I’m not sure why I didn’t delve into The Happy Time around the time I was first discovering Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Woman of the Year and Chicago. John Kander and Fred Ebb made an indelible mark on Broadway, with a collaboration that spanned almost 40 years, producing some of the most respected musicals this side of the 20th century. Somehow when I was touching on the hits, I overlooked this 1968 gem.
To be honest, The Happy Time isn’t a great musical. It suffers from (what else?) a weak libretto by N. Richard Nash that’s very loosely adapted from Samuel Taylor’s play. But Kander and Ebb wrote a score that is very much unlike any other they wrote. Their musical scores were usually edgier and grittier than most, delving into darker cynicism shaped by directorial concept. However, this one has a romanticism and lightness that if a far cry from a seedy Berlin nightclub, a Windy City or South American jail cell or an ice skating rink.
The story concerns a jet-setting, prodigal son photographer who returns to his French-Canadian hometown St. Pierre to reconnect with his family, turning their lives upside down. His curmudgeonly father continues to criticize – when not looking at his “dirty pictures,” while his nephew worships him. Meanwhile, he reconnects with a former love, who has grown into a practical, focus (read: grownup) schoolteacher.
The musical was produced by that Abominable Showman David Merrick and directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, who won Tonys for both assignments. Robert Goulet, who won his Best Actor Tony for his work here, starred alongside David Wayne and newcomer Michael Rupert. Julie Gregg was Goulet’s love interest and old pros George S. Irving and Charles Durning played Goulet’s brothers. The production opened at the Broadway Theatre on January 28, 1968 to decidedly mixed reviews. Many found favor with the actors, but great fault with the script. It closed after 286 performances and bears the distinction of being the first musical to lose a million dollar investment.
However, the show, though mired in relative obscurity, has found a new life in recent years. Goodspeed Opera House showcased the first revisal in 1980. A production at the Niagara University Theatre in 2002 enlisted Kander and Ebb to help further revise the book and score, restoring cut scenes and songs. The composing team declared this the definitive performance version of the show and was used in the 2007 Musicals in Mufti concert and the 2008 Signature Theatre revival in Virginia.
RCA recorded the original cast album which showcases what was so wonderful about the original production: its music and lyrics. Goulet gets the choicest material, notably the lilting title song that opens the show and the act two opener “Walking Among My Yesterdays,” the most beautiful song about nostalgia I have ever heard. Wayne charms with “The Life of the Party” and Rupert makes an auspicious Broadway debut with the charming “Please Stay” and the rousing “Without Me.” All three score with the eleven o’clock number “A Certain Girl,” which to my ear is about as close to Jerry Herman territory you’re likely to find Kander and Ebb. For those who are wondering, Goulet is at a vocal peak here; his confident and assured baritone ringing out quite clearly with none of the Vegas stylings for which he later became quite notorious.
Now, I’m not saying that The Happy Time is their best score, but it certainly ranks as my personal favorite. This original Broadway cast album gets more airplay than any other Kander & Ebb score. A little caveat: here’s a clip from the 1968 Tony Awards. Goulet sings the title song, then joins Wayne and Rupert on “A Certain Girl.” Ohhh, for the days when Tony performances lasted eight minutes… Enjoy.