Review – The Day Before Spring – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

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Of the many treats of 2010, the one that I think will stand toward the top for me is my very late discovery of the Lost Musicals series at Sadler’s Wells. I nearly succumbed to their tag line last year (“neglected works by America’s finest theater writers and composers of the Broadway musicals”) but was put off by the thought of somehow making it from the southernmost depths of Zone 3 to Sadler’s Wells on a Sunday. How would I do my grocery shopping? How would the garden get by? What about the rain? And wasn’t it a danger to make it a habit to see theater on a Sunday, thereby eliminating MY only day of rest?

Well, it’s now my second show, and the endless trek to Angel has become much worse thanks to a series of weekend closures (thanks, TFL!), but these days you’ll find me making my way north on roller skates if that’s what it takes. I think in some ways my “road to Islington” conversion kind of marks crossing a line from musicals fan into full-on musicals nerd. I’m no longer content to see what’s new: I want to see what’s great, and by God back in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s they were cranking one hit out after another in an environment where the audience was thick and the talent was thicker. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that in this era, even great creatives (per the judgment of history) might have had shows that fell by the wayside; and thus we have not just Cole Porter’s “Paris” (the late-winter production) but Lerner and Loewe’s “The Day Before Spring,” which, as it turns out, I went to see the day before summer.

Normally I’m not one to plump out my blog with plot summaries, extensive song lists, show history and such, but I feel like I should make an exception for the shows in this series. If you go to see them, you have the advantage of Ian Marshall Fisher’s really nice introduction, full of detail not just about how a show came to be, but what kind of reception it got, who was in it, and how it fell into his hands. However, there’s not much available online, so I’ll do my best to fill in the gaps in the record with my recollection of the mini-lecture. Day Before Spring was found by someone doing research in the Long Beach State University library. The script itself was a very early production of Lerner & Loewe (their second?) that had a six month run on Broadway in 1945 and was never done again when it closed in 1946. It’s mostly set at a reunion for “Harrison College,” a thinly veiled version of Harvard (where Lerner went to school), where Katherine Townsend (Madeleine Worral) and her husband Peter (Henry Luxemburg) are going with their own agendas – Peter to hobnob with some bigwigs, Katherine to rekindle her college romance with now-famous author Alex Maitland (David Habbin). Well, actually, she doesn’t want to rekindle her romance, but once she sees him – and knowing that his soppy novel is based on the life he imagined they would have together – she just can’t resist.

The show is not just full of clever lyrics and witty dialogue (as expected) but is suprisingly liberal for the era and quite inventive. We have a husband-hunting woman (Christopher Randolph, played by Kaisa Hammerlund) who is rude to everyone who’s not her intended and does a great song called “My Love is a Married Man;” this is nicely matched with the ludicrous “statue” trio (really a quartet) in which Plato, Voltaire, and Freud try to convince Kathy of what she should or should do with her love life. (Plato: “Keep your life forever symphonic; go back to your husband and keep it Platonic!” Freud: “The symptoms you exhibit show emotions you inhibit!”) But the cake was taken by the song “Friends to the end,” in which the various male alums tell each other that infidelity, homosexuality, and even having a child by another man are all completely fine – as long as people are sticking with sleeping with people from Harrison. I have to say, given when this play was written, my jaw was dropping during this song – though it was all just too funny. Still, though, conventions of a sort must be honored, and no comedy can really end with a wife leaving her husband. I doubt Kathy really ends the play any happier; perhaps she’ll realize later a juicy affair will take care of that need for a little extra spark – as long as she keeps it within Harrison.

As ever, the show is done with a minimum of extra fuss; the performers are all in evening wear, they sing from a notebook, and chairs provide all of the set. Still, there’s enough staging to really engage the imagination. My favorite was during a scene when Kathy and Alex are singing about their happy new life together, when the singers all came forward and stood in a line for the couple to run in front of, behind, and between, as if they were in a forest. It was really nicely done and I have to tip my hat to Ian Marshall Fisher for knowing how to do just enough to bring the show alive with absolutely zero money spent on anything extra.

The singing was as good as it was last time (thankfully unamplified), and it was easy to focus on the lyrics. I especially enjoyed Worral’s voice, and I thought she captured the role well: still a romantic, but old enough to have had some of her youthful enthusiasm drained away. Luxemburg tended to speak his words rather than sing them, which was certainly a way of showing his character, but I found myself wondering if there was actually any music at all to his role after hearing him shuffle through “Where’s My Wife.” Underneath it all you could hear the bursts of genius to come; the first act ended with a chord transition that clearly hinted at “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But with lovely new songs to enjoy like “You Haven’t Changed At All” (the earworm of the production), enjoying this show wasn’t just about anticipating what was to come; “The Day Before Spring” shows talent that is clearly already in bloom. There are a few more performances left, and I have to say that any musical fan would be well advised to attempt to catch this show, which isn’t available as a movie or even as a score. As for me, I’ll be booking my tickets to the final show of the season soon; then waiting eagerly for next year and whatever crop of obscurities we’ve been lucky enough to have Fisher find for us.

(The Day Before Spring continues at Sadler’s Wells through July 11th – on Sundays only, of course. The final show for the season is Darling of the Day, which opens August 22nd.)

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One Response to “Review – The Day Before Spring – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells”

  1. Review – Darling of the Day – Lost Musicals at the Ondaatje Wing Theatre, National Portrait Gallery « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] only never seen but not even heard of before (Paris); I raced back two months later for the next offering (The Day Before Spring). Both were perfect Drowsy Chaperone-style plays with brilliant lyrics and completely comic plots, a […]

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