Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Blown Away...

Lawd, child... Okay, yes I had heard about a long-ago musical adaptation of Gone with the Wind. I knew it was done once overseas and then remounted in the U.S. for a brief run, but that was really the extent of my knowledge of it. Then, in one of my never-ending searches through (cyber)space, I came upon some visual evidence of this property. Naturally, I'm going to share it and everything else I can come up with on it with you! (Please note: Depending on your browser, you may have to right-click on these pictures and open them in a new tab or window to see them at their best.)

As it turns out, the genesis of this musical occurred in Tokyo Japan. Back in 1966, a straight play based on the famed Margaret Mitchell book (and resultant film) ran – are you ready for this? - NINE hours! It was launched at the Tokyo Imperial Theatre and was a resounding success. Shortly afterwards, it was determined that the piece should be augmented into a musical. This time, an American director, composer/lyricist and conductor were brought in to compliment the book, which was written by a Japanese playwright. The show was called “Scarlett” and ran in two two-hour-long parts than were presented six months apart from one another. This was in 1970.

This show was then retooled again and brought to London's West End, with a severely-trimmed (basically cut in half) book adapted by American playwright/screenwriter Horton Foote. Here, the show was called “Gone with the Wind” and it ran about two-and-a-half hours in length. It opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London's oldest theatrical site and a sizeable venue, on May 3rd, 1972.
The score was done by Harold Rome, a songwriter and Broadway composer whose credits included Call Me Mister, Fanny, Destry Rides Again and I Can Get It for You Wholesale.

As the famous, star-crossed lovers Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, June Ritchie and Harve Presnell were cast. Just as had been the case when the legendary 1939 film was created, the vixenish, compelling role of southern belle Scarlett went to a British actress. Ritchie was in her early-thirties when she took on the part. California-born Presnell was closing in on forty, when he played Rhett (which certainly wasn't any issue.)

While its true that a lot of the details of their looks wouldn't read very distinctly in the cavernous Drury Theatre, it can't be denied that Ritchie looks like the love child of Scarlett O'Hara and Truly Scrumptious (with a drop of Diana Rigg thrown in) while Presnell resembles what might have happened had Vincent Price's scientist character from The Fly (1958) put Rhett Butler in one tube and porn star John Holmes in another and scattered their chromosomes together!

The Drury was known for its ability to house large-scale, gargantuan productions with massive sets and Gone with the Wind didn't disappoint on that point. It's easy to see what an impression the show made in terms of its grand scale and looming bits of architecture (blended with grand drapery everywhere.)
There was even a certain amount of light and smoke-enhanced pyrotechnics to help get the burning of Atlanta across.
Then again, based upon the still photos shown here, there was also an unnecessary reliance upon showing the whores of Belle Watling's brothel in varying stages of elation and panic, depending on the moment. How else to re-utilize the hoop-skirted pretties from the opening segment? (One can almost here the director during dress rehearsals or backstage, “All right girls, you've got twenty minutes to dump those hats, pantaloons and skirts and get into your lady of the evening gear!”)

It seems that the producers managed also to find a Bonnie Blue Butler (Rhett and Scarlett's daughter) who is even more annoying than the one in the movie! This little monster is totally selling her part, ala Baby June from Gypsy.

Dig the wild colors in the fabrics of the clothes and upholstery in this scene involving Presnell and his daughter.
From what I can see here, this was an appropriately lavish and well-populated attempt at staging the story. However, Foote was chastised in the press for making his book of the show too reliant on a viewer's prior knowledge of the characters and storyline.

One reason the show was mounted in London was the belief that British audiences wouldn't have the same proprietary feelings about the South, the book, the movie and the whole arena that Americans might have. In other words, they might be more forgiving if the show didn't come off exactly as expected, based on the highly successful source material.

As it turned out, Presnell's proven voice and Ritchie's heartfelt acting, as well as the elaborate staging of the production, were all well-received. The show ran for almost 400 performances and a Broadway run was planned for the spring of 1974.

First, however, an even further revised rendition of the piece was scheduled for a run at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California. This was presented by the Civic Light Opera Association and was a way to try the show on for size with U.S. audiences before heading into The Big Apple.

Here, in August of 1973, Miss Scarlett was played by an American actress for a change, Lesley Ann Warren, then in her late-twenties (and the star of a highly successful 1965 TV presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.) The role of Rhett was taken on by Pernell Roberts, a household name thanks to years of costarring on Bonanza (from 1959 to 1965), who had been exploring all sorts of roles on the stage since departing that hit series. This production also had the distinction of including Broadway stage actress Theresa Merritt as Mammy.

The program for this rendition of the musical included shots from the original London production along with some newly-shot pictures of the principals. The photos of a nearly orgasmic Melanie and a Lawrence Welk Show-ish Ashley crack me up.
At least Roberts had a more believable hairstyle than Presnell had sported and Warren's was also less bouffant.
Reviews for this production were damning and it led to continuous retooling while the show continued to play Los Angeles, then moved on to San Francisco. Some of those (un?)fortunate enough to have witnessed the show firsthand report cackling their way through what was intended to be serious (with the slave spiritual “Bonnie Gone,” featuring servants repeatedly wailing the words “Bonnie gone, Bonnie done gone...” over and over a particular target for ridicule), but which instead came off as preposterous.

Miss Lesley Ann even had to suffer the ignominy during one performance of delivering a heartfelt song to a crowd of doubled-over patrons, wheezing for air from laughter. The poor horse who'd dragged her and Melanie back to Tara was relieving itself on the stage behind her. (Carol Burnett fans will recall her having to deal with a similar problem during a skit on her long-running show, though people were already supposed to be laughing in that situation.)

One of the (many!) inherent hurdles of turning this story into a stage musical was the fact that Max Steiner's unforgettable music from the 1939 film, including the famous “Tara's Theme,” was nowhere to be found in this all-new project.

After a torturesome history of rewriting, cutting, adding, enhancing and tweaking, some of which led to improvement, the writing was on the wall and finally the producer, Harold Fielding, decided to cancel the intended Broadway opening. In 1976, there was another staging of the piece in Dallas and a brief local tour, before it blew away for good.

Or was it for good? Due to renewed interest in these productions (possibly thanks to other, in some cases even more disappointing, adaptations of Margaret Mitchell's story), Scarlett (the original Japanese version) and Gone with the Wind (the London version) have been made available on CD. These scores have ardent fans who genuinely believe in the quality of the material, citing its stirring orchestrations and harmonic elements. I have yet to hear them myself, but would be interested in doing so at some point. The Underworld is nearly always more concerned with the visuals!

June Ritchie was more familiar to audiences as a blonde, having burst onto the cinema landscape in 1962 with A Kind of Loving, starring Alan Bates. She also costarred with Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Terry-Thomas in 1963's Mouse on the Moon. After a considerable career on stage and in British television, Ritchie retired from the screen in 1988. She is seventy-four today.

Harve Presnell had starred with Tammy Grimes in the 1960 Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown and stayed with the show until its closing, 532 performances later in 1962. In a rare opportunity, he was also selected to work in the 1964 film version, which starred Debbie Reynolds. For this, he won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer. After 1965's The Glory Guys (with Tom Tryon), he appeared in Paint Your Wagon (1969), delivering one of that movies few appealing numbers, “They Call the Wind Maria.” Significant film stardom eluded him, however, but he maintained a career in character parts, including The Chamber (1996), Face/Off (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) among others. He died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer at the age of seventy-five.

Lesley Ann Warren, not content with having tackled the iconic role of Scarlett, went after the part of Lois Lane in a 1975 truncated televised version of the Broadway show It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman. It was poorly received as well and may have tainted her bid at playing Lois Lane in the upcoming big-screen blockbuster Superman (1978), the prized role ultimately going to Margot Kidder.

In 1980, apparently still not licked when it came to the Deep South, she headlined the TV miniseries Beulah Land, an utter rip-off of Gone with the Wind, with an unlikely Michael Sarrazin as her roguish leading man. Things looked up in 1982 when her role in Victor/Victoria led to an Oscar nomination (which she lost to Jessica Lange for Tootsie.) Still, Miss Warren has enjoyed a lengthy, busy career in movies and TV, winning a Golden Globe for the 1977 miniseries 79 Park Avenue and being nominated four other times. She also scored one Emmy nomination for the 1990 teleflim Family of Spies (which went to Barbara Hershey in A Killing in a Small Town.) Warren is sixty-six as of this writing.

Pernell Roberts had done a considerable amount of theater after leaving Bonanza in 1965. He worked for Vincente Minnelli in an ill-fated musical called Mata Hari (1967) and with Ingrid Bergman in Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1972.) He continued to mix appearances on the stage with guest roles on TV until working on a series of his own, Trapper John, M.D., from 1979-1986. (An Emmy nomination for the 1980 season was lost to Daniel J. Travanti in Hill St. Blues.) Oddly enough, this Rhett was also done in by pancreatic cancer in 2010 at the age of eighty-one.

Theresa Merritt had been working on stage with frequency prior to the L.A. Gone with the Wind. Directly after portraying Mammy, she went on to playing Mama in the 1974 sitcom, That's My Mama, which starred cutie Clifton Davis. Later, she joined the cast of Broadway's The Wiz (as a replacement Evaline) and in 1984 was nominated for a Tony for the play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (the title referring to a dance, not what you may have been thinking!) The award went to Judith Ivey for Hurlyburly. She also played Aunt Emma in the film version of The Wiz. Skin cancer claimed her in 1998 at the age of seventy-three.
There have been continued attempts to bring GWTW to the stage, another failed rendition occurred as recently as 2008 at the New London Theatre in the West End. That one ran 79 performances and received negative reviews as well. In The Underworld, we do not like to have the classics toyed with. Rare is the occasion in which an update or re-imagining is happily accepted here!

4 comments:

joel65913 said...

It's true, rare is the classic or even decent original that benefits from being turned into a musical. When My Fair Lady was so successful it seemed to open the floodgates but with few exceptions, Liliom into Carousel, Anna and the King of Siam into the King and I and to a lesser degree The Philadelphia Story into High Society all manage the trick, the source material is best left be. But GWTW just from its sheer size would seem to warn off all but the most foolhardy, apparently not.
These all sound awful, and Beulah Land which I did see was a mess with Leslie Ann, who can be a fine actress, overacting all over the place trying to prop up a pale rip-off.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Noel Coward was at the opening of the Drury Lane production which famously had the real horse doing its "business" on the stage .... when asked afterwards how he liked it he said "the awful child should have been rammed up the horse's arse"!

dcolp said...

This is very interesting. I knew virtually nothing about this before reading your post today.

Ken Anderson said...

This was great fun to read. I was in High School in San Francisco when "Gone With The Wind" opened, and I recall my best friend and I trying to scratch together enough money to go see it because we were sure it was going to go to Broadway. We never got the money but we had a wonderful time reading the terrible reviews. Your post covers so much ground and so many things I didn't know.
You are spot on in saying the production has the look of a Lawrence Welk show about it in those program pics.