Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our last original weekly series, in which I’m highlighting some of the final scores that I feel must be featured here before the year concludes. Today…
IV. The Firebrand Of Florence (03/22/45 – 04/28/45)
The second lyric adaptation of Edwin Justus Mayer’s 1924 play The Firebrand (which itself was used as the basis for the 1934 nearly-a-Pre-Code film The Affairs Of Cellini), this soaring musical comedy boasted a score by composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Ira Gershwin, both of whom had previously collaborated on the superior Lady In The Dark (1941), and a lavish — not to mention pricey — Max Gordon production directed by John Murray Anderson. The action was set in 1535 Florence and sang the legendary tale of Benvenuto Cellini (Earl Wrightson), a sculptor pardoned from execution (for the attempted murder of a count) so that he could finish a previously commissioned work. A bedroom farce begins to emerge once revealed that Cellini is in love with his model Angela (Beverly Tyler), who is also the object of affection for the Florentine Duke (Melville Cooper), whose wife, the Duchess (Lotte Lenya), has the hots for Cellini. Unfortunately, in spite of such gaiety, the original production closed after a mere 43 performances due to a bloated budget that couldn’t be supported by its non-stellar ticket sales.
Reviews were all over the place, and varying critics took aim at everything from the show’s lack of comedy, the vocal talents of its leads, and a perhaps dated plot. But this is one time where I think the critics got it wrong. (And through this survey of forgotten musicals, and even in my studies of forgotten television and films, I generally think the critics do a fine job of noticing what works and what doesn’t — but not in this case.) You see, the score is extraordinary — truly I think it’s among the best I’ve ever covered (I’m talking top 10-15, here, folks) — and probably one of the most melodic and literate pieces I’ve covered in a while. Tragic one minute and hilarious the next, the score (and by my estimation, the libretto too, which you can download here) never strikes a false move. The original production’s truncated existence remains a shocker, especially because we’ll never be able to see it for ourselves. But I’m here to tell you The Firebrand Of Florence‘s lukewarm response is not justified by the material itself.
Take, for example, the most popular song from the score, the Duchess’ direct “Sing Me Not A Ballad,” which Lenya recorded herself over a decade later (heard earlier in this entry) and the devastating “Love Is My Enemy,” taken directly above from Thomas Hampson’s Kurt Weill On Broadway album, on which a good portion of the score was recorded (and conducted by every vintage Broadway fan’s favorite resurrector of dusty works, John McGlinn).
In addition to the Hampson album, a 2000 BBC concert of the score was released to CD. Here you can hear gems like “The Little Naked Boy” (above), a delicious song — again for the Duchess — that ably illustrates the transcendent nature of both gentlemen’s contributions.
Gershwin’s charm, in particular, is evident in the Duke’s comedic “A Rhyme For Angela,” in which he laments that nothing rhymes with her name! The rendition above is by Eddie Korbich.
Although I think Weill’s efforts in this country grew more “American” with each work, European opperetta was never too far away from his aesthetics. (This is perhaps one of the reasons that 1945 audiences were not as receptive as they should have been.) But the blend of cultures is brilliant here, as heard in these two numbers from the Hampson album, “Come To Florence” (above), part of the extended opening sequence, and the primary lovers’ duet for Angela and Cellini, “You’re Far To Near Me” (below), an exquisite tune.
And we’ll close today’s post with a two-for-one of Ira Gershwin himself singing my two favorite numbers from the score, Cellini’s breathtaking “Life, Love, And Laughter,” with which he led the ensemble (and it was reprised several times throughout the show), and the utterly delightful comic number for Cellini, the Duke, and Angela, “The Nosy Cook,” in which the Duke’s attempted seduction of the lass is overshadowed by Cellini’s eavesdropping. What a score — the “cream” of the forgotten “crop”!
*All of the shows in this series are Musical Theatre Monday Essentials. Here’s the updated list!
Come back next Monday for another forgotten musical! Tune in tomorrow for my picks of the best episodes from the third season of Married… With Children!