Thursday, September 1, 2016

SALAD DAYS


My parents took me to Europe when I was eight, and, in London, we stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Across the street and down a bit was the Vaudeville Theatre, where Salad Days was playing. I had been entranced with this show for years—my aunt Agnes had the LP—and I couldn’t believe it was still on. (It eventually lasted 2, 283 performances, to that point the longest-running musical in history.) In a whisk, I was inside the Vaudeville theatre, almost the only spectator for a midweek matinee, front and center, at one of the weirdest musicals of all time.

 

     It’s about uncles. Or no, it’s about Timothy and Jane, just out of university, who get a job minding a magic piano that makes people dance. Jane is a Lady, like the daughters on Downton Abbey, but middle-class Timothy is supposed to be looking for respectable work, and his parents urge him to try his uncles. There’s five of ‘em, says crazy Aunt Prue:

 

          TIMOTHY’S PARENTS: Four! And the one we don’t mention.

 

Then Timothy and Jane meet this very low-key Tramp with a piano and accept the responsibility to guard it while Timothy has encounters with his various uncles. One’s in the diplomatic, another is the killjoy Minister of Pleasure and Pastime, and so on, and instead of a plot, Salad Days runs on revue-like sketches—a chaotic fashion show managed by a fey designer, a beauty-parlor bit, a nightclub sequence. The piano does make everyone dance, so the authorities want to confiscate it as subversive. Was there a subtext here? Does the piano make everyone gay? Because there’s actually a lyric to that effect in one of the numbers:

 

          CHORUS I: We’re looking for a piano.

          CHORUS II: A piano?

          CHORUS I: Yes, a piano!

          CHORUS II: Not any old pia—

          CHORUS I: No! The one that makes you gay.

 

This was the second half of the 1950s, so “gay” here is clearly meant in its now outdated sense of “bright and festive.” Not long after, the word became ambiguous and tricky. I remember a day in Lehman Engel’s BMI workshop for budding writers of the musical, when he was working on his book of show lyrics and mentioned to us that one word in particular was used more than any other. Would anyone, he asked, like to guess which word that is?

 

     We all knew it had to be “gay,” but none of us said anything. Things were like that then. But on with the show, because Salad Days does have one touch of plot: the piano vanishes, and everyone scurries about in search of it. Other than that, the narrative is nothing but those episodes, tied together by blatantly convenient ligatures, as when Timothy and Jane cue in the next uncle, a scientist:

 

          JANE: If only we had a helicopter, we’d soon spot

         [the missing piano] then. Surely you have an uncle

         who's an aviator.

         TIMOTHY: I haven't, actually.

          
Whereupon Uncle Zed's flying saucer lands, to take everyone for a ride and sing "The Saucer Song."        
          

There’s a Second Couple, too, with another aristocrat, Lord Nigel, who   announces that he can’t sing, immediately provoking a charming but extraneous number, “It’s Easy To Sing.” Nigel is paired with Fiona, who at one point speaks for us all:

 

          FIONA: I don’t understand a thing that’s happening.

 

     Salad Days, which started out as a regional piece, for the Bristol Old Vic in 1954, is bizarre and amateurish but also tuneful and ingratiating. Critics often liken it to The Boy Friend, as they are exact contemporaries performed with just two pianos in the pit, but in fact they aren’t alike at all. Sandy Wilson, The Boy Friend’s sole author, was an archivist, trying to revive the charming old musical comedies that Oklahoma! began to sweep away in both America and England, and the Boy Friend’s songs are careful hommages to specific twenties numbers, mostly from No, No, Nanette. Thus, “Sur la Plage” carefully adopts the syncopation of the A strain of Nanette’s “The Call of the Sea,” and The Boy Friend’s “Perfect Young Ladies” comports with Nanette’s “Flappers Are We.” (There’s one red herring: “The ‘You-Don’t-Want-To-Play-With-Me’ Blues” references not Nanette but Rodgers and Hart’s Present Arms, with an ├ętude on its “Blue Ocean Blues.”)

 

     In contrast, nothing in Salad Days recalls anything from the past. This show cultivates its own sound: in the merrily thoughtless “Oh, Look At Me [I’m dancing]”; Jane’s carefree waltz “The Time Of My Life”; the sneakily minor-key “Hush-Hush,” a how-to for those aspiring to join the foreign service. (One lyric runs, “Never reveal your age or sex.”)

 

     Detractors call the show “twee,” but the correct word is “sweet.” It has an innocence that transcends all those extraneous sketches and dopey song cues. It has charm, a rare quality now—and it’s not about uncles. It’s about youth finding its way after expulsion from the playroom, as Timothy and Jane amuse themselves with one last toy—the piano—and ultimately pass it on to Nigel and Fiona.

 

     I’m really supposed to be blogging in order to plug my next book, When Broadway Went To Hollywood, about the adventures of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Lerner and Loewe, and so on in the movies. (Oxford University Press, at better bookstores everywhere.) And I intend to get to all that, but for some reason I’m as entranced today with Salad Days as I was back when I was eight. So let’s run through the show’s discography, for anyone interested in getting close to this unique yet very characteristic English musical.

 

     First, of course, is the original cast reading (Oriole, Sepia, Sony), authoritative, obviously, but also disappointing. Some numbers are omitted or abridged, there’s too much dialogue, and only heroine Eleanor Drew has a respectable singing voice; Jane is a soprano, and there’s no way to fudge about with that. The sepia CD corrects the original LP’s short weight with bonus tracks, as this dauntless label always does, including cuts from another Slade-Bristol opus, The Duenna.

 

     Still, given the original cast trademark, this is a surprisingly mediocre performance. When, in “The Time of My Life,” Jane sings of “summer and sunshine and falling in love,” Slade and Reynolds are ripping right into the heart of musical comedy. It’s a key line. This is, even, a key show. Yet it doesn’t sound like one here—and the two-piano accompaniment of the original theatre pit is oddly self-effacing. In other runthroughs, the pianists bustle all over the keyboards quite bracingly.

 

     Salad Days collected a very English form of highlights, the half-LP or 45 EP, which of course would give you only the best-known titles. They generally observe the two-piano approach, though World Records offered an orchestra, with famous leads. Pamela Charles was a New York Eliza Doolittle, and Peter Gilmore had the odd fortune to look like a nerd but sing like the sexiest baritone alive. The performance is poor even so, not well organized. “Looking For a Piano” repeats a section and seems to go forever, and the Dixieland arrangement for “Oh, Look at Me!” is way out of style.

 

     A much better half-LP is Decca’s with Jan Waters and Ray Cook, very much in the show’s spirit, with an antique piano when the Tramp first plays it. This is important, because the entire show revolves around that piano. It needs to be a presence on discs, even though it’s sort of a dramaturgical flaw, as we never do find out why it’s magical and where it came from. Well, Timothy does read aloud an inscription inside it concerning who made it, but there's nothing about why it makes people dance. We do find out where the Tramp came from, however, and I’ll get to that presently.

 

     These bitty little “selections from” records disguise Salad Days in a way they don’t disguise, say, Oklahoma!. Five or six of Oklahoma!’s best numbers give us the core of that work, while Salad Days’ ballads and the “Looking For a Piano” chorus are not enough to catch the show’s flavor. We need the uncles’ wacky numbers, the camp solos of the nightclub sequence. Salad Days really is a sophomoric piece—a college show, and that’s its appeal. It’s more than happy kids singing. It’s whimsical and strange as well, and we need to sample all of that—“Hush-Hush,” with its Russian dance break (in the original staging, the uncle and his assistant went into that Cossack step where you’re halfway to the floor with your arms crossed and your legs kicking out), or “Cleopatra,” at the nightclub, a comedy number that’s only funny because it’s so terrible.

 

     In the remaining cast albums, purists must beware the 1976 revival (That’s Entertainment), with unusually demented arrangements for this delicate piece—a charleston vamp and ragtime dance for “Oh, Look at Me!, a raising of the key when a song hits its last A strain, as if Andrew Lloyd Webber were somewhere about, and the nightclub ditties going completely over the top. Salad Days is screwy, not coarse. Then, too, the Timothy and Jane are vocally weak; he’s often out of tune. The cast does include Elizabeth Seal (the original Irma la Douce in London and New York), but beyond a jazzy photograph in costume on set she makes little impression here.

 

     Best of all the Salad Dayses—yes,  including the original cast—is a BBC fortieth anniversary broadcast (EMI) with a more or less all-star crew: Valerie Masterson, Prunella Scales, Tony Slattery, Roy Hudd, audiobook king Samuel West, sitcom favorite Josephine Tewson, and the original Tim, John Warner, as the Tramp. The reading is authentic in text and perfectly in style; it also takes in dialogue bits so you can hear just how pre-Oklahoma! the dramaturgy is.

 

     From the very start of the overture, as pianists Jonathan Cohen and Mark Dorrell swing irresistibly into "Oh, Look at Me!,” the show comes through in all its congenital exuberance but also with its tender quibbles intact. The “We Said We Wouldn’t Look Back” of Simon Green and Janie Dee is full of bittersweet nuance—and this is the only recording to give us the twist ending: the Tramp is Timothy’s fifth uncle, the one we don’t mention.

 

     Unfortunately, the disc is very scarce now. An ironic touch: the cover art bears a photo of Bob Harris, who played Troppo in the original cast. But Harris isn’t on the recording, and neither is Troppo, a silent character. I recall being quite mystified by him back in the Vaudeville Theatre in 1958, because he didn’t seem connected to anything yet turned up all over the place. No doubt the role was created for Harris as a member of the Bristol Old Vic company, just to give him something to do. Salad Days is that kind of show: a devil-may-care irrational fling. Another lyric runs, “Oh yes, it’s not that I want to stay, it’s just that I don’t want to go.”