Yes, I know that I periodically describe certain videos as remarkable fines. Put this on the list. In fact, put this one way near the top of the list. It's not that I didn't think the tape would exist -- I didn't think it would be even possible for it to exist.
This isn't for everyone. It's very obscure (which is a large part of the point of not thinking it could even possibly exist), but if you're interested in the history of Broadway, this is buckle-your-
There are three utterly-charming, whimsical plays from somewhat the same era (not exactly, but within about 10 years of each other) that are just simply among my favorites, all of which were made into great movies -- Harvey, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Teahouse of the August Moon.
Back in the early '70s, a Broadway musical was made of Teahouse of the August Moon. It is a famous, disastrous flop. The show was called, Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, taken from how the character of Sakini addresses the audience. It opened in late 1970 and only ran for 19 performances.
Though I knew it was a huge flop, I love the source play and movie so much I always wished I could see it. At the very least, though, for something that big a flop, my realistic hope was that I could find just one song from the show. I don't mean from the original production, that's not the realistic part, I mean that maybe someone has recorded a song or two from it. Or a demo album was made.
People often ask me how I find these obscure videos. What I always say is that it helps to know what you're looking for. Not many people do a search for Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen. I did. And in searching for it, I actually...found something!
And by "something," I don't mean that I found a recording someone made of a song from the show. I mean -- are you ready -- I found 41 minutes of footage from the Broadway production!!!!!!
Let me repeat that -- 41 minutes from the original production. In fact, it's from closing night, and includes the curtain call speech addressing the fact. It's taken from a private film shot, I assume, because they wanted a record of what they realized would be a lost show.
And here's the thing.
The show looks pretty good. It's not a classic musical by any stretch. But the songs in the video are lively and tuneful -- not distinguished or memorable, but several are a lot of fun. (And get huge ovations.) And the dialogue -- well, it's not just that the source material is so good, but the book of the musical is written by John Patrick, who wrote the original play, so it's wonderful. And the performances are all very good. And the audience, you can tell, is having a wonderful time. Indeed, the show gets a standing ovation at the end. That may in part be because this is the closing night, but the applause and laughter comes across throughout the show as heartfelt.
To be clear, I can see why Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen didn't have a long run. One issue is that great as the play is, it never struck me as a show that cried out to be sung. And most of the songs here are sort of soliloquies, rather than enhancing the dialogue or heightening moments of great emotion. The songs included here (written by Stan Freeman and Franklin Underwood) are all good -- just not particularly critical to have.
And Broadway in 1971 had already begun to change, moving from the more quaint shows of the Golden Age to musicals like Cabaret, Man of La Mancha and then Hair. Rock was soon moving in, albeit temporarily. Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen comes across -- not as "dated" -- but gentle and something that would have played wonderfully a decade earlier.
(Today, 45 years later, there is now a dated aspect to having a Caucasian actor playing a Japanese man, though that's not only a separate issue from the time, but also it's the case in the original stage play, and the movie with Marlon Brando in the role of Sakini, yet the film remains a classic.)
But I suspect the gentleness of the show is related to the biggest problem. Clive Barnes, the critic of the New York Times hated it. Gave it a scathing review. Part of that, I suspect (not having read the review) is that he was a big promoter of rock in musicals, so my guess is that the core melodic sweetness and simplicity of the show was a disaster in his ears. And if you had a major pan from the New York Times, your show didn't stand a chance.
As I said, I don't know if Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen would have had a long run even with a good review from Barnes. But I think it could have had a respectable life, and far better than its 19 performances, enough at least to put it in the lexicon where community theaters would know about it.
The show stars Kenneth Nelson as Sakini, the Okinawan villager who serves as an interpreter for Captain Fisby who has come to the tiny village of Tobiki as part of the U.S. occupational force after World War II. For those interested further in their Broadway history, Nelson created the role of "Boy" in the original production of The Fantasticks.
Run Hussman plays Captain Fisby. A few years earlier, he had starred in the Harnick and Bock musical, Tenderloin.
One challenge for me is that most any production of Teahouse of the August Moon should be required to feature Paul Ford as Colonel Purdy -- Ford played the role on Broadway, in the movie with Glenn Ford, and in the TV production that got made with John Forsythe. He is the quintessential Colonel Purdy, and the show just doesn't seem right without him. However, if there was one actor who could fill in the role for a Broadway musical, it's the crusty actor David Burns, who plays the role here. Burns is perhaps best known as playing Horace Vandergelder in the original cast of Hello, Dolly! and the father in the original stage production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
For strictly personal reasons, I also note that the role of the Army officer, Captain McLean, with a huge love of agriculture (played in the movie by Eddie Albert) is performed here by Remak Ramsey. He might be recognizable to some, but for me he brings a smile because he played Fagin in the touring company of Oliver! when I saw it as a kidling in Chicago. His big number here comes around the 7-minute mark.
For those who don't know the story, the show centers on Captain Fisby who, as I mentioned is put in charge of Americianizing this tiny village on Okinawa after World War II. All the encouragement he offers, however, gets twisted, as the townspeople want a teahouse instead, and it also turns out that the only truly marketable product they make is an alcoholic brew. Little by little, with the friendship of Sakini and being assigned a geisha Lotus Blossom to assist him, Captain Fisby becomes far more assimilated than the villagers do being Americanzed. But when another American officer (Captain McLean) is assigned to the village, and Colonel Purdy comes to check on the progress, the fate of Tobiki is thrown in the air.
The sound quality of this video isn't great, so some of the words get lost, but it's quite listenable. The picture though is pretty clear. It's mostly songs (including the enjoyable title number), though in the later part of the video there are more dialogue sequences. And at the very end, as I mentioned, following rousing applause, is an extremely touching curtain speech by Kenneth Nelson, bidding the show goodbye.
(A quick side note: in his closing words, Nelson makes note of the orchestra and addresses his appreciation to "the boys -- and girls -- in the band," which gets a laugh. That's because a few years earlier, he had appeared in the play, The Boys in the Band.)
Here then -- remarkably -- are 41 minutes of Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentleman.
I can't freaking believe it.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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