Welcome to the start of a new week on That’s Entertainment! Today’s Musical Theatre Monday post finishes our latest series on musicals that came after Oklahoma! (1943), which is often, in hindsight, credited with ushering in the “Golden Age” of the American Musical (which, depending on whom you believe, lasted at least two decades). But interestingly enough, many of the shows from the first few post-Oklahoma! years are largely forgotten. Indeed, the period from about 1943-1948 IS “Golden,” but the shows are not yet conscious of that fact, many of them still struggling to adapt to innovations regarding book and score cohesion. Still, these shows feature excellent tunes introduced by excellent stars. We’ve already covered One Touch Of Venus (1943), Bloomer Girl (1944), Up In Central Park (1945), St. Louis Woman (1946), and High Button Shoes (1947). Today we’re in 1948!
1948. Love Life (10/07/48 – 05/14/49)
While Oklahoma! begat a string of Americana period pieces with tighter books and character-oriented scores, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s third musical, the remarkable but flawed Allegro (1947), ushered in a new type of musical — the concept musical. Today’s entry, the last in our series on “Golden Age” musicals during their period of adjustment, examines Love Life, the first HIT concept musical. What’s a concept musical? Essentially it’s a musical based around an idea, rather than a fluid plot. (Think Company (1970), for example.) Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Ray Middleton and Nanette Fabray (our star from last week), Love Life is blessed with music by Kurt Weill and a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner.
As with most concept musicals, the story is harder to describe. The show begins with a magic show — a magician suspends a man in midair, while a woman, the levitated man’s wife, is sawed in two. The show flashes back to a time when they were happy — 1791. The man and woman, Samuel and Susan Cooper (who never age), have just moved from Boston with their two kids. We then jump to 1821, where Sam decides to give up the carpentry trade and join a factory, straining his relationship with Susan, who feels neglected. In 1857, Sam joins a railroad company and Susan wants another child, but Sam isn’t keen on the idea. By the 1890s, Susan has become a suffragette, adding more strain to her relationship with Sam. The first act ends on a vacation cruise in the 1920s, where the Coopers both have run-ins with members of the opposite sex. The curtain comes down on them together — but not happily.
The second act begins in 1948. Sam now works at a bank and Susan has taken a job at a department store. The family of four argues over what to listen to on the radio, escalating into a screaming match between Sam and Susan. They decide to divorce. Sam moves into a hotel, and though he tries to muster up some happiness about his freedom, he really misses his wife and kids. The final part of the musical is a minstrel show about some of the illusions of love and marriage. The show ends with Sam and Susan walking towards one another on a tightrope. The curtain falls.
So, as the above synopsis indicates, the entire show revolves around an idea: the plight of marriage as a result of changes in society. Meanwhile, the individual scenes are punctuated by vaudeville-esque production numbers that comment on the action — like Cabaret (1966). But though the concept and the score are outstanding, the same can’t be said for Lerner’s book — which lacks both the humor and the pathos that the score necessitates. In short, it’s not as exceptional as it should be. That’s most likely why the piece hasn’t achieved the contemporary recognition that it deserves. (That and the fact that it opened during the musician’s strike of 1948 and didn’t get a cast recording.) But several productions in the past 25 years have attempted to reintroduce Love Life to new audiences. Students at NYU recorded a demo recording in ’85, and in addition to live audios of several productions, the entire show was broadcast on BBC radio in 1996. It is my understanding that a restoration of the piece is currently in development, with the hopes that this will yield several more productions and a complete recording. I have no idea when this will be, but I’d imagine it’s a year or two out (at the least).
This piece, like Weill’s Lady In The Dark (1941), which we covered here a few months ago, has not been forgotten by theatre aficionados. But, as there’s no easily accessible complete recording, it’s difficult for curious potential fans to get a real taste of the score. So let’s just feature a few highlights. (Again, subscribe and comment if looking for a full recording. I have several — all of varying quality.) First is Sam and Susan’s 1791 duet, the romantic “Here I’ll Stay.” This is Kaye Ballard’s rendition from the 1952 “Lyrics By Lerner” album.
Though Nanette Fabray never recorded any songs from the score, she did perform two of her songs on Ed Sullivan’s Toast Of The Town. Here’s an audio of her singing “Green-Up Time,” which (in the show) turns into a big hoe-down dance number!
An example of one of those vaudeville-style numbers I mentioned is the catchy “Economics,” which occurs in front of the curtain between 1821 and 1857. This is from Bagley’s “Lerner Revisited” album.
Another example of the “concept” numbers is “Love Song,” which is performed by a hobo in between the 1890s and the 1920s. This is Lerner himself singing!
One number that I’m surprised never caught on as a big audition piece is Susan’s “Mr. Right,” which she sings as a capper to the Illusion Minstrel Show. Fabray sang this on Sullivan, but my favorite rendition is the brassy version by Dorothy Louden.
The last song I want to share was actually cut from the original production, but has since been reinstated in several productions. Called “Susan’s Dream,” the piece delves into Susan’s expectations versus her reality. “Susan dreamed exactly what she had.” Here’s Kaye Ballard again.
No doubt about it — it’s a great score. Every song is a winner. I’m confidant that the strength of the piece will warrant its rediscovery before too long. It’s certainly at the top of my “MUST RECORD” list. And I think it’s probably at the top of a lot of people’s. Love Life is too rich of a work to remain forgotten forever!
Come back next Monday when we return for some more Cole Porter! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Six of Bewitched!