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Movie poster for 1931 "talk-
ie" adaptation of William
Ten Nights in a Bar

Singing in the Vein
The modern musical has evolved from its humble origins of musical review into the behemoth productions that are the trademarks of such industry giants as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney today. Like any evolved organism, it retains a portion of its original DNA, though it may be unrecognizable in every other way. Once relegated to Vaudevillian theatre where it sought relevancy to real life, today the musical has evolved to dominate the Broadway stage, generating some 1.8 billion dollars per year in receipts. The splashier the production, it would seem, the bigger the hit, story and plot be damned. The musical has become, once again, mostly irrelevant to the lives of its audience, and like so many things in modern society, measured for the on-the-spot gratification it provides, and rewarded accordingly. Today, dramatic plays are all but non-existent on the Great White Way. Broadway has become the domain of the musical.

A . . . My Name is Alice
by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd
Concord Theatricals, 1985
ISBN: 0-573-68177-5
$9.95, 68 pp

Conceived in 1985, Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd's A . . . My Name is Alice was written as a women's empowerment piece. Filled with cliche's of what women's equality was thought to look like (dressing like a man; cursing like a man; sexually harassing like a man), the two act piece consists of a series of vignettes that feel hastily strung together, interspersed with song. As I read it, I was reminded of a contemporary of Silver and Boyd's: Ntozake Shange. She wrote 1976's highly acclaimed choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf (Scribner, $12.00). Whereas Colored Girls displays dynamism and courage, Alice struggles with it, leaving some scenes to read and feel like rough drafts from an SNL pre-preliminary cold-read, in a bad season. That said, Alice is not without its bright spots.

The play features over thirty separate characters, played by a cast of five actors. It calls for a female ensemble to play both male and female roles, presenting an array of opportunities for talent to stand out. The music - all original pieces written by an army of contributors - is really what anchors the review, relying heavily on it for conflict resolution.

As in most plays that address gender inequality, employment is a big theme. As is sexual harassment. In a scene titled Welcome to Kindergarten, Mrs. Johnson, a mother struggling to juggle career and parenting is chastised by the teacher for having a professional life. That's cleverly juxtaposed with a scene titled Good Thing I Learned to Dance (in which the dancing character is the picture of success), exposing society's attitudes about what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to women and careers. In Hot Lunch, a scene involving a stereotypical New York City construction worker, the female character is caught off guard when she's berated with cat calls over her "gazoombas." She makes a quick recovery and soon has him on the ropes by calling his bluff (showing him her gazoombas), and demanding to see his "wogabongo:"

    WORKMAN: Wogabongo?
    WOMAN: You know . . . your pecker, dick, schlong, johnson . . . wogabongo!!!
There are a few really great monologues in Alice. The first (Mrs. Mae) is set in a beauty parlor. Mrs. Mae's an older woman, and the playwrights made a brilliant choice in not filling the scene with any other characters but Mae. The monologue is full of trivialities that shed light on her life, so by its conclusion the superficial caricature of Mae has blossomed into a full character. Demigod is another terrific monologue, involving a cheating lover. The character's approach to resolving the conflict is more conflict. So much for taking the high road.

The final bright spot is called The French Monologue. The woman, Chanteuse Rose, waxes sentimental about her life, her father, and closes with a song that has the mood of cinnamon sticks and candlelight. Although Alice is no Colored Girls (the play, not the 2010 film adaptation), it makes a bold effort. While it comes across (repeatedly) as reducing women to stereotypes, it also shows signs of progressiveness beyond the era in which it was written. A scene called Detroit Persons addresses the topic of women in professional sports (in this case, basketball). Who was doing that in 1985?

      [S]ongs were often interchangeable, and used primarily to set the atmosphere. Performed during scene changes, it was not unusual for the stars to break char-acter and sing them persona natural . . .

Rest assured, Colored Girls has nothing to fear from Alice. For the great roles these plays offer though, coupled with an increasingly hostile atmosphere toward women at home and abroad, their time may be coming 'round again. Broadway's been going through a phase of staging revivals lately. Perhaps Colored Girls and Alice will make the cut, splash or not.

Ten Nights in a Bar Room
adapted by Fred Carmichael
Concord Theatricals, 1969
ISBN: 978-0-5736-8058-8
$9.95, 72 pp

In 1854, Timothy Shay Arthur's classic novel on the evils of drink was published to popular acclaim. Titled Ten Nights in a Bar-Room - And What I Saw There, the story was set in the fictional town of Cedarville, and told through the eyes of a teetotaler who happened through the small village every few months. The bar-curious public, along with anti-boozers of the temperance movement, ate it up. Soon, the novel, combined with a series of articles written on the Washington Temperance Society, had elevated Arthur to something of a temperance icon. Between 1841 and 1890, he published no fewer than 34 books and over 170 stories and essays. Though he was celebrated by the public, in literary circles he was mocked for his over-moralizing and narrow focus on respectable middle-class values.

Riding on the popularity of Arthur's novel (in sales, Bar-Room was second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin), in 1858 William W. Pratt debuted a theatrical version of the best-selling temperance tale. It was a hit, and went on to inspire no fewer than seven film adaptations, including a 1926 version made under the auspices of the Colored Players of Philadelphia which featured an entirely Black cast. The first adaptation, made in 1901, has unfortunately been lost. The last motion picture version of Bar Room to be made was completed in 1953, a television adaptation directed by Dennis Vance. And that brings us to Ten Nights in a Bar Room, the musical.

In the 1800s, musicals were very different than they are today. They were "reviews", in which the songs were not, predominantly, written for the production, but borrowed from elsewhere. Therefore, songs were often interchangeable, and used primarily to set the atmosphere. Performed during scene changes, it was not unusual for the stars to break character and sing them persona natural, as is described in the Production Notes:

    The songs suggested in the written text were those chosen for the specific people playing the parts. Many of them, not intrinsic to the plot, may be changed to different tunes of the period. The olio numbers have been included as they were in the days when this type of show was produced, but any of them may be dropped with no harm to the production. The leading characters would step out of character and have their turns between scenes in a special number. There are times when dances have been indicated but this is entirely up to the director of the particular production.
As Carmichael's musical comedy version of Bar Room was written in 1969, it was a deliberate attempt at recreating the musical review of a bygone era. The songs suggested for the performance are from the 19th century, as is the writing style - melodrama at its wicked best - keeping in step with Pratt's original play. In its characters we find all the necessary components for melodrama: Harvey Green, the villain; Joe Morgan, the town drunk; Mehitabel, the engenue; Sample Swichel, a simpleton cherished for his naivete'; Squire Romaine, the traveling man and teetotaler whose passing observations serve as a prophecy of doom; Mary Morgan, slain innocence; Goldie Hills, Cedarville's unlikely savior; and Simon Slade, the town miller-turned-barkeep of the Sickle and Sheaf, where gambling and other manners of ill-repute are a constant source of conflict.

Sickle and Shiv
At the opening of the play, Cedarville is presented as a harmonious village. The Sickle and Sheaf, the tavern where Simon Slade employs his son Frank, is a successful enterprise, and a lot less work than milling. The Slades, and for that matter, everyone in Cedarville, appear very happy, save for Slade's wife who regrets her husband for closing the mill. Enter Squire Romaine, a stranger in town whose concerns about alcohol fall on deaf ears. By the end of Act One, Romaine's concerns manifest themselves when a glass thrown at Joe inadvertently hits his young daughter Mary, causing a fatal head injury. The moral erosion continues throughout Act Two with a climbing body count, until Act Three's overly optimistic surprise finale, a trademark of melodrama.

Keep in mind, realism is deliberately cast aside in melodrama, so it can't be faulted for being a bit over-the-top. Carmichael, writing in the Production Notes, encourages it: "The flamboyant gestures and strong readings of the characters will carry the show . . ." While, not everybody's cup of tea (pun intended), Bar Room remains a historically significant piece for having been based on Pratt's temperance play, and for its superb representation of what a 19th century-style musical review looked like. The lines are unbelievable; the scenes, over-dramatized; the sets, dressed down to a low-tech minimum. In other words, everything's just as it should be. William W. Pratt, no doubt, would approve.

posted 03/21/22