The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore
other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to
normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
American television 1949 and YouTube Autumn 2021
American television 1973 and YouTube Autumn 2021
In 1929 Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman wrote a gentle little satire of the pop music business, in which a small town boy who wants to become a songwriter comes to New York. He teams up with another writer, meets a Nice Girl and a Bad Girl, and eventually writes a hit, chooses the right girl and is set for Happily Ever After.
In 1949 a condensed under-an-hour version was broadcast on the American anthology series Studio One.
It's not very good. Cutting and some mild censoring produce what amounts to little more than a raced-through plot summary, with a lot of the comedy and characterisations falling by the wayside. We get that the boy is naïve, the girl sweet and the temptress evil, but not much more, and the secondary characters have no personalities at all.
Worse, adapter Gerald Goode and director Walter Hart show no affinity for comedy. The play is built on jokes and gag lines, and too many are rushed through or swallowed, too many opportunities for comic misunderstandings or crossed conversations missed.
So why see it? The production was structured as a vehicle for three stars of the period, who are all in secondary roles, while the actors playing the romantic leads don't even get screen credit, but are relegated to a voiceover 'Also appearing were' list. But their names were Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint.
Jack Lemmon had not yet developed the tics and mannerisms that became his style, but at least he is aware that his character is meant to be comic, and he tries to find the right combination of dimness and sweet innocence. Saint can find nothing more than generic Nice Girl to play.
So fans of both performers and collectors of 'Before They Were Stars' will find it interesting to see the unpromising journeyman work these two did before they found their own talents.
Now, why did I watch this? Trawling through YouTube, something about the title rang a distant bell in my memory, but it wasn't until I saw it that the bell became a little clearer.
There was a later television version (1974, as it turns out) whose main claim to memory was that the secondary role of a wisecracking pianist (think of Oscar Levant in An American In Paris) was played – in what is evidently his single foray into acting – by one Stephen Sondheim.
Yes, that Stephen Sondheim, and he's actually pretty good, giving the character's asides and wisecracks an understated cynical tone that sneaks them up on you, so you get the gag just a beat later and learn to listen carefully the next time.
The whole production, half again as long as the 1949 version and adapted and directed by Burt Shevelove, an accomplished comic writer himself, gives much more of a sense of the original Lardner-Kaufman play.
It's no great work of art, but it is what it is – a well-built light comedy with sufficient wit and energy to deliver a satisfying quota of chuckles.
Under Shevelove's direction, everyone in the cast knows where the gags are and makes sure we get them, even at the risk of over-punching them. Tom Fitzsimmons and Barbara Dana make the central couple both sweetly innocent and exasperatingly dimwitted,
Jack Cassidy finds more than a hint of bluff and fakery in the songwriting partner's sophistication, while Estelle Parsons delivers a bagful of Estelle Parsons shtick (whiny voice, general annoyance at life) as his put-upon (and in this fuller version, not totally innocent) wife.
As if sensing a lifetime of nobly heroic roles awaiting her, Susan Sarandon plays the temptress in full comic bimbo mode, while, in a character cut in 1949, Austin Pendleton injects some farcical energy in his brief cameo as a talentless rival songwriter.
And then there's Sondheim, sitting quietly around the edges of almost every scene, waiting for the moment to prick a balloon of pomposity or cut through a hint of sentiment and remind us this is a comedy.
See the 1949 version for a glimpse of the stars of the future, even though you may be disappointed. See the 1974 for the novelty of watching Sondheim act, and you may be surprised to find yourself enjoying the rest of it as well.
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