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Peter Filichia traces the path of Lost Musicals' production of Fifty Million Frenchmen from page to stage. logo
KT Sullivan and Edward Watts in Fifty Million Frenchmen
(© George Kleiman)
Ian Marshall Fisher's heart sank when he opened the manila envelope. Yes, Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., who represented the Cole Porter estate, had sent him a script and tape of Fifty Million Frenchmen, just as he'd promised. "But I knew right away it wasn't really Fifty Million Frenchmen," Fisher says in his Henry Higgins British accent, clipping each word as if it were a scrapbook photo.

Fisher, who looks like Moss Hart mixed with George Gershwin, definitely hails from England, but his musical theater sensibilities are decidedly American. There's isn't a Golden Age American musical that he hasn't wanted to know more about. He's given many of them to London audiences in staged readings through his Lost Musicals series; and now he's presenting Fifty Million Frenchmen, starring American performers Edward Watts, Michelle K. Niklas, KT Sullivan, Christine Pedi, and Sondra Lee, at New York's Florence Gould Hall for four performances.

In 1994, Fisher decided he wanted to learn more about the 1929 musical with a score by Porter and a book by Herbert Fields. "What Mr. Montgomery sent me was a 45-page script that had clearly been printed by computer," Fisher relates. "Now, an average libretto was 120 pages, so I was looking for 75 more pages." Then Fisher put on the tape and discovered "one jolly delicious song after another, which is what I expected. Irving Berlin always said this was one of his favorite shows. But I could tell it was a new recording." Of course, the tape was the 1991 Evans Haile recording, which kept 14 songs from the original score, dropped three, and reinstated four that had been cut as well as "Let's Step Out," a song that Porter added after the November 27, 1929 opening.

That wasn't to Fisher's liking at all. "When people get hold of any musical 15 years old or older," he notes, "they suddenly ask: 'What other material did the songwriter write?' People can't stop themselves from doing that. When people do Tosca, they don't look at all the other music Puccini wrote, put some of that in, take out the odd aria, and change the language, too. Do they? I like to see a show as it was done on opening night. Tommy and Evans are bright and capable fellows, but I didn't want a script that had just a page of dialogue in between songs."

So Fisher contacted Montgomery and asked if he could see the original. "Bob said, 'Of course, but Tommy and Evans wrote a great show.' And I said, 'That's fine, but it isn't my thing. I stage what we call lost musicals, and this isn't a lost musical; it's a new musical.' " Montgomery surrendered and sent Fisher another package, one that couldn't have pleased him more. "The script was typed on a typewriter," he says, beaming, "and I thought, 'Oh! Now I'm really going to read Fifty Million Frenchmen!' Herbert Fields satirized the 'wrong' kind of Americans who go and 'do' Europe, as well as the French, who'll smile at them to get their money -- and then comes the sneer."

Pleased as he was, Fisher didn't get around to doing the show for eight more years. But when The Royal Opera House in London put a small theater in its basement in 2002, Fisher knew just what the inaugural attraction had to be: "We had a huge amount of fun. The script does have a bit of political incorrectness about it that now makes the show seem as if it has an edge. It starts with 14 pages of dialogue, but they went whizzing by," he insists. "Don't forget that Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, and Rodgers often wrote with Herbert Fields, and they didn't do that because there was no one else. They chose him because he was the best."

The story concerns Peter Forbes, a rich young man who bets his buddy Michael Cummins that he can get a girl even if he pretends to be a penniless tour guide. You know he gets her, don't you? But there's a peck of misunderstanding before Looloo Carroll says yes to him. At one point, Peter says, "Gee, Looloo, I guess I am a bust" before all is set right. In between, Looloo's social-climbing parents almost marry her to a Duke who had to have been born during the Buchanan administration. The book, which really seems to be a series of revue sketches between nifty songs, sometimes treads on dangerous turf. For example, when Peter becomes furious at a little kid for being bratty, he suggests that they play a game of strip poker and says that he'll beat the pants off him. There is also one anti-Semitic remark per act, and an indictment of the Scotch as cheap. But, most of the time, Fields was content to provide snappy one-liners, which were all that 1920s audiences demanded.

The show, which resumes its Florence Gould Hall run on Sunday, is nicely performed -- especially for those who like their musicals unamplified. As Peter, Watts is everything a leading man must be, from square jaw to glorious voice. As Looloo, Niklas does some thrilling trilling in "I'm in Love." Sullivan beautifully plays an ugly American and lands every one of Fields' zingers. When asked by Peter, "Where do you want to start?" she says "At the bottom" in a way that sounds downright (and deliciously) dirty. When told that "Working people have a right to love," she thinks before deciding, "Not necessarily."

Porter's score offers one famous song ("You Do Something to Me"), some that became known through Ben Bagley's recordings ("The Tale of the Oyster;" "Where Would You Get Your Coat?"), and others that will be delightful newcomers to many audience members. The songs tend to be short; in fact, the audience doesn't immediately applaud after many of them, because they expect there will be more music. It's just one of the many ways in which you can't hold Fifty Million Frenchmen up to contemporary musical theater standards. So what? It's still a fun time -- especially for musical theater archaeologists who like to get into a time machine and see what boulevard fare was back then. If there aren't quite 50 million reasons to see these Frenchmen, there are still plenty of good ones.

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