Why Revive? (Part 2): Alan Jay Lerner in Mufti

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The Day Before Spring was written roughly two years before Brigadoon by the geniuses who would, in time, give the world My Fair Lady: Frederick Lowe and Alan Jay Lerner. The York Theatre Company devoted its “Musicals in Muft” revival reading series to Lerner’s obscurer works this winter, on the occasion of the lyricist/librettist’s posthumous centennial. I caught a couple, including The Day Before Spring, which I was curious about. Lerner wrote the show with Lowe  in the immediate wake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! breakthrough. The Broadway musical had been changed before Lerner & Lowe’s eyes. How, I wondered, had this impacted such a talented young pair of R&H wannabes at an epochal juncture?

The answer, I discovered, was not so much. The Day Before Spring is a very wan musical about two former lovers, each married to others, who meet again at a college reunion and rekindle their affair. The setup sounds grownup, in a Cheever-esque sense. The musical itself proved rather callow, ducking its subject’s dark undertones again and again in favor of simpler sitcom silliness. The songs were derivative  and difficult to differentiate, though far more “swing” inflected than one might have expected from these future masters of English music hall sublimity. Lowe’s jazz inflections were fun and Lerner’s brittle lyrics, while often witty, felt little more than slick. The York “Mufti” company gave its best to The Day Before Spring , reminding audiences how much damn talent there is out there in NYC, capable of stepping up in the moment and effortlessly recreating a long-forgotten piece of theater.

The Day Before Spring opened on November 22, 1945 and ran a modest 167 performances. Its dances were choreographed by the British ballet master, Anthony Tudor, which must have really been something. This York revival trimmed the show to a single act and transported it from 1945 to 1958, which only seemed to emphasize its suburban sensibility. What really struck me, sitting there, was how difficult it is to write a good musical; even for a Lerner and a Lowe, with all the talent in the world. To create something as great as My Fair Lady remains a flat-out marvel.

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Just a week or so later,  I returned to York for a rare look at Alan Jay Lerner’s notorious post-Fritz Lowe flop, Lolita, My Love. As I wrote in kicking off this little series of posts, revivals sometimes are revived for reasons beyond mere remuneration; there are also revivals of rebirth, rediscovery or reinvention. Bringing back Lolita, My Love was purely an act of rebirth. The orginal closed out-of-town in Boston in 1971. With music by the James Bond movie maestro John Barry and Lerner’s book and lyrics based on Vladimir Nabokov’s bewitchingly shocking novel of kiddie porn lust and obsession, Lolita, My Love was an audacious gamble that failed to pay off. I was anxious to see it reborn.

The show’s original orchestrations and even full piano vocal score disappeared long ago.  What I heard and saw, as reconstructed by York’s musical director Deniz Cordell from a variety of sources — backers’ audition tapes, published sheet music, and a bootleg recording caught during the Boston tryout — was admirable from an archival point of view. The musical itself, however, was much less so. For a show with such a powerful narrative hook — ageing Humbert Humbert’s obsession with his teen nymphet, Dolores “Lolita” Haze — Lolita, My Love proved to lack any compelling or defining musical sound. The show’s tone felt diffuse and unfocused, as if trying to evade, even if only unconsciously, the inescapably groteque substance of its subject. As with The Day Before Spring, I couldn’t help thinking that Alan Jay Lerner liked the transgressive face of his chosen story but couldn’t quite bring himself to attack its core.

The casting at York, again, was terrific. Robert Sella rubbed against all of Humbert’s conflicting edges, capturing his sleaze and perversion but also his wit and even his charm. The 20-something Caitlin Cohn evinced pubescent sensuality without quite crossing into the tawdry. In our #MeToo age, the show flat out offends, clearly, but it also felt inexcusably tame, rarely satirical enough or horrifying enough or macabre enough or even mortifyingly fascinating. I was glad when it was over. But it was definitely worth reviving, if only for a brief rebirth.

 

NEXT: Kiss Me, Kate!

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