Were you among the many who’d planned to go see Betty Buckley do Dear World in London – only to find the show had shuttered earlier than expected?
“I’m not surprised,” says my buddy Steven Brinberg. “I know where that little theater is in London, but not many people do. It is impossible to find.”
So Buckley’s tenure as The Madwoman (a role for which she was ideally cast) is sadly over. Once again, the consolation must be that we have a marvelous original cast album from the 1969 production that starred Angela Lansbury.
Back in the late ‘60s, many were skeptical to learn that Jerry Herman of Hello, Dolly! and Mame fame was musicalizing Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. Through those two mammoth hits, Herman had made a name for himself as a writer of razz-ma-tazz commercial musicals. Sure, The Madwoman was as meaty a role as Dolly or Mame, but she was a French woman while the other two were All-American dames. What’s more, Philip J. Lang, Herman’s razzle-dazzle orchestrator on both those hits, was on board for this one, too.
So what would these two do with the tender allegorical fairy tale that is The Madwoman of Chaillot? Could Herman musicalize a sensitive if unbalanced woman instead of a hale and hearty one? Dolly’s nemesis was a confirmed old bachelor; Mame’s ranged from a bunch of Southerners to a couple of bigots. Countess Aurelia, as The Madwoman was called, came in contact (and conflict) with entrepreneurs who wanted to bomb Paris’ buildings to reach the rich oil deposits underneath. Those are much higher stakes.
Herman surprised all the nay-sayers by delivering a convincing Gallic-flavored score that Lang supplemented with concertina-heavy orchestrations. One reason why Herman got it right may be that he had ample time for The Madwoman’s music to marinate in his head; two decades earlier, he’d performed in the Giradoux play while studying at the University of Miami. But we shouldn’t have been that surprised. Milk and Honey, Herman’s first Broadway show, was set nowhere near Manhattan, but in Israel; he had no trouble there in creating the right atmosphere, did he?
Interesting, isn’t it, that the lovely waltz (“The Spring of Next Year”) is sung by the villainous businessmen but an angry valse macabre (“I Don’t Want to Know”) is sung by Aurelia? It’s her staunch statement that she simply will not accept ugliness in the world and will choose to look in places where only beauty reigns.
Aurelia also takes under her wing a young couple, Julian and Nina. He had been hired by the tycoons to set off the first bomb, but reneged; she’s the waitress at the café that sits over a particularly oil-soaked patch. Through one of Herman’s most plaintive songs, Aurelia urges Julian to “Kiss Her Now.”
Eight years before Annie would urge everyone to look to “Tomorrow,” Aurelia encouraged Julian to savor “Each Tomorrow Morning” – a song so effective that, while Herman and bookwriters Lawrence and Lee were writing the show, they chose it as the title of their musical. (As we know, they changed their minds.)
Aurelia has managed to maintain optimism despite the intense pain she felt in her youth, when a young man jilted her. Still, she has her memories of what she was like before the heartbreak: “And I Was Beautiful,” she sings in Herman’s tender melody with a lyric to match.
Yes, there is that requisite title tune that has come in for much criticism. “Be a dear world, and get well soon,” it urges. Among its critics is Jerry Herman. “This is one of the only songs I’ve written that I wish I hadn’t,” he admitted in Jerry Herman: The Lyrics (Routledge, 2003). The song does smack of his up-tempo-title-tune-itis. Let’s put it this way: when Steve and Eydie cover a song from a Madwoman of Chaillot musical, you know something’s wrong.
The snazzy melody isn’t the only problem. While “Milk and Honey” allowed its singers a few lines of criticism, “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” – much bigger hits — were unmitigated celebrations. “Dear World” included such words as wounded, poisoned, critical, sick, fever, crutches, beaten, blinded, bandage, wound and terminal. That doesn’t sound like the Jerry Herman we know and love.
But, as Herman told me in 2000, he knew that much of his public had come to expect he’d write a title tune for each of his Broadway musicals; that’s what comes from writing three winners in a row. Perhaps “Dear World” was the reason that his next two shows (Mack & Mabel and The Grand Tour) didn’t have title tunes.
They also wound up as Herman’s shortest-running Broadway shows. Of course, there were other reasons for their quick exits, but there’s no denying that when Herman returned to writing a title tune for his subsequent musical – La Cage aux Folles – he had one of his biggest hits.
And yet, at the time Herman and Lang seemed to believe enough in the title song to feature it prominently in the overture – at the beginning, middle and end. Too bad Herman, Lawrence and Lee didn’t choose “One Person” as their title song. It’s Aurelia’s stirring march that inspires the entire ensemble to join in. “One person can change the world” is her message, and one that we believe that Jerry Herman believes, too.
For all the talk of Herman’s writing “the simple, hummable show tune” — as he referred to his work when accepting his La Cage Tony — he showed in Dear World that he was capable of much more. His ace trump is “The Tea Party,” in which Aurelia is joined by two equally mad women (Carmen Matthews and former Gooch Jane Connell) en route to doing not just counterpoint but also triple counterpoint in his most sophisticated piece.
Needless to say, any recording that features Angela Lansbury is worth having. Dear World would mark her second consecutive Tony, right after Mame, when she beat out no less than Gwen Verdon as Sweet Charity and Barbara Harris in On a Clear Day. Now that’s competition!
Winning a Best Actress in a Musical Tony for a show that runs under 150 performances doesn’t happen often. In fact, since Lansbury did it in 1969, it’s only happened once more — and Lansbury can lay claim to that one, too; she was selected in 1975 for playing Madame (always say Madame; never say Mama) Rose in Gypsy. That, by the way, was a limited engagement; Lansbury had already played the show in London for 300 performances, and wanted to call it a run. Otherwise, it would have played much longer.
Exemplary as Lansbury is, others get a chance to shine on the Dear World cast album. Pamela Hall’s Nina lets Kurt Peterson’s Julian know that “I’ve Never Said I Love You” to anyone before him. No wonder that Peterson comes to blare out a stirring reprise of “Each Tomorrow Morning.” Milo O’Shea, as a shall-we-say “sanitation engineer,” sings of his experiences with “Garbage” – to a tango yet.
Finally, the Dear World CD is worth getting for the artwork alone. Its logo shows our mysterious Madwoman hovering above the credits. Artist Fay Gage provided terrific logos for All American, 1776 (which even inspired Sherman Edwards to write the song “The Egg”) and Fiorello! But Dear World is her masterpiece.
If you were watching TV in the ‘70s (or catching up on reruns much later), you might have even noticed that Mary Richards’ good friend Rhoda Morgenstern had Dear World’s window card framed and hanging proudly in her apartment. I’d like to think that Rhoda had to have it after she’d heard the show’s original cast album.