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Obscure Videos: Showtime's Afoot and Bridegroom

In the late '70s and early '80s, cable TV networks like HBO and Showtime came to believe in the value of television versions of theatrical fare. Such services offered tapings of celebrated mainstream works like Barefoot in the Park and Wait Until Dark. But they also looked into some recent, less familiar titles, including plays and musicals that had achieved some degree of popularity but had not had wide exposure.

It wasn't long before these networks realized that there was a limited audience for taped theatre. But the brief flirtation with theatrical productions left a considerable number of programs, and today we look at two telecast by Showtime in the early '80s.

A musical spoof of Ten Little Indians and other Agatha Christie-type mystery fiction, Something's Afoot had a lengthy pre-Broadway history. It was first seen in 1972 at Atlanta's Alliance Theater, with Mary Jo Catlett Hello, Dolly! in the leading role of Miss Tweed, a Miss Marple-style, mature amateur detective. In 1973, the musical was produced at Goodspeed, with Lu Leonard The Happiest Girl in the World as Tweed. Los Angeles' Huntington Hartford Theater saw it in 1975, directed by Tony Tanner and with Pat Carroll supported by much of what would become the Broadway cast. But the Broadway production got its Tweed --English music-hall veteran Tessie O'Shea The Girl Who Came to Supper-- from a separate Canadian version.

Written by James McDonald, David Vos, Robert Gerlach, and Ed Linderman, Something's Afoot finally arrived on Broadway on May 27, 1976, in a Tanner-directed production at the Lyceum Theatre. In The New York Times, Walter Kerr hit on one of the show's major problems: "There is no such thing as a musical that is also supposed to be a 'whodunit'...Reason: the music totally relaxes the suspense, and the suspense makes the music seem intrusive."

This was to overlook the fact that the writing was pretty poor, with a negligible score lacking a single first-rate tune. Doug Watt in The Daily News stated that "the songs are entirely lacking in wit or a breath of life, and the book is a silly mess propped up by an occasional odd joke."

There was a favorable review in The New York Post from the usually discerning Martin Gottfried, but it was not enough to make a difference. With an air of amateurishness about it and O'Shea not much of a draw, the Broadway production of Something's Afoot closed after sixty-one performances.

Yet Something's Afoot has had an afterlife. In 1977, it played London's Ambassadors Theatre, where Christie's The Mousetrap opened and ran for many years. The London run of Something's Afoot was 232 performances. Since then, there have been stock and amateur mountings.

As spoofs go, Something's Afoot is not very amusing or sharp, with the songs tending to stop the action dead and waste time in the relatively brief evening. A show that sounds like fun really isn't, even if it may be more enjoyable when it returns to its roots, in regional or stock theaters.

Set in 1935, Something's Afoot takes place entirely in the entrance hall of Rancour's Retreat, a country estate in the English lake district. Six people, including Miss Tweed, have been invited, and they arrive to find their host, Lord Rancour, murdered. Before long, the butler who might have done it is done in too. Not long after that, a young student named Geoffrey arrives, seeking shelter from a storm. The doctor is the next victim, then more deaths ensue.

I won't spoil all of the twists, even though they're pretty unexciting. Something's Afoot exists to be sampled on an early-'80s Showtime TV taping that probably happened because of two pieces of star casting: Jean Stapleton as Tweed and Andy Gibb as Geoffrey. Because Something's Afoot received no cast recording on Broadway or in the West End, this TV tape ranks as the show's only official cast recording.

This Something's Afoot is a live taping, shot directly from the stage and with an audience present. Directed by Tanner in a staging similar to Broadway's, the performances are broad and enthusiastic, if not very distinguished. But then the characters of the piece are deliberately written as British stereotypes, so there's not much to act, the script requiring only robust performances. Stapleton is certainly game, although there's nothing in the dialogue or songs really worthy of her efforts. As the ingenue Hope, Lenore Zann sounds a lot like Bernadette Peters when she sings.

In 1980, Showtime devoted its attention to a far better musical, albeit one that had lasted only 145 performances on Broadway. Based on a 1942 novella by Eudora Welty, itself taken from a Grimm fairy tale, The Robber Bridegroom concerns dashing bandit Jamie Lockhart, wealthy planter Clement Musgrove, his jealous second wife, Salome, and his virginal daughter, Rosamund. With no intermission, the ninety-minute show employs the framing device of a country square-dance circle recalling the story and introducing the events. This was similar to Hal Prince's concept for the original production of Zorba, in which a bouzouki circle relates a story that becomes the show. With an onstage string band, The Robber Bridegroom also employed some of the presentational style of story theatre.

The music is by Robert Waldman, composer of the one-performance Broadway flop Here's Where I Belong 1968, based on East of Eden and the road-closer Swing 1980. The book and lyrics were by Alfred Uhry, lyricist of Here's Where I Belong, but also author of Driving Miss Daisy and the book for Parade.

The Robber Bridegroom actually played Broadway twice. It was first taken up by The Acting Company, which brought the show to New York as part of a repertory engagement for sixteen performances in the fall of 1975. Playing Jamie and Rosamund were future stars Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone. The reviews were pleasant but not extraordinary. Uhry's book got a Tony nomination, as did LuPone her brother Robert was nominated for a Tony the same year, for A Chorus Line.

A new production began at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and it transferred to Broadway's Biltmore Theatre, opening October 9, 1976. It retained from the Acting Company mounting its director, Gerald Freedman, and its choreographer, Donald Saddler. The reviews were generally strong, with Martin Gottfried in The Post declaring it "still the original, unusual and surprising musical that was so refreshing a season ago.... Waldman is a real discovery....an example of how different musicals can be." For his Jamie, Barry Bostwick won the 1977 musical-actor Tony.

If The Robber Bridegroom never quite caught on on Broadway, it was probably because it had a country-flavored score which didn't sound like standard Broadway music, and because it was small and therefore not perceived as a full-scale Broadway show. But with an amusing book and a pleasing score, The Robber Bridegroom was refreshingly different.

The Showtime production has one flaw, and it's a major one: Playing Jamie is former evangelist and subject of the documentary film Marjoe Marjoe Gortner, and while he's adequate, he's also underpowered, in no way the equal of Kline or Bostwick. But Kaye Ballard is amusing as Salome, desperately attempting to do away with her step-daughter, and Pippa Pearthree is appealing as that step-daughter, Rosamund.

Unlike the Something's Afoot video, this one is not shot from the stage; it was taped on studio sets, and without an audience. Staged by Neal Kenyon Dames at Sea, the video includes such Broadway '76 cast members as Ernie Sabella playing a talking head called Big Harp, brother to Little Harp, Trip Plymale as the simple-minded Goat, and Carolyn McCurry as a raven.

The Robber Bridegroom is a witty piece that lends itself well to productions by small groups. And it's nicely captured here.

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