STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Look at Your Own Thing

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Look at Your Own Thing "If music be the food of love, play on."

"If music be the food of love, play on."

Some of us who heard the Duke say those words in this summer's terrific Twelfth Night at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theatre heard in their heads, "I don't remember if that's Marlowe or Bacon."

That, you see, is the second line of dialogue on RCA Victor's cast album of Your Own Thing, a musical version of Twelfth Night that you may not know.

Your Own Thing (book by Donald Driver, score by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar) opened very quietly on Jan. 13, 1968 at Off-Broadway's Orpheum Theatre. Nifty reviews followed. So did the New York Drama Critics Circle Prize.

Granted, the 1967-68 season wasn't a world-beater. Golden Rainbow and The Happy Time were big disappointments. As for Darling of the Day, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, George M., Henry, Sweet Henry, Here's Where I Belong, How Now Dow Jones, I'm Solomon, Mata Hari, and New Faces -- add their number of performances together, and you'll see that they ran 103 performances fewer than Your Own Thing's 933. Because the Tonys used an April 15 cut-off in those days, Best Musical went to Hallelujah, Baby! which statistically belonged to 1966-67. Your Own Thing couldn't have won, of course, because it was an Off-Broadway show.

There was one other 1967-68 Broadway musical: Hair. But its April 28 opening also made it too late for Tony consideration. Had Your Own Thing moved to the very available Booth, and had Hair opened uptown a month earlier, the two would have duked it out for the Best Musical Tony.

Don't be so sure that Hair would have won. Remember, the Critics Circle takes Off-Broadway into consideration, so it could have chosen Hair, which opened downtown 10 weeks earlier.

But could it be that Hair lost because after it closed its 94-performance limited engagement -- a month before Your Own Thing opened -- critics and audiences were more in the mood for another rock musical? Sometimes the first of a genre suffers for its originality, and the second profits because people are now ready for innovation.

Actually, 10 days before Your Own Thing opened, there was another rock musical, Love and Let Love. Here's the irony: It too was based on Twelfth Night. It closed after 14 performances, on the day, ironically enough, that the Your Own Thing team read its fine reviews. All that Love and Let Love got was a privately released cast album, one which doesn't make it sound like much.

Today's generation of the stagestruck may say, if Your Own Thing is so great, why haven't we heard of it? Though it was sold to Hollywood, no movie was ever made. Its LP never became a CD, though it did make it to 8-track tape.

If you can find the record in some forlorn bin, don't be scared off by the cover. Garish wavy bands of fuchsia and orange surround a too-too cute drawing of a rock musician whose body is formed by the title's three words.

Still, buy it. And don't just file it -- play it. The score's strength are its soft-rock ballads. "The Flowers," "She Never Told Her Love," "Be Gentle," "The Middle Years -- all lovely. Though I do remember that sexagenarian Boston drama critic Elliott Norton noticed that "Don't Leave Me" and "When You're Young and in Love" were awfully quaint lyrics for supposedly new-fangled songs.

Some of the uptempo numbers are pretty good, too. As it turns out, The Now Generation took the advice given in Your Own Thing's title song. "There'll come a day when the world'll need you / There'll come a day when the world'll heed you," the collaborators told today's brokers, bankers, traders and presidents. "You may change someday / You may find another way / but for now / just for now / do your own thing."

Oh, there is an atrocity or two. Any show that asks its characters to "Do the Hunca Munca" is asking for trouble.

As for the book, the most daring move Driver made was to drop Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste, and Malvolio. The latter was especially drastic, because Malvolio is one of the Shakespeare's best-known characters. Not only that, Malvolio would have fit. A man who'd dress foolishly because he believes his would-be-beloved requested could have enhanced Your Own Thing by wearing some new and outlandishly trendy outfit. (Can you say Nehru jacket?)

But Driver and his songsmiths felt they had plenty, what with the adventures of Sebastian and Viola, Shakespeare's male-female twins who greatly resemble each other. With the unisex dress style in the news, the collaborators felt the mistaken identity could be made even more believable if the two wore the exact same clothes. "I can't tell the boys from the girls, anyway" was a line in the show said by John Wayne. To which Humphrey Bogart quipped, "You do have a problem."

Needless to say, Wayne didn't show up for eight-a-week, and the long- deceased Bogart wasn't around, either. But one of Your Own Thing's great charms was its use of then-brand-new slide projections, coupled with voice-overs. Lord knows that multi-media tricks have since been wildly overused, but they were theatrically genial and fresh in 1968.

Also represented in those slides was the cantankerous Senator Everett P. Dirksen, W.C. Fields, Queen Elizabeth, Buddha, and -- as painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel -- God. Not only that, when a character had an inner thought that we needed to know, a projection flashed above him as a cartoon balloon that told us what he was thinking. Fun.

Driver kept, however, an inordinate amount of Shakespeare's actual dialogue. The 24 lines that the Bard used to open Act One Scene Two are the exact same that Driver chose to open his. But Your Own Thing, a slide projection of Mayor John Lindsay showed him saying, "Illyria is a Fun City. Cough, cough."

A show of its time? Sure. But that doesn't mean we can't respect it for what it was, what it did. It was well-played, too. Apolinar played an Apocalypse, as did Michael Valenti, who'd later write the music to Oh, Brother. Other up-and-comers included Marcia Rodd (Olivia), Rusty Thacker (Sebastian), and Leland Palmer (Viola). As a nurse, there was Imogene Bliss, who took her name, I'd like to think, because she'd had such a good time playing the female lead in Measure for Measure.

Of course, just a couple of seasons ago we had yet another musical version of Twelfth Night -- Play On! -- that didn't work. But I daresay Your Own Thing really did.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.

You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com