Three from the “Applause Libretto Library Series”

While the American musical was at the peak of its popularity, the publishing industry took notice and would publish libretti, especially Random House. Released in hardcover editions, the books presented the entire text of the musical play (spoken and sung) with simplified stage directions to help maintain the narrative. I have a few of these – and in some cases (Candide, Follies), these editions are the only window original script.

It didn’t seem to matter whether the show was a mammoth or minor success, and in some cases even a failure. I have copies of Gypsy, New Girl in Town and The Apple Tree and whenever I can find these vintage copies I pick them up. When I was in college I got to read Anyone Can Whistle’s hot mess of a book thanks to the published copy sitting in the stacks of our library. Many of my first experiences with a stage musical’s text came from these editions. While I was introduced viscerally through film adaptations, I was curious enough to venture to my library to find the book form. The first libretti I read were The Music Man and The Sound of Music and as someone who was unaware of how a show was adapted (and in some cases bowdlerized and bastardized – I’m looking at you Freed Unit), I was surprised to see how different the shows were in their original stage incarnations. Having not seen some of the productions myself, these texts filled in the gaps between songs on many an original cast album.

As the musical fell out of vogue, it seems that the major publishers lost interest. Where Random House has lost interest (major publishers tend to take on smash musicals in lavish and expensive special coffee table editions), Applause Theatre and Cinema Books and Theatre Communications Group have taken up the effort. Between the two of them, many contemporary musicals have been published in text form. (Dramatist’s Play Service and Samuel French also publish libretti, but those are more detailed copies specifically designated for actors).

Recently Applause released three new editions. Classic Rodgers and Hammerstein shows Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music have rarely been out of print, but receive new trade paperback editions as part of the Applause Libretto Library Series. There are new introductions from R&H’s Ted Chapin, who comments that the text is taken verbatim from the original Random House editions. While Oklahoma! will continue to be performed as it was originally written, it is not the same for The Sound of Music, as all subsequent revivals have been influenced by the immensely popular film adaptation and incorporating those changes. Rereading The Sound of Music, there is one way in which the stage show intrigues me – there is no rivalry between Maria and Elsa. In the stage show, Elsa (not a baroness, but a shrewd, stylish CEO) has far more interesting dimensions and for one thing actually likes Maria. The break-up has more to do with the differences between her and the Captain over the impending Nazi takeover. Both editions contain photos from their various productions, revivals and film adaptations.

The third entry is the recent smash Avenue Q, the little off-Broadway musical that could (and did). The 2004 Best Musical winner was previously published as part of a lavish (by puppet standards) hardcover book, but this new edition is text only and a little easier on the budget.  The tongue is still planted firmly in cheek, even in book form: there’s a Puppet Police warning in lieu of the regular disclaimer about performance rights (which, incidentally, are available from MTI). Librettist Jeff Whitty has written an afterword in which he discusses the changes that have been made since the show’s original off-Broadway run, including those for the London run, the aftermath of Gary Coleman’s untimely death and the famous George Bush shout out in “For Now.” More enigmatically, Whitty mentions that he deleted one word from this published script, but won’t elaborate what it is. (Perhaps there are some Q aficionados out there who could figure out what it is?)

The Libretto series continues with two more contemporary entries: The Last Five Years and Memphis. I can tell you, it makes this musical theatre nerd a happy camper.

Random Thoughts on This and That

I’ve been looking over the upcoming season and I gotta say I’m most excited this fall for Hamlet with Jude Law as it’s my favorite Shakespeare tragedy (and I’ve never seen it live), Oleanna because I enjoy Bill Pullman, A Little Night Music because of its rumored cast and the Kennedy Center import of Ragtime. Did I fail to mention Superior Donuts? After August: Osage County, I’ll see anything Tracy Letts writes. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else that I’m forgetting about… Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to?

I’m watching the the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! as I type. For those who don’t know, the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein smash was shot twice, once in CinemaScope (an anamorphic lensed widescreen system using an aspect ratio of 2.55:1) and in the brand new Todd-AO, a large format 70mm system developed by Mike Todd. Todd-AO used a wide-angled lens, and a deeply curved screen which was meant to rival the expensive and impractical three camera Cinerama. Todd-AO didn’t require anamorphic image compression and displayed a spherical aspect ratio of 2.20:1.

Each scene was shot twice in each process which means there are two versions of the film available. The most notable difference between the two are the opening credits, but there are also differences in line readings and camera angles. When it originally opened in 1955, the Todd-AO format played the major roadshow engagements in NY and other major markets. The traditional CinemaScope version played other theatres throughout the country. The CinemaScope version made the initial video releases, but was supplanted by the restoration of the Todd-AO print, which was marked with superior sound and image quality. In 2005, 20th Century Fox released a 2-disc special edition containing both versions, though for some reason the Todd-AO transfer doesn’t improve on the 1999 release, except in making it 16:9 friendly. There’s a comprehensive website called the American Widescreen Museum which goes into explicit detail on the history and technological details of these different processes that are for the most part no longer used in filmmaking.

This video of Gloria Grahame singing “I Cain’t Say No” gives you an idea of the different versions:

The following year, Carousel was shot twice in CinemaScope and a process called CinemaScope 55 in an attempt to combat Paramount’s VistaVision process. The new CinemaScope process was an experimentation with 55 mm film that was heralded in both Carousel and The King and I. The idea of shooting Carousel twice is what led Frank Sinatra to quit the project, since he didn’t like the idea of shooting two films for the price of one. Ironically enough, they abandoned the 35mm shoot during filming. CinemaScope 55 was actually never really used: both R&H films were shot in 55mm stock and had their prints reduced onto regular 35mm, since it was more feasible than requiring movie houses to accommodate the unusual film size. From what I understand, the 55mm prints were never even used.

I’m still unable to get The Norman Conquests out of my head. So I decided to watch Table Manners from the 1977 BBC adaptation. It’s an entirely different animal from the recent revival, but it is still quite extraordinary. The television version stars Tony-Award winner Tom Conti as Norman. After Stephen Mangan it is seriously difficult to imagine any other actor in the part and unfortunately Mr. Conti’s performance suffers (The problem here is he’s not nearly as likable in the breakfast scene, in fact he’s downright irritating). David Trougham is a bit too stiff for Tom. However, Richard Briers makes for a game Reg, while Fiona Walker scores as Ruth. Penelope Keith won the bulk of the praise and a BAFTA award for her turn as Sarah (deservedly so – she was the only original London cast member to reprise her role onscreen). It was particular fun discovering that Jessica Hynes’ fellow Shaun of the Dead actor Penelope Wilton played the same role here in the TV adaptation (and quite well). Will be getting around to Living Together and Round and Round the Garden before long.

Sadly, this is out of print on DVD in the UK and has only been released on VHS in the US. BBC America, get on it! However you can get a sampling of it on youtube. Here are the first ten minutes of Table Manners:

There are two weeks left for you to catch Mary Stuart. If you haven’t had the opportunity, run don’t walk to the Broadhurst. Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter are giving titanic performances as Mary and Elizabeth I, respectively. It’s worth the price of admission for the first scene of the second act alone, which depicts the fictional meeting between the two monarchs. The two leading ladies are breathtaking and deserve to be seen, again and again and again. Plus, there’s a fantastic discount code for the rest of the run. This one is not to be missed.

I’m off to Long Island for the weekend. A friend is getting married in Centereach (sadly no East Hampton this trip) and the honor of my presence has been requested, so I will resume my blog perch on Sunday evening. I’ll be thinking of my friends spending some quality time with those titans at the Broadhurst tomorrow while enjoying marital libations.