Mercoledi Musicale

…. but on a Thursday

A few personal things got in the way of the rehearsals for this week’s opening of the Music Tent summer stock production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. But I think after last night’s dress rehearsal we’re ready to set sale for Thailand with Mrs A.

Gertrude Lawrence as Anna in The King and I – 1951.

In 1950 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were approach to write a show based on Anna and the King of Siam for Gertrude Lawrence who was as big as star as you could find on two continents. Initially both the material and the star gave the duo doubts. Lawrence had not been in a musical since 1943 and her limited range was diminishing and her tendency to sing flat increasing. They came to grips with the episodic nature of the novel quickly and any doubts about their star were immediately erased at the first rehearsal. Lawrence was still the same magnetic performer that she had been since she first took centre stage in the 1920s.

The musical opened to rave reviews for the star, the show and Yul Brynner, a relative newcomer who played the King. It was to run for over three years and spawn many revivals – both on Broadway, the West End and around the world. The story of Anna Leonowens was highly fictionalized both in Margaret Landon’s novel and Hammerstein’s show book and today there are many elements that are politically questionable. Modern productions now, appropriately, feature Asian performers and shifts in the take on many of the scenes. The production I saw back in 1959 at the Music Fair starred Ruth Warwick and would have been very much of its time. Warwick became better known as Phoebe Tyler on the long running soap opera All My Children.

There are a meriad of well-known songs from the show: “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, “We Kiss in the Shadows” and the well-known “March of the Siamese Children”. It would be nice to highlight all of them but time, space, and your tolerance limits me to just a few.

Amongst the many songs from the show was the charming number when Mrs Anna begins lessons with the many children and wives of the King. Here is Gertrude Lawrence in the original cast recording.

In Hammerstein’s book the King is more sympathetically portrayed than in Landon’s book and part of that comes from the devotion of Lady Thiang, his chief wife. DeAnna Choi appeared in the National Company of the Lincoln Center revival in 2018.

Despite the obvious chemistry betwen the King and Mrs A she is less than tolerant of his nature or his culture. Again here is Gertrude Lawrence – wayward of pitch but damn even in the studio she comes across as the presence she was as she imagines what she should have said to the King.

Yul Brynner’s career was launched with The King and I and his name became synoymous with the role. From 1951 until just before his death in 1985 he played the part 4,625 times. His national tour in the 1980s was a constant sellout and he returned to Broadway in January 1985 for a final run.

Though the King has very little to sing his one solo number was a gift from Rodgers and Hammerstein to anyone playing the role. Here is Brynner in the 1956 film.

In August 1952 Gertrude Lawrence collapsed at a matinee performance and died shortly after of undetected liver cancer. She was buried in the gown she had worn in Act 2 when she proposed that she and the King dance. That gown, designed by Irene Sharaff, become almost as iconic as the song it is performed in.

In 1956 Brynner appeared in the film version with Deborah Kerr, dubbed by the incredible Marni Nixon, and once again Sharaff was the designer. There are several versions of “Shall We Dance” on Youtube but this one is still the best. The chemistry and the energy between Kerr and Brynner is said to rival that between Lawrence and him.

nThe real Mrs Anna was on home-leave when the King died and never did return to Thailand. She ended up in Nova Scotia where she was a teacher, suffragist, and co-founder of what is now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She moved to Montréal and was a lecteurer on Sanskrit at McGill University and taugth into her 78th year. She died in 1915 and is interred at Mont Royal Cemetery.

The word for June 30th is:
Meriad /ˈmirēəd/: [1. noun 2. adjective]
1.1 A countless or really great number.
1.2 A unit of ten thousand.
2. Countless or extremely great in number.
Mid 16th century (in myriad (sense 2 of the noun)): via late Latin from Greek murias, muriad-, from murioi ‘10,000’.

Mercoledi Musicale

Back in the 1950-60s many Broadway shows went on the road and fortunately Toronto and the Royal Alexandra Theatre was a frequent stop on the circuit. On January 1, 1957 my long-suffering father took my friend Bruce and I to see a matinee of Li’l Abner at the Royal Alex. That afternoon began my love affair with Musical Comedy.

The only picture I’ve been able to find of the Music Fair tent – an artist’s rendition from a local newspaper.

Not only did we get road companies but every summer 7 or 8 musicals were presented at the Music Fair tent at Dixie Plaza. I reminisced about those summer stock productions on a previous Mercoledi Musicale back in 2018. Every Saturday afternoon during the summers of 1958/59/60 I would be taken away to Paris, Oklahoma, the South Pacific, Scotland, Siam, Manhattan or some other exotic destination. I thought that over the next few months I’d revisit those three summers and set up my own summer stock season.

Rae Allen – a summer stock favourite, she was known in later years for her role in The Sopranos.

In 1956 Judy Holliday had a surefire hit with Bells Are Ringing created for her by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with music by Jule Styne. The story centres around Ella Peterson who works at Suesanswerphone – an answering service in Manhattan. In that Music Fair production Ella was played by well-known Broadway and Summer Stock favourite Rae Allen. Ella becomes involved in clients’ lives and adds some spice to her own boring existence by adopting different characters and voices. Amongst the clients is playwright Jeff Moss, who suffers from writer’s block and with whom Ella has fallen in love. Although she has never met him, she considers it the “perfect” relationship because “I can’t see him; he can’t see me.”

Of course as can only happen in musical comedy they do meet – Ella assumes the persona of Millicent – and she snaps him out of his writer’s block. And of course, in true musical comedy fashion, they fall in love. In the movie version Jeff was played by Dean Martin, which was a big improvement over Broadway’s Sydney Chaplin. Dean, of course, went on to record and perform one of Styne’s classics as a signature solo number.

After a party to meet all of Jeff’s New York crowd, Ella realizes that their relationship is all based on fantasy and decides that “The Party’s Over”.

But every good musical comedy needs an “eleven o’clock” number that displays the vocal – and in this case comedic – chops of its star and Bells are Ringing was no exception. Ella decides to leave Suesanswerphone and all the deceptions and go back home to work for The Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company.

Of course we know that won’t happen – this is a Broadway musical comedy!

The word for June 22nd is:
Answering Service /ˈans(ə)riNG ˈsərvəs/: [compound noun]
A telecommunications service provider that is employed by a business to process incoming telephone calls. A message is taken and then delivered per the customer’s instructions. Real human beings process these calls.

Mercoledi Musicale

I first heard Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole back on a Met Saturday afternoon broadcast in 1957. Loosely based on Micaela Villegas, (La Perricholi) a historical character well known in Peru, it concerns La Périchole and Piquillo, two impoverished Peruvian street-singers too poor to afford a marriage license. The lecherous viceroy, Don Andrès de Ribeira wishes to make La Périchole his mistress but inadvertently arranges for the two lovers to get married. The music is amongst Offenbach’s most charming and lacks the satirical bite of many of his works. I was enchanted by both the music and the performances of Cyril Richard (Mary Martin’s Captain Hook) as the Viceroy and the inimitable character tenor Alessio De Paolis as a demented Old Prisoner. I remember when a hightlights recording was issued with the same cast that I most upset to discover that it was only available to members of the Metropolitan Opera Record Club and was well beyond my weekly allowance.

Though I never did get that Met recording I was eventually to get have two recordings of the complete operetta and a few excerpt discs in my library. Amongst those excerpts were two by the Russian operetta star Claudia Novikova recorded back in 1937. I had not realized that there was such a thing as Moscow Operetta State Academic Theatre and that La Périchole was a great favourite during the Stalninist period (!), particularly if Novikova was singing.

In Act 1 Périchole has left Piquillo and she has been wined and dined by the Viceroy who wishes her to join his wife’s house hold as a lady-in-waiting and his own as his mistress. However to do the former and become the later she must be married. So they get anyone they find who just happens to be Piquillo who has been drowning his broken heart in wine. They both arrived at the ceremony tipsy and Périchole tells us all about the great diner she’s just had.

Novikova was known for her laugh and here she uses it (perhaps too) liberally. I find the laugh most infectious and at no point does it interfere with the vocal line.

I have fond memories of listening to that recording at my last dinner with my darling Ryan. He, Uncle Pervy, and myself – though not quite as tipsy as Périchole – end up laughing ourselves silly as we listen to it.

But Novikov wasn’t a one trick pony – she had rock stolid technique and the ability to convey character in just a phrase or two. In Act III Périchole declares her love for Piquillo even if he “isn’t all that good looking or riche” and when Novikov declares it any Piquillo would be a fool not to believe her.

The word for June 15th is:
Laugh /laf/: [1. verb 2. noun]
1. To make the spontaneous sounds and movements of the face and body that are the instinctive expressions of lively amusement and sometimes also of contempt or derision.
2. An act of laughing
Old English hlæhhan, hliehhan, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch and German lachen,

Mercoledi Musicale

In 1967 Benjamin Britten arranged the Royal Anthem* for the opening of the Snape Maltings arts complex. It is unusual in that the first verse, the one we are all familiar with, begins in the hushed tones of a prayer. It than builds to a three-fold cry of “Long May She Reign”. It has always been my favourite arrangement and in light of the festivities that have begun to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee I thought I would made it this week’s Musicale choice.

If the Britten arrangement is unusual this version of it is equally unusual.

In June of 2020 The Vox Medicalis Choir in Bucharest was to participate in the Queen’s Birthday Celebration at the British Embassy. Because of COVID it wasn’t to happen but none the less the Choir decided to pay their respects by making this video. Though the recording of Britten conducting it at the opening is quite splendid I found this version very touching.

God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen!

Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour,
Long may she reign!
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen!

Traditional; earliest known version by John Bull (1562–1628)

* Here in Canada our national anthem is Oh Canada** and God Save the Queen is recognized as the Royal Anthem. The governor general and provincial lieutenant governors are accorded the “Viceregal Salute”, comprising the first three lines of “God Save the Queen”, followed by the first and last lines of “O Canada”.

.** My good friend and copy editor Pierre discovered two errors in today’s post. I corrected one but I’ll just leave this one and think of it as a Freudian slip.

The word for June 1st is:
Reign /rān/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 The period during which a sovereign rules.
1.2 The period during which someone or something is predominant or preeminent.
2.1 To hold royal office; rule as king or queen.
2.2 To be predominate.
Middle English: from Old French reignier ‘to reign’, reigne ‘kingdom’, from Latin regnum, related to rex, reg- ‘king’.

Mercoledi Musicale

Many glowing tributes to my beloved Teresa Berganza over the past week have included clips from performances and albums and all of them spotlit the warmth and sheer beauty of her voice. However I found this simple unaccompanied medieval canticle to the Virgin Mary says everything to me about why I fell in love with her and her artistry.

The court of Alfonso X el Sabio (the Wise) was a centre of learning, science, and the arts in 13th century Castile. Alfonso encouraged Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars at his court and commissioned translations into Castilian of books in Arabic and Hebrew. He set the foundations for the development of Spanish sciences, literature, and philosophy. Amongst the codices on astronomy, Mediterranean history, and chronicles of Iberia, the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Canticles of Saint Mary) stands out as a singular achievement. This vast collection of 420 lyric poems in the Galician-Portuguese language is the largest collection of vernacular monophonic (solo) songs to survive from the Middle Ages.

Each song contains a reference to the Virgin Mary – many recount her miracles, some like Cantiga 10: Rosa das rosas (Rose of roses) sing her praises and others are prayers for her intercession. Cantiga 100: Santa Maria is a prayer asking for her guidance and protection. The album cover shown here is Narciso Yepes, the renowned guitarist, however Teresa Berganza recorded it a capella as part of a compilation album with him.

The word for May 18th is:
Canticle /ˈkan(t)ək(ə)l/: [noun]
A song, hymn, or chant, often with a biblical text, forming a regular part of Christian worship.
Middle English: from Latin canticulum ‘little song’, diminutive of canticum, from canere ‘sing’.

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