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The Musicals That Are the Food of Life

The number of Twelfth Night musicals hasn't made it to twelve--not yet. logo

Oliver Platt (Sir Toby), Kristen Johnson (Maria), Michael
Potts (Feste), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Sir Andrew) in
the New York Shakespeare Festival's Twelfth Night
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Went to see Twelfth Night at the Delacorte. Nice production. Good to see Julia Stiles and Jimmy Smits, stars from other media, trod the boards and do rather well. But I have to admit that my mind wandered after the very first line of the play--when the Duke says, "If music be the food of love, play on," I always find myself hearing the line, "I can't remember if that's Marlowe or Bacon." For that's the way that the original cast album of Your Own Thing begins. The musical version of Twelfth Night (with a book by Donald Driver, and score by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar), opened very quietly on January 13, 1968 at the Orpheum. Nifty reviews followed. So did the New York Drama Critics Circle Prize, which doesn't often go to an Off-Broadway show.

Granted, the 1967-68 season didn't give those critics much choice. Golden Rainbow and The Happy Time were big disappointments. As for Darling of the Day, The Education of Hyman Kaplan, George M., Henry Sweet Henry, Here's Where I Belong, How Now Dow Jones, I'm Solomon, Mata Hari, and New Faces--add their number of performances together, and you'll see that they ran 103 performances fewer than Your Own Thing's eventual 933. Because the Tonys used an April 15 cut-off in those days, Best Musical went to the execrable Hallelujah, Baby! which statistically belonged to 1966-67. Your Own Thing couldn't have won, of course, because it was an Off-Broadway show.

There was one other 1967-68 Broadway musical: Hair. But it opened too late for Tony consideration. Had Your Own Thing moved to the very available Booth, and had Hair opened uptown a month earlier, the two would have duked it out for the Best Musical Tony. And don't be so sure that Hair would have won. Remember, the Critics Circle takes Off-Broadway into consideration, so it could have chosen Hair, which opened downtown 10 weeks earlier.

Though Your Own Thing was sold to Hollywood, no movie was ever made. But its LP (and 8-track tape) did eventually make it to CD. Don't be scared off by the cover. Garish wavy bands of fuchsia and orange surround a too-too cute drawing of a rock musician whose body is formed by the title's three words. And when you buy it, don't just file it--play it. The score's strength are its soft-rock ballads. "Flowers," "She Never Told Her Love," "Be Gentle," "The Middle Years"--all lovely. Though I do remember that then sexagenarian Boston drama critic Elliott Norton shrewdly noticed that "Don't Leave Me" and "When You're Young and in Love" were awfully quaint lyrics for supposedly new-aged songs.

Oh, there is an atrocity or two in the score. Any show that asks its characters to do a dance called "The Hunca Munca" is asking for trouble. But some of the uptempo numbers are pretty good, such as the title song. Interesting, though, that as the years passed, what was then called "The Now Generation" took the advice given in that song: "There'll come a day when the world'll need you / There'll come a day when the world'll heed you ...You may change someday / You may find another way." Today's brokers, bankers, traders, and presidents have done just that.

The cast recording of Your Own Thing
As for the book, the most daring move Driver made was to drop Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste, and Malvolio (nicely played, by the way, in the current revival by Oliver Platt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Potts, and Christopher Lloyd). Malvolio's excision was especially drastic, because he's one of Shakespeare's best-known characters. Not only that, Malvolio would have fit this '60s show. A man who dresses foolishly because he believes his love-object requested it could have worn some new and outlandishly trendy outfit. (Can you say Nehru jacket?)

But Driver and his songsmiths apparently felt they had plenty, what with the adventures of Sebastian and Viola, Shakespeare's male-female twins who greatly resemble each other. With the unisex dress style then in the news, the collaborators felt the mistaken identity could be made even more believable if the two wore the exact same clothes. "I can't tell the boys from the girls, anyway" was a line in the show said by John Wayne. To which Humphrey Bogart quipped, "You do have a problem."

Needless to say, Wayne didn't show up for eight-a-week, and the long-deceased Bogart wasn't around, either. But one of Your Own Thing's great charms was its use of then-brand-new slide projections, coupled with voice-overs. Lord knows that multi-media tricks have since been wildly overused, but they were theatrically genial and fresh in 1968. Also represented in those slides was the cantankerous Senator Everett P. Dirksen, W.C. Fields, Queen Elizabeth, Buddha, and--as painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel--God. Not only that, when a character had an inner thought that we needed to know, a projection flashed above him as a cartoon balloon that told us what he was thinking. Fun.

Driver kept an inordinate amount of Shakespeare's actual dialogue. The 24 lines that the Bard used to open Act One Scene Two ("What country is this?" "This is Illyria, lady.") are the exact same that Driver chose to open his. But then a slide projection of then-Mayor John Lindsay showed him saying, "Illyria is a Fun City. Cough, cough." Driver also retained one of the original play's most famous lines, "Youth's a stuff will not endure." Your Own Thing didn't, either. But that doesn't mean we can't respect it for what it was and what it did. For a mere 10 days before Your Own Thing opened, there was another rock musical, Love and Let Love, that was also based on Twelfth Night. It, on the other hand, closed after 14 performances, on the day, ironically enough, that the Your Own Thing team read its fine reviews. All that Love and Let Love got was a privately released cast album, one which doesn't make it sound like much. Song titles included, "I've Got a Plan," "If She Could Only Feel the Same," and "The Dancing Rogue." If its authors, Don Christopher, John Lollos, and Stanley Jay Gelber ever did anything else, I don't know about it.

Viola (Kate Bradner) and Orsino (Rich Affannato) in Illyria,
the latest musical version of Twelfth Night
(Photo: Cara Reichel)
Eight years later, old pals director George Abbott and composer Richard Adler (working with lyricist Will Holt) brought another Twelfth Night musical, Music Is, to the St. James. After a smash engagement in Seattle, it received bad reviews in New York, and closed after a week. No album was made, though one song, "Should I Speak of Loving You?" shows up on recordings from time to time. A few seasons back, we had Play On!, in which Duke Ellington songs were interpolated into Twelfth Night's action. It didn't do much better than Music Is but at least it got an album, thanks to Bruce Kimmel. (I'll bet that if he'd been producing cast albums in 1976, Kimmel would have recorded Music Is, too.)

Last year, there was yet another Twelfth Night musical called What You Will, which took its title from Shakespeare's subtitle. This year, there was yet another one called Illyria. At this rate, it probably won't be long before we will have had twelve Twelfth Night musicals.


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

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