Me on Me and Juliet
If you like your Rodgers & Hammerstein very rare, drop in at the York Theatre this weekend.
We've all seen Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Some of us have seen Allegro, a few more have seen Flower Drum Song (especially since its new revisal), and some have even seen Pipe Dream (most recently in a Long Island airing). That makes eight out of the nine musicals that Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote for the stage. But very, very few people have ever had the chance to see the team's 1953 semi-hit Me and Juliet...until this weekend, anyway, when we will have the chance to complete the R&H canon courtesy of the York Theatre Company's "Musicals in Mufti" series. (This means that two shows in town will now feature a song called "Keep It Gay." Imagine!)
Me and Juliet was Rodgers' 30th musical and Hammerstein's 36th, and it was a welcome to the theater, to the magic, to the fun. Well, yes and no; actually, it was about a show within the show, itself called Me and Juliet, that Hammerstein described in the dialogue as an "unconventional dance opera." (Sounds like Contact, no?) But we don't get to see the four weeks where the company members rehearse and rehearse or the three weeks when it couldn't be worse: Hammerstein opted to show what a musical looks like in the middle of its long run, when much of the hullabaloo has died down and the "Darling-you-were-wonderfuls" aren't as plentiful. So we go back and forth between seeing a bit of the onstage Me and Juliet and what's going on backstage. But, given that musicals back then were always conceived as Really Big Shows, Hammerstein had to deal with too many characters whose occupations he had to torturously establish so that the audience could know with whom it was dealing. Nor did Rodgers write his best score for this show, although "That's the Way It Happens" may be noted by historians as the first R&H song (and one of the very few) that really swings.
The good news is that Me and Juliet has a marvelous, four-and-a-half minute, second act opener that I've cherished ever since I heard the reissue of the cast album in 1965. It's called "Intermission Talk" and it takes place in the downstairs lounge of the theater after the show within the show has just finished its first act. In the lounge, we hear what's on the theatergoers' minds, which sometimes involves the show they're seeing and sometimes doesn't. What's nifty about revisiting "Intermission Talk" nearly a half-century after Me and Juliet was written is to see what has changed about the theater...and what hasn't.
The song starts with a vendor named Herbie singing, "Lemonade, freshly made; a bottle of ice cold Coke." And that was about all you could get at a theater lounge back then; liquor didn't appear until 1964. (How do I know? I still remember Beatrice Lillie, then fittingly enough in High Spirits, telling Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show that "Since they put in that bar, each of our second-act laughs are three seconds longer.") A "Bored Patron" then sings, "I love to go to a theater lounge to enjoy a noisy smoke." Now, of course, he'd better step outside the theater and do his smoking on the sidewalk...and the way things are going for smokers, who knows how long that privilege will last?
A "Music Lover" sings, "I like the one that goes da-di-da-dum--'Marriage Type Love,'" quoting one of the songs from the onstage Me and Juliet. She's not through. "I like the one that goes 'No Other Love Have I,'" she sings, citing the song from this score that came closest to being a hit. Then she segues into "It's me! It's me! It's me!" citing a different song we've heard. Ethan Mordden, in his superb Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musicals of the 1950s, makes the excellent point that "Music Lover" couldn't have heard this number: It's a book song sung by one of Me and Juliet's cast members backstage and not a song in the musical-within-a-musical that "Music Lover" has been watching. Yes--but I wonder if Hammerstein was having a little fun with himself, because the next line, from "Her Companion," is: "That doesn't sound quite right." (Of course, we can take that literally, as meaning that her partner knows that "No Other Love" doesn't have the lines "It's me! It's me! It's me!" in it; but I like to think that Hammerstein was saying he purposely didn't write the line quite right in order to make an inside joke.)
"Wife" sings, "I don't think it's right to be sulky all night from one little bill from Saks". (These days, she would pay the bill herself from the wages she earns.) But "Businessman" sings, "What do I care if they balance the budget as long as they cut my tax?" which is still relevant (especially this week). "Girl" sings, "The fellow behind me keeps dropping his program and groping around my feet" as an example of terrible theatrical etiquette; little could she know that noisy candy wrappers, ringing cell phones, and awfully loud talking during a scene would become the norm for today's Broadway audiences. Similarly, "Bored Patron" has no idea how lucky he is when he sings, "The couple behind me had garlic for dinner; would you like to change your seat?" I've been at performances where families have passed bags of McDonalds and buckets of KFC to each other during the show, smelling up the place.
Eventually, the entire group--whom Hammerstein labels "Happy Mourners"--prove that Everybody's a Critic. "They don't write music any more," they lament, which is something we've increasingly heard in the last half-century. But it's interesting that, even in 1953, Hammerstein noted: "The plots are all too serious." This was long before his most famous protégé wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and the score for Sweeney Todd, and long before such other sober-sided hits as Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. "No longer sweet and gay," Hammerstein has his "Happy Mourners" sing, totally unaware that Sweet Smell of Success and real gay musicals were coming along.
"The theater is dying, the theater is practically dead," the Happy Mourners decide before Herbie interrupts them with: "But the show still goes on. The theater's not gone." Is that just wishful thinking from the kid who needs it to make a living by hawking lemonade and coke? Not at all, for soon Hammerstein has "Starry-Eyed Girl" sing: "I thought I'd laugh myself silly on the ev'ning I spent with Bea Lillie." This refers to the esteemed British comedienne's hit one-woman show, for which she won a special Tony. "Businessman" sings: "I sure had to hassle and hustle buying tickets for Rosalind Russell"--a reference to Wonderful Town, which had opened three months before Me and Juliet (and lasted some time after it). Later, the "Businessman" sings: "I loved Shirley Booth and Tom Ewell," the former for The Time of the Cuckoo (which opened seven months earlier and closed on the weekend that Me and Juliet opened at the Majestic) and the latter for The Seven Year Itch (which opened six months before Me and Juliet and outran it by more than two years). And I don't think I have to explain the line, "My love for my husband grew thinner the first time I looked at Yul Brynner." (Nice of Hammerstein, wasn't it, to cite the star of his previous show?) Sings "Satisfied Patron," "I just had a picnic at Picnic and loved everyone in the cast"--which sentiment I hope that Peggy Conklin, Eileen Heckart, Ruth McDevitt, Ralph Meeker, Morris Miller, Paul Newman, Arthur O'Connell, Janice Rule, Reta Shaw, Kim Stanley, and Elizabeth Wilson got to hear some Sunday night at an Actors Fund benefit performance. While some the above named stars and shows are dim memories or unknown quantities in 2002, Hammerstein wrote one line for "Enthusiastic Patron" that's extremely relevant right now: "The Crucible! Boy, what a play!"
And yet, the "Happy Mourners" sing, "The theater is dying! The theater is dying! The theater is practically dead! The ones who are backing it take a shellacking." This, of course, is still true. In fact, the financing of shows is worse now than ever before. I knew things were getting hairy when Woman of the Year managed to run 770 performances and still didn't pay back. In Me and Juliet's time, 500 performances automatically meant an impressive return to investors; now, with that kind of run, they'd be lucky to get any return on their investment.
Still, that cockeyed optimist Hammerstein and "All the Rest" of the lounge patrons eventually come to the conclusion that "actors keep acting and plays keep attracting and seats are not easy to buy," which is true of the current Broadway revival of the first show that Hammerstein wrote with Rodgers. "And year after year, there's something to cheer. The theater is living! The theater is living!" he and "All the Rest" finally exclaim. So, too, is Me and Juliet living this weekend--and that is something to cheer about, indeed.