Swans Commentary » swans.com August 10, 2009  



Shaw In Chicago Again


by Isidor Saslav





Author's correction (posted on February 14, 2011): In the first paragraph, "So Anna Morgan went ahead and in 1903 C&C..." the date should read "1901." Also, further down in the first paragraph, "her subsequent visit to Shaw in later years at Ayot St. Lawrence" should read "her 1900 visit to Shaw in Hazlemere."


(Swans - August 10, 2009)   In 1901, George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra was published as one of the Three Plays for Puritans. In Chicago the play was read by Anna Morgan (1851-1936), the director of a Chicago girls' school at which plays and acting were an important part of the curriculum. Ms. Morgan thought C&C would be an ideal play for her girls to produce and perform so she wrote a letter to Shaw in England requesting his permission. Shaw replied expressing amazement at the thought that C&C could be performed by an all female cast but he gave his permission. So Anna Morgan went ahead and in 1903 C&C received its absolute world premiere at a Chicago girls' school with an all-female cast (thus joining two other iconic world art works in this rather specialized category: Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas and Antonio Vivaldi's violin concerto cycle, The Seasons.) In 1918, Ms. Morgan published her autobiography My Chicago, in which she reproduced Shaw's permission letter as well as describing her subsequent visit to Shaw in later years at Ayot St. Lawrence. Shakespeare's Hamlet also received an all female performance at the school and many a play of Yeats, Maeterlinck, Ibsen, Lady Gregory, etc., was also performed by Anna Morgan's talented students.

Over 100 years have passed since that Shavian premiere, and while Shaw and his plays are being well served today by the ShawChicago Company, Chicago must have said to itself it's time for another Shaw premiere in our city. So in 2009, on Chicago's North Shore, in the posh upscale village of Glencoe, not far from the Ravinia Music Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony, and accessible only via the overchoked Chicago freeways which I heroically braved recently, a company that calls itself The Writers' Theatre (WT), under the artistic direction of Michael Halberstam and Kathryn Lipuma, has commissioned composer Josh Schmidt, librettist Jan Tranen, and adapter Austin Pendleton to musicalize one of Shaw's most popular plays, Candida.

The Schmidt/Tranen/Pendleton Candida is now receiving its own world premiere performances and has been re-titled A Minister's Wife. AMW has been receiving very good reviews from The Wall Street Journal and The Chicago Tribune among others. The reviews have been so good in fact that the WT has extended the season of the new musical event in its 106-seat theater (which reminds one of the almost in-the-round Courthouse Theater at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario) from mid-July into August. I thought it was time for the International Shaw Society (or at least one of its members, myself) to throw its opinion into the ring on the subject of A Minister's Wife and see how an actual Shavian might react to this latest musicalization of a Shaw play.

To my knowledge there has never been a comprehensive book or article on the subject of the musicalizations of Shaw's plays. Many were listed by Dan Laurence in his Shaw bibliography but several more could now be added including A Minister's Wife. According to my reckoning a musicalization of a Shaw play becomes a world-wide smash hit every 50 years or so. In 1909/10 there was The Chocolate Soldier based on Arms and the Man set to music by Oscar Straus and translated back into English for the New York theater by Stanislaus Stange. Then, of course, came My Fair Lady based on Pygmalion and set by Lerner and Lowe in the 1950s. (Rodgers and Hammerstein had been offered the work first but they declared the task impossible.) When asked why he had left the remainder of the original play of Pygmalion to stand unrewritten during the non-musical moments of MFL Lerner replied, "Anyone who thinks he can improve on George Bernard Shaw needs to have his head examined." So the 50-year cycle is about up and it's time for another worldwide smash Shaw musical. Could A Minister's Wife be what we have been waiting for?

Other Shaw musicalizations I could mention would be Caesar and Cleopatra set by Ervin Drake as Her First Roman on Broadway in 1968 (often described as one the greatest Broadway flops of all time); and New York composer Philip Hageman's Shaw Trilogy of the 1980s, which made operas of three Shaw one-acters, Passion, Poison, and Petrifaction, The Music Cure, and The Six of Calais. To these adaptations Hagemann has added more recently The Dark Lady of the Sonnets and Androcles and the Lion. Passion and The Dark Lady were combined into a double bill called Shaw Sings in 2008 and given at Symphony Space in New York.

The Admirable Bashville has been musicalized twice, once in England under the title Bashville and once in America by Swans own Charles Marowitz under the title Bashville in Love and given its premiere in Fort Worth, Texas (which the Saslavs had the pleasure of attending, the performance being close enough to their Texas home); the one-act The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which, thanks to producer Vincent Dowling, at the time head of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland where Tom Hanks got his start, became the two-act Blanco and premiered in Cleveland about 30 years ago (and sadly never seen since. I was there for the world premiere and can report that it was a wonderful show. It was as if Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill had written Oklahoma). Richard Rodgers had a second bite at the apple and musicalized Androcles and the Lion for television in 1967. (It was only the second time Rodgers had written both the words as well as the music for his songs. Noel Coward played the emperor.) There may be more of these musicalizations but if so I don't know them yet.

In the field of opera there are basically two genres: the uninterrupted and the interrupted. During uninterrupted operas the singing and playing never stop. This genre has been given three characteristic names during the 400 years since opera was invented by the Florentine intellectuals of those days, Opera Seria, Grand Opera, or simply Opera. The interrupted variety, in which the music gives way periodically to spoken dialogue as if the event were simply a play, has sported various titles over the years: Opera Buffa in Italy, Singspiel or Melodram in Germany, Opera Comique in France, Operetta in Germany and Austria, and the Musical in America and England.

The opera buffa is said to have begun with Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona of 1733, presented as a 45-minute intermezzo between the acts of a real opera seria. Typical of the genre as a whole has been its lighthearted and amusing, often satirical, character inlaid amidst sentimental romance. Despite its heroic seriousness of purpose Beethoven's Fidelio, today called an opera, is, with its acted interludes, still basically a Singspiel, as are Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute.

One of the most famous and popular operas of all time, and of an equally serious nature, Carmen, started out similarly as an opera comique with spoken dialogue. Carmen officially became an opera when Ernest Giraud (1837-1892), Bizet's erstwhile classmate at the conservatoire, after the composer's death rewrote all the spoken parts into orchestrally accompanied recitatives. And since Giraud was from New Orleans and thus officially an American, Giraud's music, being part of the infinite number of Carmen performances having taken place since the work's composition and recasting, is probably the most well-known American music ever written.

So where does A Minister's Wife fit into all this? Though genre-wise it is an interrupted opera one would be hard pressed to call it a traditional musical. Down through the centuries interrupted operas have acquired another vital characteristic: their musicalizations demand during most of their stage time separate self-contained "numbers" which the audience can remember and, if talented enough, exit the theater singing. (Even the popular 19th century operas of Verdi and his predecessors demanded this exit singability.)

Here A Minister's Wife falls short. It would take more than one hearing to allow all its musical subtleties and sensitivities to be fully appreciated. This will probably hinder its smashibility. I find its music to be more closely related to the modern psychologizing musicals of Sondheim, which generally eschew the singable number in favor of music that rather lights up the inner psyches of their characters but without using overly singable tunes. In other words these are more like modern operas. Here AMW is on very strong ground indeed. During its more heroic moments Mr. Schmidt's music reminds one of Les Misérables, or The Phantom of the Opera, and during its more lyrical, tender moments, it reminds one of Michael Nyman's film scores (as in The Piano). So if Sondheim can be introspective and still gain worldwide popularity perhaps Mr. Schmidt can too. (Mr. Schmidt has also exercised his musicalizing talents onto another famous play, The Adding Machine of Elmer Rice and has been similarly praised by the critics for that as well.)

A compact ensemble of supporting musicians -- piano, violin, cello, and clarinet -- skillfully supplies what's needed to the work's opera-as-chamber-music approach, an approach which often brings the music to soaring emotional climaxes during its many introspective moments. Happily to report, 12-tone musical techniques never make an appearance.

Ready to carry out the producers' musical and staging concepts was a highly talented group of singing actors that included Kate Fry as Candida, Kevin Gudahl as Morell, Alan Schmuckler as Marchbanks, Liz Baltes as Prossy, and John Sanders as Lexy. Sadly, Burgess, Candida's father, has been written out of the musical version. He appears in AMW only in Greek fashion, that is, he is described and talked about by Morell from the stage but never makes an appearance. This lack of Alfred P. Doolittle's Dickensian predecessor is one of AMW's weaker points, I'm afraid.

And does lyricist Jan Tranen need to "have her head examined?" Ms. Tranen takes a middle ground between Lerner's respect for Shaw's original text and the hacks who take literary products and rewrite, thus "improving" them to suit some canon of audience taste. Rather than leaving the original text of Candida alone Ms. Tranen and Mr. Pendleton incorporate other but original and authentic words of Shaw himself into the libretto of AMW to flesh out and explain the political and social backgrounds of the characters, especially Morell.

For example, prominent at the beginning, incorporated as part of a Morell sermon in the process of being drafted onstage, is Shaw's dictum that God ("Jehovah" in the original) created the world in seven days and said that it was good. What would he say now? This, one of Shaw's finest observations, comes from Man and Superman (as the first of the "Stray Sayings" in the Revolutionist's Handbook) rather than Candida. In fact a sign appears later in the action saying, "What would he say now?" which the characters tote off to Morell's appearance at an evening religious/political meeting while leaving Candida and Marchbanks at home to test out the heroine's love preferences.

Explanatory posters in the WT foyer point out Candida's relation to Ibsen's A Doll's House. But the one very important relation the poster's author misses, which has been noted by several Shaw scholars, is the fact that Candida is actually a reply to Yeats's play The Land of Heart's Desire. TLHD appeared along with Arms and the Man as part of a double bill when both plays debuted in London in 1894. In TLHD as in Candida of 1895 (the following year) a housewife is tempted by a sprite from another and more romantic world to give up her kitchen drudgery and join him. The constant references in Candida to the necessity to perform mundane and prosaic kitchen and other household tasks certainly add weight to this hypothesis.

Kudos to set designer Brian Bembridge and his associates for reproducing the exact painting of the Madonna over the hearth as described by Shaw in his stage directions and elucidated by Stanley Weintraub.

As to the character of Candida herself, both in play and interrupted opera, countless treatises on that subject having been written I need say but little. However, Shaw included the play Candida among the Pleasant Plays. But on seeing it again I was ready to reclassify it back into the Unpleasant category. To see once again Morell being sadistically spiritually dissected and his confidence destroyed by Marchbanks is not what I would call a pleasant experience. And to see again the presumably free spirit of Candida re-opting for her secure bourgeois and philistine existence with Morell as her "final answer" I did not find heroically stirring in the least compared to Ibsen's Nora's walking out. In Candida, middle-class security trumps unpredictable sexual adventure even if one's possible partner is the son of an earl. And the character Candida did get so philistinically tired of poetry during the play! So much for the fairy spirit from The Land of Heart's Desire!

In the area of "triviata" it was a young Marlon Brando who created his first Broadway sensation as Marchbanks opposite Katherine Cornell's Candida in 1946. Brando later went on to include but one more Shavian role in his repertoire, that of Sergius in Arms and the Man at a provincial Connecticut playhouse in 1953.


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Published August 10, 2009