QUIBBLES & BITS
This week I have a BIT that’s actually a pun. You’ll understand why in a nanosecond or two.
You see, I had an accident with my front teeth (bit…get it?) which isn’t really important to anyone . . . except me. Fortunately, my dentist (Dr. Ian-who-wears-khaki-shorts-and-has-a-great butt) was able to give me an emergency appointment. He extracted 3 bottom teeth. My denturist began to construct a partial, and, okay, sometimes bad things happen and maybe I can use it in a book (the accident, not the extractions}.
At the same time, my community theatre – The Peninsula Players – had banded with the Victoria [B.C.] Music Society to stage a production of the musical Oliver.
I love musicals. I love to watch them. I love to be in them. I’ve done everything from South Pacific ("I’m only a cockeyed optimist") to Oklahoma ("I’m just a girl who cain’t say no") to Kiss Me Kate ("Every Tommmm, Dick, and Harry…every Tom, Harry and Dick…a-Dick, a-Dick…") to Jesus Christ Superstar, where we performed the Superstar number on roller skates.
So I called the person in charge of auditions and told her about my missing teeth. I said I didn’t want to go out in public (understatement) until my partial was completed. She said to try out anyway, that there’d only be the director and a pianist present. In truth, there was a stage manager and a few other assorted people, but that’s a quibble. The auditions lady said to bring a Broadway song to sing.
I could have sung something from Oliver, but I went for humour and sang "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story. The director, pianist and assorted onlookers were still laughing when I finished my song.
And I lisped.
A few nights later, the auditions lady called and said I had made the cut and was being cast in the chorus. And that they’d be casting the smaller speaking parts as rehearsals went along.
When I picked myself up off the floor, I thanked her.
By the first rehearsal, I had my new front teeth, but I still lisp a little. If I were living in the 18th-Century, the lisp would be de rigueur. In fact, I have a lady in THE LANDLORD’S BLACK-EYED DAUGHTER (due out this August) who uses a lisp as an affectation, but I digress…
Oliver is a rather interesting musical. As just about everybody knows, it’s based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which is about an abused orphan who hooks up with a group of boys trained to be pickpockets by an elderly mentor. The movie won an Academy Award. The music, written by Lionel Bart is truly lovely, especially "Where is Love" and "Who Will Buy." Ron Moody, as Fagin, is incredible, and Jack Wild, as Dodger, just about steals (another pun?) the show.
But, in truth, the musical Oliver isn’t the Oliver Twist I remember from my youth. Heck, it’s almost as if someone had adapted Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and staged a huge chorus number around the guillotine. Everybody would paraphrase the Beatles. "Yeh, you’ve got that something . . . I want to hold your head . . ."
Or maybe a composer and lyricist could create a musical that gives the word "ripper" another definition: Delightful. As in, I had a ripping good time. Jack the Ripper could sing a ballad: "Strumming her pain with my fingers . . . killing her softly . . ."
Back to Oliver: Fagin is noted for being one of the few Jewish characters of 19th century literature, let alone any of Dickens’ pieces. He is very much seen as an evil old man in Oliver Twist (that’s how I remember him), but throughout stage versions and film adaptations, he’s depicted as a devil-like character who influences innocent young children to commit crimes and play with the law, a creature who lurks between Oliver’s subconscious, thus blurring the line between reality and dreams for Oliver. That makes Fagin a terrifying yet humorous character who lacks the security of realism to provide both children and adults with a sense of comfort and safety.
Trivia: Dickens took Fagin’s name from a man he had known in his youth, while working in a boot-blacking factory. Ironically, the two workmates had been friends. Fagin’s character was based on the criminal Ikey Solomon; there was a recognized specialty in the 19th-century London underworld called a "kidsman" – an adult who recruited children and trained them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for the stolen goods the children brought "home."
Trivia: Arguably, the definitive portrayal of Fagin, among the many stage and screen adaptations of the novel, is Alec Guinness’ performance in the 1948 film. Ron Moody’s portrayal in the musical is recognizably influenced by Guinness’ portrayal.
Trivia: Renowned comic book creator, Will Eisner, disturbed by the anti-Semitism in the typical depiction of the character, created a graphic novel in 2003 titled Fagin the Jew. In this book, the back stories of Fagin and Oliver are depicted from Fagin’s point of view.
Trivia: In later editions of the book printed during his lifetime, Charles Dickens excised as many irrelevant references to Fagin’s Judaism as he could in an effort to make amends for any hurt he had caused to his Jewish friends and readers.
And now…here are some other books-adapted-to-musicals:
LES MISERABLE [aka LES MIZ] – which was reasonably faithful to the novel by Victor Hugo.
WEST SIDE STORY – loosely (very loosely) based on Romeo and Juliet.
CANDIDE – I think Voltaire would have liked the adaptation with music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Lillian Hellman.
SOUTH PACIFIC – based on two short stories by James Michener, from Tales of the South Pacific, which won a Pulitzer in 1948.
GIGI – based on a novel by Colette
Can you think of any more?
Finally, my only disappointment with our local production of Oliver is that they aren’t casting a dog to play Bill Sykes’ dog.
My mostly-Norwegian Elkhound, Pandora, would have been perfect.
However, at age 13 she’s had 6 teeth extracted so she might be a tad shy about auditioning.
Even though she doesn’t lisp.
Over and Out,
Deni, singing "Food, glorious food…" (Why yes, I’m still on my diet.)
Other writers/musicals:Cervantes – Man of La ManchaDickens – Scrooge, The MusicalGeisel – Seussical, The MusicalIsherwood – CabaretMolière – The School for HusbandsRunyon – Guys and DollsShaw – My Fair Lady
As an aside, in “Oliver!”, Bill Sikes (Sykes) is really the bad guy.
Wow, thanks B.G. I forgot quite a few books-to-musicals, didn’t I? I’ve seen Man of La Mancha and My Fair Lady (on Broadway) and was in a production of Guys and Dolls (“A person can develop a cold…”) – duh!
As for Bill Sykes being the true bad guy, I agree. When I was a kid I had nightmares over the murder of Nancy; I first read Oliver Twist in a Classics Comic and the illustrations were very, very graphic.
Assuming he lived – in the movie Bill’s shot, in the book he accidentally hangs himself – and was being tried for murder today, his defense would be that he was one of Fagin’s students.
‘Godspell’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (New Testament)’Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat’ (Old Testament)
Or were we to post the author? That might be a bit tougher, or maybe easier, depending on your point of view….
And Shaw hated ‘My Fair Lady,’ rightly feeling that it twisted his feminist ending (in ‘Pygmalion’ Liza walks out and stays out; in ‘MFL’ she returns to fetch his slippers).
I hate to tell you this, but George Bernard Shaw died in 1950, fully six years before MY FAIR LADY was written in 1956 (it was licensed by his estate because the copyright on Shaw’s 1914 play PYGMALION, on which it is based, was shortly to expire). Furthermore, the crucial scene of Eliza returning to Higgins at the end of the story was written not by Alan Jay Lerner for the musical as many people believe, but by Shaw himself for the 1938 film version of PYGMALION (on which MY FAIR LADY is arguably more closely based than on the play). It’s still possible Shaw would have disliked MY FAIR LADY. He hated a romantic ending interpolated by PYGMALION’s original star and actor-manager whenever Shaw’s back was turned, which involved Higgins throwing kisses and roses at Eliza. He also strongly opposed THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER, an unauthorized romantic operetta version of one of his other plays, ARMS AND THE MAN, and actually succeeded in preventing it from being performed its original version as long as his copyright lasted (when a film version of SOLDIER was produced, the filmmakers were forced to adapt the score to a completely different story). Of course his afterword, published with the script of PYGMALION, stated explicitly that Eliza married Freddie, not Higgins, and it’s probably significant that while he added a few scenes from the screenplay as optional for the stage in later editions of PYGMALION, he never included the “romantic” ending in any version of the stage script. But still, technically it can’t be said that he hated the ending of MY FAIR LADY, since he never saw it.