes later he was walking at the side of the beautiful Gertrude along with street which led through the village.” That sounds as if it could have inspired Lerner and Loewe to write “The Heather on the Hill.”
But there’s a profound difference between Brigadoon and Germelshausen; in the latter locale, plant life ages. “The gardens looked as if they had not been entered or tended for many long years. Grass grew in the paths.” On the other hand, Brigadoon’s grass doesn’t grow under anyone’s sleeping feet.
“Arnold now tried to cheer up his companion,” wrote Gerstäcker, “by telling her of other places where he had been and how everything looked in the outside world. She had never seen a railroad, nor even heard of one, and listened attentively and astonished to his explanation.”
This is a song, too, and one that Gertrude could follow with a “Take Me to the World”-like response. Interesting, isn’t it, that Tommy makes no such effort to inform Fiona what life is like outside of Brigadoon? Lerner has him so entranced with the village that he completely forgets about big ol’ bad New York.
The birth dates of Fiona and her sister Jean written in a wedding registry allow Tommy to discover that the young women are much older than he’d assumed. In Germelshausen, Arnold and Gertrude saunter through a cemetery where he all-too-conveniently happens to point out the one stone that Gertrude admits is her mother’s: born 1188, died 1224. Because the memory of her mother makes her upset, Arnold doesn’t question her on the seemingly impossible dates.
Gertrude rallies in time for that night’s big dance. “Laughing groups of people stood everywhere,” wrote Gerstäcker. “The girls were arrayed for the festivity, and the boys were also in their best attire. Even the inn, which they now passed, was covered with garlands from one window to the other, forming a broad arch of triumph above the door.”
How many operettas have we seen with THAT set? Lerner instead opted for a wedding – and more conflict — by having Jean marry Charlie Dalrymple to the agony of Harry Beaton. (I’ve often wondered if Lerner purposely made his surname a homonym for “beaten.”)
Gertrude admits to an admirer from faraway Bischofsroda who hasn’t been around in a while. “And if he were to come tomorrow?” Arnold asks, worried about his chances. Gertrude enigmatically answers “Between today and tomorrow lies a long, long night.”
And, we learn, it all comes to an end by a Cinderella-ish midnight, which is more dynamic than Brigadoon’s seeming to disappear once darkness falls. The Mayor assumes that Arnold is staying: “Step lively this evening,” he says. “We’ll have enough time to rest.”
Lerner gave Tommy a fiancée to return to (whether he really wanted her or not), but Gerstäcker had Arnold worried about abandoning his mother. When Gertrude hears of her, she can’t bear to come between them. She takes him to the town line and says goodbye.
Gerstäcker had Arnold say “You don’t know how dear you are to me, how tightly and surely you have bound my heart in these few hours.” Gertrude responds “We are not parting. When the clock strikes twelve—it can hardly be ten more minutes—come back to the door of the inn. I’ll be waiting for you there. But promise me that you won’t follow me at all until the clock has finished striking twelve.”
As I read this section, I assumed that Arnold would return after midnight and Gertrude would be there, saying that because he loved her so much he was able to get back into the town. If Lerner did read the story, he, with his musical theater sensibilities, might have assumed so, too. Instead, Arnold searches all night for the town but finally is so exhausted that he falls under a tree. He’s awakened by a hunter, whom he asks for guidance to Germelshausen.
“Germelshausen?” said the hunter. “It is supposed to have sunk many hundreds of years ago, no one knows why or where to, and the story goes that once every hundred years on a certain day it rises to the light again.”
The hunter leaves as Arnold puts two and two together. He begins walking to a nearby town that he is sure is there. Gerstäcker’s last line is “‘Farewell, Gertrude!’ he murmured softly, and as he passed down the mountainside, large, bright tears forced themselves into his eyes.”
Well, that’s not much fun and not in keeping with ‘40s musical comedy. I have no idea if a New York City jury – or one in Germelshausen – would have convicted Lerner. But I’d say his story varied so much that I can give him the benefit of the doubt.
In the meantime, why didn’t George Jean Nathan get on Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s case for not adding “Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” to the credits of their biggest hit? Guess there was no one in the cast whom Nathan wanted as a girlfriend.
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.