Sunday, March 06, 2011

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS




The name Carol Burnett and the title Once Upon a Mattress are closely linked, and with good reason; the success of the 1959 musical — which began life on lower Second Avenue at the Phoenix, transferred to the Alvin, and enjoyed successful television adaptations in 1964 and 1972 — rested firmly on the capable shoulders of Burnett as the "girl named Fred." Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, more formally, from the swamps. Carol Burnett was not the only performer to take on the role, naturally enough. dear Dody Goodman headed the national tour, in which she was replaced by Imogene Coca who was probably very funny (although she was 52 at the time, a good 25 years older than Burnett). Winnifred was played by Tracey Ullman in a 2005 television production; the show was also revived on Broadway in 1996 with Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead, about which the less said the better. Which leaves us with the question, how do you compete with memories of dear Carol Burnett? Not Burnett the superstar, which she was by 1968 or so; but Burnett the comic genius, who I expect was already slaying 'em when she stepped out as a veritable unknown for the earliest performances of Mattress. So today I listened to the original London cast album of Once Upon a Mattress is instructive in addressing this question. Rather than casting the role locally, the producers endeavored to find a similarly young and fresh and distinctly American comedienne. Jane Connell wasn't fully unknown at the time; a familiar face in the San Francisco and N.Y. nitery worlds, Connell played Mrs. Peachum in the historic 1955 Off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera and made her Broadway debut singing about "April in Fairbanks (Alaska)" in New Faces of 1956. Connell went to London for Mattress, which opened Sept. 20, 1960, at the Adelphi. And really bombed, closing after only 24 performances. This was a close recreation of the original production, presented by Richard Rodgers — father of Mattress composer Mary — and Oscar Hammerstein II under their "Williamson Music Ltd." mantle. George Abbott's staging was recreated by Jerome Whyte, Richard Rodgers' great pal and right-hand (or whyte-hand) man, with the New York physical production and choreography reproduced. The cast included at least one performance we might have wanted to see — Milo O'Shea as the King. It's not that Connell is poor in the role; she is distinctive, as one might suppose, and not just a pale copy of the original star. But there is hardly anything she does, as Winnifred, that doesn't instantly make us think: Carol did it better. Of course she did it better; Carol was Fred, and Fred was Carol. Other over sized talents might have been able to make the role their own, in the same way that Mary Martin made a convincing Annie Oakley in the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun. That other Carol, for example — Channing, that is — might have made an interesting Winnifred; ten years earlier, anyway.
Burnett sang loud, for sure, but it was a loudness masking her character's embarrassment — mixed with a certain amazement at that sound emanating from her mouth. Connell, here, is of the loud-is-funny school; and it ain't. Although let it be said that she more than proved her mettle six years later when she got her hands on Agnes Gooch in Mame. Connell always seemed like a little old character woman, and a very funny one; which might explain why she was an unlikely, and apparently unsuccessful, Winnifred. The two comediennes eventually shared the stage, in 1995, in the mirthlessly unfunny Moon Over Buffalo; watching the pair I don't suppose anyone could imagine Connell having replaced Burnett in any role, ever.
As is the practice of Sepia Records, they have filled out the CD with another piece of Rodgers. Mary, that is. "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves 40" sounds more promising than it is. This was a 1957 two-sided 78 for children from Golden Records, with the tale told and sung by Bing Crosby; Mary's music had lyrics by Sammy Cahn, of all people. But it is not, alas, found treasure. Today is also Steven Schwartz's sixty-third birthday and today in 1974 was the opening of Richard and Robert Sherman's "Over Here" which introduced John Travolta, Samuel E. Wright and Treat Williams to the world.

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