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Putting Them Together

In the wake of Henry IV, Filichia ponders what will happen when popular musicals enter the public domain.

By New York City
Michael Hayden and Ethan Hawke in Henry IV(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Michael Hayden and Ethan Hawke in Henry IV
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
I adored Henry IV -- which, as you've heard, is Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two joined together, edited, and slightly rearranged into one three-hour-and-45-minute work. What would Shakespeare have thought of it? Well, even if he hated what adapter Dakin Matthews and director Jack O'Brien did to his two plays, there's not a damned thing that either he or his heirs could do about it. That's what happens when works fall into the public domain: Once it's over for the author's copyright, you need not get the author's copy right. Anyone can play fast and easy with any script, even to the point of taking two different works and smushing them together.

It started me wondering: Decades from now, when the copyrights have run on out on some of our musicals, will future adapters and directors take the liberty to merge related shows? Will Birdie! be a three-hour amalgam of the best of Bye Bye Birdie and Bring Back Birdie? Of course, that would mean a much longer first act and a much shorter second act, for there's far better material in Bye Bye than Bring Back. That would also be true of Annie and Daddy, the conjoined Annie and Annie Warbucks.

I like a lot of Minnie's Boys but not all of it. So why don't we greatly condense the first act of the existing 1970 musical and end it with the lads adopting their Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo personae? The second act of the show could then consist of A Night in the Ukraine, Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus's hilarious parody of "the Marx Brothers movie they never made." Now, that's entertainment!

Will there someday be a show called Mayors -- not Mayor singular, the 1985 off-Broadway musical about Mayor Edward I. Koch, but Mayors plural, about James J. Walker (who was Hizzoner from 1926-1932) and Fiorello LaGuardia (who served from 1934-1945)? At least Mayors wouldn't have second act problems: Walker's 1969 musical bio Jimmy isn't nearly as good as LaGuardia's 1959 musical bio Fiorello! which won the Tony (over Gypsy) and a Pulitzer Prize to boot.

And speaking of political shows, the most logical musical merger would be to join Of Thee I Sing, the 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winner about the election of Wintergreen as president, and Let 'Em Eat Cake, the 1933 flop sequel in which we see Wintergreen's troubled term of office. Actually, the two were merged in 1987, when Michael Tilson Thomas conducted both of them in concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and recorded them for Sony. It's not the most theatrical of recordings; some may prefer the 1952 Broadway revival cast album of Of Thee I Sing or even the 1972 soundtrack of the TV version in which Carroll O'Connor tried to drop his Archie Bunker character and become presidential timber. Still, we must be grateful that we finally got a recording of the strangely subversive Let 'Em Eat Cake.

A future cast album cover?
A future cast album cover?
Perhaps someone in the distant future will do Molly! Not the 1973 musical that starred Kaye Ballard -- excuse me, "Kay" Ballard, as she was known for that show because her numerologist told her that if she dropped a letter from her name, the musical would be a hit, which it certainly was not. No, I'm talking about a musical that would start out with The Unsinkable Molly Brown and then, when the lady gets on board the Titanic, morph into Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's Tony-winning show. Granted, Molly Brown isn't even a character in Titanic, but that probably won't stop some director and adapter from putting her in there and singing someone else's songs.

Does all of this sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but I'm reminded of a tale that radio host Jonathan Schwartz once told me. This isn't a theater story, but given that Schwartz is the son of Arthur Schwartz -- who composed the music for nine Broadway musicals between 1934 (Revenge with Music) and 1963 (Jennie) -- and that Jonathan himself wrote liner notes for the Capitol cast album of his daddy's 1961 show The Gay Life, we'll let this story sneak through:

Schwartz had a friend who worked at a TV station in the Midwest. Part of his job was to schedule the movies for each night's Late Show, but the man was getting terribly frustrated with the movies he was continually offered; the station wasn't a rich one and its budget would only allow our programmer to rent black-and-white movies of yore. They were sometimes decent enough, but how many times could anyone be expected to watch The Egg and I, the 1947 comedy in which city mouse Claudette Colbert marries country mouse Fred MacMurray and moves to his neck of the woods, coping as best she can? Ditto Brute Force, another 1947 film, this one a bleak prison drama in which Burt Lancaster is harassed by a sadistic prison guard played by Hume Cronyn.

After Schwartz's friend played these movies on his Late Show, he noticed that there was a scene in Brute Force where all the convicts are corralled into the cafeteria to watch a movie -- which turns out to be The Egg and I. Needless to say, it's not the ideal film for such butch guys, a cruel irony that the screenwriter chose to point up. But our TV programmer decided one night to show both films -- first Brute Force, until the moment where the men go to see the movie, at which point he interpolated The Egg and I in its entirety. Yes, all 104 minutes of it. During commercials, he'd intone, "You are watching Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn" -- though someone who'd tuned in late would swear that he was watching The Egg and I.

Finally, after that light comedy finished up, our programmer returned to the scene in Brute Force where the guys are getting up from the table after having watched the movie. (I'll bet that their dour expressions from enduring the frivolities of The Egg and I weren't nearly commensurate with what they would have expressed had they actually seen the entire film.) The programmer then continued with the rest of Brute Force, giving viewers a 199-minute orgy of 1947 Hollywood -- even though he didn't have the right to do any of this, for neither film was yet in the public domain!

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


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