By Peter Filichia
”So I see they went and made a musical out of Irma La Douce.”
That will be the reaction from some when they hear that Encores! is presenting Irma La Douce from May 7-11 at City Center. Ho-hum, another new musical based on yet another movie – in this case, the one that Billy Wilder directed in 1963 after co-writing a screenplay with I.A.L. Diamond.
Well, there is a native musicality to the story. Irma (Shirley MacLaine), a happy-go-lucky Parisian prostitute, becomes involved with Nestor (Jack Lemmon), a just-busted police officer who needs a job and becomes her protector. Unfortunately, he becomes so protective that he can’t bear to see her with other men.
So Nestor decides to don a disguise, become Irma’s customer and give her so much money on each visit that she won’t feel the need to entertain anyone else.
Nestor decides to impersonate a British lord, which means learning proper English. The screenwriters weren’t above having Nestor recite “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” – and have the local bartender (Lou Jacobi) state, “By George, you haven’t got it.”
Lord X, Nestor calls himself. And if you’re wondering why Irma doesn’t recognize him as soon as he’s naked, be apprised that Lord X just plays double-solitaire with her.
But (literally) poor Nestor must find the money to pay her, which means he must work at an arduous job during off-hours. His recurring absences make Irma both angry and suspicious. So Nestor decides to “kill” Lord X, which gets him sent to prison. He escapes, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Like so many film comedies of the day – Come Blow Your Horn, The Pink Panther, Sunday in New York – Irma La Douce has a song mid-picture. “Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc” is a celebratory romp for both Irma, who’s happy for her single sugar daddy, and Nestor, who’s just been been elected president of the pimps’ association.
Only one other melody is heard, but without lyrics, over the main titles and as occasional background music. Most moviegoers of the ‘60s might have assumed this was “The Love Theme from Irma La Douce,” as Hollywood likes to call such melodies. Others who’d kept their dials on easy listening stations and TV variety shows would have recognized it as “Our Language of Love”— one of the fifteen songs that Irma La Douce sported when it opened on Broadway en route to its being nominated for a Best Musical Tony.
Yes – it was a musical all along, until Wilder and Diamond decided to drop virtually the entire score. As you may have inferred from the title, Irma La Douce – Irma the Sweet – was originally a French musical when it opened in Paris on Nov. 12, 1956 and played for more than four years. Here he was Nestor Le Fripe (the thrifty) and was a law student – until he pretended to be not Lord X, but Monsieur Oscar.
The show had charming and thrilling music by Marguerite Monnot, who was then famous for writing one of the most joyous songs of all time: “Milord.” Here she worked with librettist-lyricist Alexandre Breffort, who used French argot quite extensively. As a result, when London producers optioned it, they feared that West End audiences wouldn’t understand something so French. They’d have to commission an English adaptation.
Enter David Heneker (who’d soon write the score for Half a Sixpence) and Monty Norman (who even sooner would write “The James Bond Theme”). After they met with famed director Peter Brook to audition their new musical Make Me an Offer, he made them an offer: “How would you like to adapt the next show I’m directing: Irma La Douce? ”
Heneker and Norman, along with Julian More, grabbed the chance and never regretted it. However, lest they throw out the bébé with the eau du bain, they kept some of the colorful words all in the cause of euphemisms. Nestor was a “mec,” not a “pimp” and Irma was a “poule.” (What great restraint they had in not writing a song called “Everybody into the Poule!”)
No need for me to translate “grisbi” once you hear the song title “Le Grisbi Is the Root of the Evil in Man.” The way the singers end that song on the original cast album – taking the word “can” and adding no fewer than thirteen scoopy “ans” on the end — is pretty much the way the Four Plaids would have handled it.
That’s the way London audiences heard it from 1958 until 1962 – 1,512 performances in all. David Merrick, Broadway’s best producer-importer, brought the show to Broadway on Sept. 29, 1960 and saw it last until New Year’s Eve, 1961. Alas, the London and New York productions outran Monnot, who died in October, 1961 of peritonitis at the too-young age of fifty-eight.
In addition to that Tony nomination for Best Musical, Irma was nominated for six others — and lost all but one. But what a win! Elizabeth Seal beat out Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi, Carol Channing in Show Girl and no less than Julie Andrews in Camelot. You have to be pretty good to best those three – although being the only woman in the cast may have helped; there’s nothing quite as good as being the center of attention.
Seal’s Irma remains the only appearance she’s ever made in a Broadway musical. A one-hit wonder, yes, but a wonder nonetheless as the cast album demonstrates. The original Broadway cast album shows that Seal had a distinctive voice; strong, vibrant, stylized and unlike any found on any other cast album. She goes from slightly ominous in “Valse Milieu,” in which approaches a customer, to triumphant in the title song, in which she vows to give up having customers.
You’ll notice that both melodies are the same. No, Les Miserables wasn’t the first French musical to recycle a melody and put new lyrics to it.
Seal shares “Valse Milieu” with Clive Revill, who plays Bob, the narrator. You’ll assume he erred when recording the lyric that urges “Don’t turn away your face,” because he sings “Don’t sturn away your face.” Well, for better or worse, he sings it the same way on the London cast album made two years earlier. Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? But we should have all inferred that the always meticulous Goddard Lieberson wouldn’t have let him get away with a mistake and would have demanded a retake.
Arguably, the score’s most beautiful song is Nestor’s “From a Prison Cell” — telling you where he wound up, at least until the show’s happy ending. But when Seal gets her chance with “Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc,” she goes up and down the entire scale with a melisma on “Dis” that lasts a full seven seconds. If Irma can do that with a word, imagine what she can do with a man.
Many character men, already famous and yet to be, appear as mecs who are as adorably portrayed as the gamblers in Guys and Dolls. George S. Irving made Irma the eleventh of his eventual thirty-one Broadway shows; Fred Gwynne became more famous for playing the paterfamilias of The Munsters than for his supporting role here or in Here’s Love; Elliott Gould was soon the leading man of I Can Get It for You Wholesale. You’ll recognize all their voices in “She’s Got the Lot,” in which they appreciate Irma’s charms. Note the nice wordplay after a mec sings that “You cannot resist the way she makes café,” the chorus sings “Au lait!”– not only a homonym for “Ole!” of course, but two syllables that are also right for the tango that this song is.
“The Bridge of Caulaincourt” – where Irma and Nestor meet – starts with a verse that anticipates Sondheim’s “Barcelona” in Company. And while we like to commend Sondheim for getting three vowel sounds in one line — “Today I woke too weak to walk” – in Forum, here, in “The Freedom of the Seas,” we have “Riff-raff ref(ugees)” three uninterrupted ones. Soon after, there’s the “Arctic Ballet” with dance music by this up-and-comer named John Kander.
The Encores! director is John Doyle, famous for staging musicals in which actors play instruments. He’s already used that concept with Irma La Douce and told me that “Irma worked well, because it doesn’t have a chorus per se; everyone has his own role. You also would believe that French people would sit in a cafe and play instruments.” But we expect at Encores! such cast members as Jennifer Bowles (Irma), Rob McClure (Nestor) and Malcolm Gets (Bob) will settle for acting, singing and dancing while a true orchestra will play the zingy score, starting with an overture filled with xylophone and accordion riffs.
No, those instruments aren’t found in the average overture. Irma La Douce could have used the ad campaign that a far less successful musical tried twenty-eight years later: “There’s never been a musical like her!”