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Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: The Fig Leaves Are Falling
A guest post by Ben West.
Strange as it may seem given its frank narrative and its traditional sound, The Fig Leaves Are Falling is not a conventional musical. This colorful, vivacious and disarmingly sweet 1969 confection is—at its core and in its construction—a unique and exciting entertainment that marvelously straddles the worlds of 1960s musical comedy and 1940s revue. It was, in fact, Fig Leaves' central story and stylized conceit that initially grabbed me and ultimately defined the reimagined UnsungMusicalsCo. (UMC) production.
Currently in its fifth year, UMC is a not-for-profit production company that I founded with a focus on obscure but artistically sound works from the Golden Age of musical theatre, a term I more broadly define as the 40 fruitful years between Mr. Florenz Ziegfeld and Mr. Stephen Sondheim's respective Follies: 1931-1971. Since its inception, UMC has given voice to nearly a dozen unsung musicals ranging in form from developmental readings and world premiere concerts to fully staged Off-Broadway productions, our most recent being the aforementioned musical comedy by "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" scribe Allan Sherman and Tony Award winner Albert Hague.
While the material on which we focus is inherently pre-existing, I am particularly passionate about treating each property as a new musical thereby allowing the artists involved the freedom to form their own interpretations of the piece without feeling bound by the parameters of what may have worked wonderfully for the original team. I strongly believe that this process has the greatest potential of yielding a final product that feels intrinsically connected to its participating artists, even when the originating text has remained largely intact.
As such, my goal in researching potential projects is always to find those well-crafted works for which I have a visceral connection and a specific vision. There are, to be sure, an array of Golden Age gems whose fundamental foundation and individual components have struck me in their entirety, the deliciously zany 1947 musical comedy Barefoot Boy With Cheek by Max Shulman, Sidney Lippman and Sylvia Dee being one. In the case of Fig Leaves, however, it was specifically the work's core narrative and stylized presentational structure to which I was drawn. And so, with the intention of focusing in on these two principal elements and its innate vaudevillian feel, I began to adapt the piece, specifically trying to utilize as much of the authors' original material as possible. Given Fig Leaves' turbulent history, there was likely to be an abundance.
Originally titled Birth is the Coward's Way Out, Fig Leaves did not have an easy life. To begin with, the musical appeared to suffer from a considerable identity crisis, not unlike its central character. Essentially a love story built around a stagnant twenty-year marriage, its temporary dissolution and its subsequent rebirth, Fig Leaves nonetheless spent significant amounts of time endeavoring to sprinkle its narrative with socio-political commentary, timely teenage sexual angst and showbiz schtick, most notably the auctioning of a barbecued chicken to an unsuspecting audience member. (Despite being best known as a Grammy Award-winning parodist and comedian, Mr. Sherman could have perhaps dispensed with the social commentary here.)
To make matters worse, the production itself was steeped in troubles from the outset. Actor Jack Klugman had been hired to direct but made a sudden departure immediately prior to the start of rehearsals. Veteran director George Abbott picked the reigns and pushed forward with top-billed stars Barry Nelson, Dorothy Loudon and Jules Munshin, that is until the latter handed in his resignation during the pre-Broadway engagement in Philadelphia. Throughout the entire production process, substantial structural changes persisted, with multiple musical numbers being assigned to different characters while others were eliminated altogether (some only to reappear days later).
When the musical ultimately opened in New York on January 2, 1969, Fig Leaves received blistering reviews. The four-performance run is perhaps best remembered for Dorothy Loudon's Tony-nominated turn (literally stopping the show on more than one occasion) and the New York Times review in which Clive Barnes noted, "There is nothing much wrong with [the show] that a new book, new music, new lyrics, new settings, new direction, new choreography and a partially new cast would not quite possibly put right." Not unexpectedly, Fig Leaves quickly disappeared into obscurity.
Still, one simply cannot deny the power and excitement of its central story and the unique way in which it is told. And so, 44 years later, the Fig Leaves began falling once again in a new production which sought to embrace both the inherent charms of the musical's satirical suburban tale and the vibrant air of its distinctive style, all the while shedding Mr. Sherman's 1960s topical treatises.
My goal with any adaption is to respectfully reshape the respective work through carefully considered revisions that: 1) stem from a specific artistic vision; 2) work to further inform the storytelling; and 3) are purposefully implemented in such as way as to both honor and enhance the original landscape laid out by the work's creators. Fig Leaves was no different.
I began by focusing on the composition's central characters: Harry and Lillian Stone, our married couple; Charlie Montgomery, their long-time friend with whom each shares a rather colorful past; and Ms. Chapman, the attractive young secretary who leads Harry astray. With the hope of gathering moments and material that would speak to the relationships of these four individuals, I parsed through three early drafts of the script and listened intently to a live audio recording of the original production.
With regard to the musical's overall construction, its Broadway incarnation showcased several moments resembling those on a television game show, a format well-known to Mr. Sherman, having created and produced the long-running CBS hit "I've Got a Secret." Taking my cue from their own structural suggestions, I began to more clearly define the framework of our Fig Leaves as that of a 1960s variety show, which would allow us to further accent the direct audience address found in the original as well as the vaudevillian atmosphere to which Mr. Sherman and Mr. Hague were alluding in 1969.
Interestingly, I found that more than 40 songs had been written for the Fig Leaves score. While most were utilized in various versions of the libretto, there are several songs which appear never to have made it out of the proverbial trunk. True, some are simply suggestive sketches consisting of little more than a simple sixteen bar chorus. But, a handful of others are, in fact, fully constructed musical numbers. "The Question Song," in particular, is a wonderfully warm and reflective tune, almost unlike any other item in the show. Though I cannot be certain, I suspect it was written for our leading man's private moment of reckoning late in Act Two, a moment ultimately occupied by "Did I Ever Really Live?" Though similar in sentiment, "The Question Song" is quite different in style and execution, ultimately lacking the power needed to fill the eleven o'clock slot. (Though it is destined to become a cabaret staple.)
"Anything Can Happen," "Man" and "Westchester Wildcat," however, proved much more in line with the tone of the late-'60s musical comedy and quickly made their way back into the score. Two previously discarded scenes were restored. Our sexy, smart and sensible secretary Ms. Chapman picked up a much needed new name: Pookie (yes, Pookie) became Jenny. And our married couple's best friend, Charlie, became the host of the country's hottest weekly variety show: The Fig Leaves Are Falling.
The resulting incarnation opened at the Connelly Theatre in January 2013, with The New York Times calling it "a crisp production with exceptional singing and smart, smooth choreography."
The Fig Leaves Are Falling is a show unlike any on which I have had the opportunity to work. It was an honor to revisit Allan Sherman and Albert Hague's extraordinarily joyous musical, albeit in this new adaptation which I hope paid homage to the original while also creating an identity of its own: 1960s musical comedy by way of a 1940s revue with a dash of 1920s vaudeville.
No, our reimagined Fig Leaves is not a conventional musical. And therein lies the fun.
A note from Doug
Like Ben West's last guest entry on Make Mine Manhattan, this month's Musical of the Month differs from our usual practice in several ways. As West describes above, the script included with this post is not the original version but a revision made for the the UnsungMusicalsCo production performed in January. Further, both the original and UnsungMusicalCo version remain under copyright protection, and the PDF of the new version is offered here for research use only with the permission of the rights holders. If you are interested in producing this script, please contact UnsungMusicalsCo at firstname.lastname@example.org
Download the Libretto (PDF only this month)