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A Touch of The Poet

Looking forward to the Encores! production of Kismet, Filichia muses on this "musical Arabian night."

By New York City
Alfred Drake and Joan Diener in theoriginal Broadway production of Kismet(Photo courtesy of Albert Marre)
Alfred Drake and Joan Diener in the
original Broadway production of Kismet
(Photo courtesy of Albert Marre)
He may well be the only leading character in a musical whose name we never really know. True, we tend to call the lead of Kismet, which has a four-day run at City Center Encores! this week, "Hajj." But that isn't actually his name.

Book writers Charles Lederer and Luther Davis and songwriters Robert Wright, and George "Chet" Forrest, in adapting Edward Knoblock's 1911play for the 1953 musical, called him "The Public Poet, later called Hajj." Take a look at the script, published by Randon House in 1954, and you'll see that he's always identified as "The Poet" when he speaks. It's just that in this "musical Arabian night," as the authors dubbed it, The Poet happens to go to a bazaar, parks himself in the place where the well-known beggar Hajj usually sits, and is mistaken by thugs for the real Hajj. They take him to their leader, Jawan, a brigand. (In the 1955 film version of the musical, Jawan is careful to say that he's "a brigand, a robber," just to help out those who don't know what a brigand is.)

You'd expect a poet to be awfully good with language, and this one certainly is -- especially in his delicious opening number, "Rhymes Have I," which was stupidly dropped for the movie. What's interesting is that The Poet resembles another famous musical theater character: Pseudolus from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Like that wily slave, he's always fast-talking, bargaining, cajoling, and charming his way through many a situation that results in an incensed enemy's knife being pointed at his belly. While Pseudolus wants freedom from slavery, The Poet wants a slightly different freedom -- from the slavery of poverty. (All of you poets out there will empathize, for you understand how hard it is to make a living.) Audiences root for both characters because they're both underdogs. We firmly believe that each deserves a better fate -- and, indeed, "fate" is what the Turkish word "kismet" means in English. (There's another parallel between Forum and Kismet: What happens to Erroneus at the end of the former show happens to Jawan in the middle of the latter one.)

Yet you wouldn't have cast original Kismet star Alfred Drake as Pseudolus or Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, or Nathan Lane as The Poet. (All four won Tony Awards for these roles, by the way). For one thing, unlike Pseudolus, The Poet must have a beautiful baritone. Kismet isn't easy to sing, for Wright and Forrest based their score on themes by classical composer Alexander Borodin. But as Ethan Mordden pointed out in Coming Up Roses, his excellent study of musicals in the 1950s, the team didn't just adapt Borodin. Writing about two of the show's three hit songs, Mordden detailed that the second movement of Borodin's Second String Quartet "provided the main strain of 'Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,' but halfway through the second A, Wright and Forrest are elaborating, and by the release, they are composing. The quartet's third movement gave them 'And This Is My Beloved,' but similarly, the release is theirs."

The score's other hit is "Stranger in Paradise." It's sung by Marsinah, The Poet's daughter, and the Caliph, who's pretending to be a gardener because he just wants to be one of the guys and see if he can be liked for himself. They provide a love-at-first-sight convention that plagues so many musicals. Still, Western audiences have always liked the Caliph because he shares their values in wanting to love one woman instead of an entire harem, as his countrymen are urging him to do. Of course, their coming together doesn't happen easily; but, in another Forum parallel, lovers divided get coincided.

Here's one more reason why your average Pseudolus wouldn't be good as The Poet: The latter character must be a sexual presence. He romances Lalume, the Wazir's "wife of wives," who thinks her tub-of-lard husband is a moron. (In fact, he is, considering how he never sees through her many double-entendres.) First-class revivals of Kismet have almost always had a "name" playing the part of The Poet, and this week, Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will once again take on an Alfred Drake role -- just as he did in the 2000 revival of Kiss Me, Kate.

As was the case in that revival, he'll be paired with Marin Mazzie, who'll play Lalume. (The role was played by Joan Diener in the original Broadway production and by Dolores Gray in the film. Gray rivets us from her first entrance, and not just because she's Dolores Gray: Her legs have been painted gold, as if Auric Goldfinger got started on her and then lost interest.) Also on hand will be Marcy Harriell as Marsinah and Danny Gurwin as the Caliph. (In the film, the Caliph was played by then-popular singer Vic Damone, who gave arguably the most wooden performance ever seen in a movie musical.)

It will be most fascinating to see how the lines describing a certain city play with audiences in 2006. When the Wazir is told that three of his latest concubines aren't happy, he says, "Not happy in Baghdad! That's impossible! Why Baghdad is the symbol of happiness on earth!" That would be an easy line to eliminate, for few know the show's book that well. But many more are familiar with Kismet's several recordings, so they'd notice if Lalume didn't sing the famous lyric that opens "Not Since Nineveh" -- "Baghdad! Don't underestimate Baghdad!" My guess is that the mostly liberal and Democratic audience for the Encores! production will give the Wazir's quip some knowing laughter, while Lalume's lyric will spur a burst of applause as criticism of an administration that indeed seems to have underestimated Baghdad.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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