It’s always a pleasure to come to the Lilian Bayliss Theatre at Sadlers Wells for our annual outing to see one of Ian Marshall Fisher’s Lost Musicals. There are three on offer this year, and I chose Holly Golightly over the others because its creative team of Bob Merrill and Abe Burrows had chalked up some pretty nifty musicals in their time, and also because both of us are completely new to the whole “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” thing. Yes, we’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, so it’s about time we got to know who Holly Golightly is (was).
The back story to the musical is fascinating. In its pre-Broadway try-outs it underwent numerous rewrites – nothing particularly unusual about that – but by the time it was to reach Broadway it had suffered the indignity of two book writers being sacked. Nunnally Johnson first, then Abe Burrows; to be replaced by “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”’s Edward Albee, not known for his contribution to the frothy world of musicals. After four Broadway previews, producer David Merrick pulled the show and it never saw the light of day again. Even though it was starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, Merrick realised he had a lemon. The version that Ian Marshall Fisher has resurrected has the Abe Burrows book, so it’s the version that never even got to Broadway.
The Lost Musicals setting can expose the weaknesses of long lost Broadway shows. Unable to rely on costumes, sets and a full orchestra, one concentrates heavily on the script, the lyrics, the tunes and the story. When you find a nugget of gold, it’s a pure delight; Cole Porter’s Paris is a fine example. Holly Golightly, on the other hand, really doesn’t work very well. Firstly, it’s very long! At a 3.30pm start we weren’t finished until 6.40pm. The tale is rather plodding and lacking in drama, although Abe Burrows’ book had some witty lines and funny moments. The songs are unmemorable and didn’t seem to illustrate the meat of the story.
Wasn’t it someone famous who said a song in a musical must carry the story forward, and that you should come out of the song at a different place from where you went into it? Actually, perhaps it was me. Anyway, that’s a major problem with this work – most of the songs are largely irrelevant to the story moving forward. The song “Travelling”, which was clearly designed to illustrate Holly’s life modus operandi, and gets an end-of-show reprise, is very lame for a signature tune. “I’ve Got a Penny”, on the other hand, nicely contrasts Holly’s fiscal status with her wonderment at the contents of Tiffany’s store. “You’ve never kissed her” sung by the hopelessly smitten Jeff is a charming ballad of unrequited love and “The girl you used to be” is a rather sad account of the love of her former husband Doc, despite the general creepiness of the whole idea of her as a teenager having married her adoptive father.
I can’t say that the show helped me to understand who Holly Golightly was. I couldn’t work out if she was looking for love, or excitement, or cash, or security; maybe all of the above, maybe none. You may say that’s because she’s an enigma – but I got the feeling that it’s because the character wasn’t particularly well written. The only aspect of her character that was clear to me was that she was a nightmare neighbour. At least Jeff was surely in love with her; and as for the other gentlemen suitors, their frequently repeated lyric that they were “dirty old men looking for dirty young girls” casts a shadow on any notion of romance in this show.
As always, Mr Marshall Fisher has assembled a cast of huge talent who look great in evening wear, seated in a semi-circle, scripts in hand, timing their joint standings-up and sittings-down to perfection. Holly Dale Spencer, as wide-eyed as she was in Kiss Me Kate, sings beautifully as Miss Golightly and it’s no surprise that she bewitches all the guys in town. Joseph Wilkins is a rather subdued Jeff, but he has a great voice; Simone Craddock, who we saw in Annie a few years ago is a slinky funky Mag Wildwood; Jonathan Dryden has a terrific, but totally irrelevant, song “Ciao, Compare” as Sally Tomato; and there’s great support from Stewart Permutt (as always), Paul Lincoln, Gareth Davies, Andy Gillies, and distinguished veteran actor Gary Raymond.
But David Merrick was right – if not a complete lemon, the show is pretty citric a lot of the time, and I guess it would have been a massive flop on Broadway. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to watch from a historical perspective; and if you are interested in the history of musicals then you already know that all of these Lost Musicals are always worth a visit.
Footnote 2: They refuse to take interval orders for drinks in the bar before the show. And they also refuse to take them in a remarkably surly way!