Bell Ringing Monks

There were three musicals nominated for Best Musical at the Tony Awards in 1959. The winner was the Gwen Verdon vehicle Redhead, which went home with a total of 5 awards. One of the nominees was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. But there was a third nominee that was an even bigger hit than these two shows. It was a French revue imported from London called La Plume de Ma Tante (translated: “The pen of my Aunt.” Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean a thing). The book was written by Robert Dhery with music by Gerard Calvi and English lyrics by Ross Parker (who wrote the words for the WWII standard “We’ll Meet Again). La Plume is pretty much unlike any other show Broadway has seen before or since. David Merrick and Joseph Kipness (who plugged the revue as “a French Hellzapoppin’) brought the show to the Royale (now Jacobs) Theatre, where it a total of three Tony nominations and ran for 835 performances, longer than any other musical nominated that year.

La Plume de Ma Tante was different from other revues in that relied more on visuals (sight gags, leers, double-takes) than text. There were songs and some dialogue, but it was very sparse and could be described from all accounts as Frenglish. Most of the evening was presented in pantomime, with a lot of old-fashioned bits pulled from Dhery’s background in circus and music hall. He and his company (which included his wife and the show’s choreographer Collete Brosset) had fine-tuned their material through many venues in France before bringing this particular show to London.

Though somewhat underwhelmed by the material, critics raved for the company and the staging. One of the things that made the show so successful was its ability to surprise the audience with its Gallic charm, madcap sensibility and utter unpredictability. The cast, which included Pierre Olaf (Carnival) and Yvonne Constant, was rapturously received and awarded a special Tony for “contribution to the theatre.” However, the show didn’t receive an original Broadway cast album and has since slipped into obscurity.

The moment that was mentioned in all reviews and is most talked about was the show’s act one finale. Four monks (in full regalia) came out onstage and started ringing the monastery bells by simply pulling on four long ropes that extended up into the flies. When left unsupervised, they start losing their inhibitions and begin to dance. This builds and builds to a brassy, jive variation on “Freres Jacques” in which the men turn the ropes into a maypole. The last sight the audience saw as the curtain came down for intermission were these four men leaping about fifteen feet into the air on these ropes with reckless abandon. Apparently Dhery originally created this for the Crazy Gang and later interpolated it into the London show.

This scene was recreated for the 1984 Royal Variety Performance and I think is without a doubt one of the rarest and most obscure – and dare I say oddest – things I have ever blogged about. You have to see it to believe it.