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Greater Loesser

Filichia waxes melismatic about Frank Loesser's score for Greenwillow, this week's Musicals in Mufti selection.

This weekend, we're all going to get the chance to hear Frank Loesser in a melismatic mood: Greenwillow is being presented by the York Theatre Company as part of its Musicals-in-Mufti series. For this 1960 Broadway musical, Loesser wrote many a melisma -- the most melismas he ever put into a score. A startling percentage of the songs have at least one. Know the term? A melisma occurs when a succession of different notes is sung upon a single syllable. Perfect example: Oliver's "Where Is Love?" -- or, to be more precise, "Where-air-air-air-air Is Love?" That's a melisma, and it's sometimes considered sloppy songwriting, but all the greats have done it.

Greenwillow is set in the town of the same name, a bucolic little place where everyone feels that this is "A Day Borrowed From Heaven" -- or more, accurately, "A Day-ay Borrowed from Heaven." We meet Gideon Briggs, whose family has been cursed with the urge to wander. Dad after dad has irresponsibly left his town and family, but Gideon's going to do better, for he hears "The Music Of Home" (in which there's a reference to "a flicker and a fla-ame.") We then meet Dorrie, who says in "Dorrie's Wish" -- which has all of four lines, and no melismas -- that she hopes Gideon will settle down with her. Soon, she's singing to him "Gideon Briggs, I Love You" -- actually "Luh-uh-uh-uv you." He sings that melisma, too -- though he's still not sure he should get involved with her, given his family's wretched history with romantic commitment. Maybe he should just consider this a "Summertime Love" (really "Lu-uv").

Dorrie figures that Gideon will leave her, that he'll soon be "Walking Away ("a-way-hey-hey") Whistling." Right after that, we get to meet two Greenwillow parsons -- the dour Reverend Lapp and the cheerful Reverend Birdsong. What's so clever is that each takes the same subject on which to speak the following Sunday but each has a different take on it, which we hear in "The Sermon." While Lapp sings, "Repent!" Birdsong cries "Rejoice!" (or, to be more specific, "Re-joy-hoi-hoi-hoice!") The parishioners come down strongly in favor of rejoicing in "Greenwillow Christmas": "Come Si-i-ing a so-o-ong!" After that, melismas are only found in every other song. There are none in "Could've Been A Ring," a delightful ditty in which two old-timers ruminate that they might have wound up together. But melismas return when Gideon decides "Never Will I Marry," in which he decides, "No burden to bear" ("beh-air"). "Faraway Boy" is melisma-free, but "Clang Dang the Bell" ("Beh-eh-ell") isn't. "What a Blessing" is devoid of them, but "He Died Good" offers "Die-ie-ied."

Loesser was a meticulous lyricist, so there's no doubt that he wasn't just being lazy when he wrote melismas into Greenwillow. He was obviously finding a specific musical language for this mythical town -- wryly said to be "somewhere down the road from Brigadoon and Glocca Morra" in a catalogue from Music Theatre International, which licenses the show for stock and amateur productions. Some may be surprised that MTI offers it at all, considering that the original Broadway production of Greenwillow opened on March 8, 1960 and closed on May 28, amassing all of 97 performances. But don't forget that Music Theatre International was Frank Loesser's own company.

Melismas or not, and its Broadway failure notwithstanding, Greenwillow has a grand score. Ethan Mordden considers it "perhaps Loesser's greatest set of music and lyrics." Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote that "Loesser has provided a warm and varied score that captures the simple mood" and was impressed that Loesser stayed honest in his writing: "There isn't a Tin Pan Alley tune in the lot." Yet Streisand later recorded "Never Will I Marry," which led to its getting many other covers. On the other hand, John McClain in the Journal-American predicted that "'What a Blessing' will remain a small classic," and that certainly hasn't happened. Still, the score is impressive. Not often will you find a 7/4 time signature for a musical's opening song or 6/4 for the hero's big aria ("Never Will I Marry").

Anthony Perkins
That's one reason why, despite its quick closing, Greenwillow's original cast album has endured. Musicals that hopscotch from label to label are pretty common now, but Greenwillow was one of the first to make the leap. It was on RCA Victor in the early '60s and Columbia Special Products in the mid '70s before DRG put it on compact disc in the late '80s. It's a recording of which star Anthony Perkins (as Gideon) was terribly ashamed. He claimed that he had a cold on the day of the recording, and when he heard it played back, he hated the way he sounded. After that, if he was in a record store and happened to see a copy of the album, he'd buy it -- figuring that would mean one less person would hear him. He then passed on each album to his agent, Helen Merrill, who kept them in a closet at her country home.

Perkins' cold wasn't the only problem; Greenwillow seemed to have been snakebit from day one. Loesser wasn't even producer Robert A. Willey's first choice: Lerner and Loewe were, but they turned him down. So he turned to Loesser, who said he'd write the book, music, and lyrics -- which, after all, he'd just accomplished for The Most Happy Fella. Soon, though, he got stymied and wanted a book writer. Paul (Morning's at Seven) Osborn declined, as did The Diary of Anne Frank playwrights Goodrich and Hackett. Then a minor screenwriter of whom you've never heard, Lesser (!) Samuels, said yes.

He'd live to regret it. Choreographer Jack Cole left to do a movie and was replaced by newcomer Joe Layton. Youngster Charles Strouse was to do the dance music, but when his own musical Bye Bye Birdie was optioned, he left, too. And what of director George Roy Hill, who was directing his first Broadway musical? (His only other, Henry, Sweet Henry, was the season opener for Mufti.) Hill quit three days before rehearsals were to begin, but Loesser coaxed him back. He would subsequently fire the show's leading lady. Yet despite Perkins' unhappiness with both the album and the show itself, he couldn't have been too sorry that he did it: There he met his understudy, Grover Dale, with whom he began a relationship that lasted more than a decade.

That Greenwillow got seven Tony nominations sounds impressive, but the biggest ones were for Best Actor (Perkins), Best Featured Actress (Pert Kelton), and choreographer (Layton). After that, they were "just" for sets (Peter Larkin) and costumes (Alvin Colt), and in two other categories for which Tonys are no longer given: Conductor and Musical Director (Abba Bogin) and Stage Technician (James Orr). The show won none of these awards, and that 0-for-7 result was the worst of any musical that had been nominated in any capacity up to that time. But it was later eclipsed by the original Chicago's losing in all 11 of its nominated categories in 1976 -- and look what eventually happened to that show. So who knows? Maybe Musicals in Mufti will send Greenwillow walking a-way-hey-hey whistling to a new success.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]
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