Opera has never had it easy on Broadway, and not illogically. Back around the mid-century, Gian-Carlo Menotti changed this, temporarily, with three acclaimed Broadway operas in seven years. One of them even managed to turn a profit. VAI (Video Artists International) has now released three DVDs of two of Menotti's Broadway operas.
The Medium easily ranks high on the list of the most chilling Broadway musicals ever. I also rank it high, as musical theatre. It is not packed with traditional songs, like more typical Broadway operas (Porgy and Bess, Street Scene, Regina); there are only three, I suppose, the eerie "Black Swan," the blood-curdling "Afraid," and the lilting-but-askew "Monica, Dance the Waltz." But The Medium is filled with haunting and memorable musical passages: "Doodly, doodly, are you happy?" "Mummy dear you must not cry for me," "Monica, can't you see," "Not to know my own daughter's voice," to name a few. The Medium is grand opera, a grand opera, or a grand Guignol opera, take your pick.
Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera ran 211 performances at the Barrymore in 1947. It was remounted in 1948, with most of the original cast, for 40 additional performances, and came back yet again in 1950 for 102 more. Menotti filmed The Medium in 1951, and the results are in many ways remarkable. Any discussion of the piece must begin with Marie Powers, who created the role of Madame Flora (Baba). Ms. Powers was apparently a singer of great talent whose career fell through the cracks, being the wrong "type" for the time. (I say apparently as I'm no authority on opera; if this statement be overly general, it will serve our purposes here.) Whatever you might want to say about Ms. Powers, one thing's for certain: She is quite something. This is one staggering and scary performance; Powers's Madame Flora makes Mrs. Lovett look like Madame Arcati. (If this reference be too arcane, just let it pass.) I wouldn't want to run into this Madame Flora on the street, nor Ms. Powers either.
Powers, on film, is just as imposing as she is on the invaluable original Broadway cast recording (presently available on Pearl [GEMS 0122]). The film, though, brings an added dimension to the portrayal. I have always visualized Baba as seen in the original production photos. In the second half of the film, though— after the haunting—Powers is presented without her "medium" garb; with no wig or makeup (or, perhaps, a very different wig and makeup), she appears very different and perhaps even more wildly dangerous. Following the Sweeney Todd reference above, she becomes less Lovett and more Tobias. (In fact, at moments she looks like a haunted W.C. Fields—which makes her even more scary!) Whether this is carried over from the stage production is unknown; they might well not have had time, in the one-act opera, for the transformation. In any event, Powers in The Medium—her only film—is not to be missed.
Also retained from the original cast (and the two New York revivals) is Leo Coleman, as the mute, "feeble-minded gypsy" Toby. While Coleman is given second billing in the film, his name is oddly omitted entirely from the liner note and the DVD packaging—I suppose because he is playing a silent role. But Toby is central to the piece, and Coleman gives a highly expressive and perhaps unforgettable performance (most often without his shirt on). Typing my way around the Internet, I find that this fellow—who looks to be around sixteen—was also production manager of the film (under his real name, Leopoldo Savona). He went on to have an active career as director and screenwriter in the Italian cinema. Another fascinating performance comes from the fourteen-year-old Anna Maria Alberghetti, as Monica. Broadway saw her a decade later, as the Tony Award-winning leading lady of Carnival, but The Medium seems to have been the peak of her career. Watching Alberghetti on the screen, one can't help but wonder whether the creators of West Side Story had memories of this performance somewhere in the recesses of their subconscious.
Baba's three clients are perfectly played, as well. Beverly Dame reprises her stage role as Mrs. Gobineau, with her heartbreaking aria about the garden full of lilacs and mimosa. Menotti has added several street scenes to the piece, including one with the Gobineaus watching children playing at a fountain. More importantly, there is a full, sung scene in which Baba visits Mrs. Nolan, who displays her daughter's preserved belongings (as referred to during the seance). This directly addresses Menotti's theme, demonstrating the power of faith over what we—the audience— know to be fraud.
Menotti, making his debut as a film director, sets the tone in the opening shot of the film: Baba sits, menacingly, outside the door of a client who owes her money. There is also a striking, wordless scene where Baba stops before a pawnshop window that features two skeletal mannequins. One of the mannequins suddenly snaps to and steps into the doorway, allowing Baba to pawn a locket. As she leaves, Menotti has the man step back into the window display; icily watch Baba leave; and then freeze back into the cadaverous tableau. Stunning. Menotti never followed up with any more screen work—he was busy composing operas, after all—but this long lost Medium makes an arresting film.
Let it be acknowledged that the opera is filmed in a manner that might take modern-day audiences some getting used to. The performers move their lips along with the music, yes, but the audio has obviously been recorded separately. How and why this was done in such fashion is unknown. It could well have been due to postwar studio conditions (the film was made in Rome); or perhaps director Menotti wanted his actors to be able to move around realistically instead of standing there looking like opera singers. (Baba seems to be forever chasing Toby, with her bullwhip.) Little attempt seems to have been made to match the audio to the video; the words are sung in tempo, yes, but the length of the notes is disconcertingly off. Still, the vibrance of the acting performances more than makes up for the sound lag.
For those interested in a more traditional approach, VAI has also released an opera house version of The Medium, starring Maureen Forrester. This is a 1977 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation presentation of a production from the Comus Music Theatre of Canada. More traditional, yes, but approaching the laughable. (Paging Carol Burnett, with Joel Grey as Toby.) So I would recommend that you specify "Marie Powers as The Medium" [VAI DVD 4218] and accept no substitute. Readers who have fallen in love with Broadway's new hit The Light in the Piazza might want to seek out The Medium, on CD or DVD, as their reward. While the works are very different, they make wise and brave use of the elements of musical theatre— and both composers heighten key moments with soaring melodies of breathtaking beauty.
The Consul was greeted with cheers and bravos when it opened in March 1950, with the accolades possibly fueled by current events. The Berlin airlift had just ended; the Korean War was about to start; and Alger Hiss, that month, was convicted of selling State Department secrets to the Russians. "A slashing operatic blow at totalitarianism," went one review; another calling it "lyric drama of freshness and freedom, carved to the bone in every element, so it repeatedly jolts till your teeth jar. This is the story of the twentieth century's oppressed told vividly enough to strike home in a Park Avenue penthouse." The overall verdict was that The Consul was not to be missed, even though—and if you don't want me to spoil it for you, skip the next sentence—the piece ends with the leading lady sticking her head in the oven, and understandably so. The critics, almost to a man, urged readers to go even if it was opera.
I admit that I've always found the score of The Medium more embracing than that of The Consul; the theme and locale of the latter forbids Menotti from scaling the heights, or at least the strings. (Even so, "To This We've Come," Magda's climactic aria, remains philosophically valid and searingly powerful a half century later.) The Consul received better reviews, turned a profit, and won Menotti his first of two Pulitzers. (It also won the Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, although Guys and Dolls took the Tonys.) The DVD demonstrates that The Consul, indeed, was probably a stronger piece of theatre than The Medium. Add to the equation that The Medium, in its stage version, ran less than an hour; it was presented with Menotti's The Telephone, a pleasantly diverting but relatively minor trifle. Theatregoers could have done a close comparison; four months into the run of The Consul, The Medium was revived directly across the street.
The Consul in question comes from 1960. Although its origins are cloudy, it appears to have been mounted specifically for TV (although it might well have been first performed on stage). Jean Dalrymple, a press agent-turned-producer, had in 1953 begun a celebrated series of high-quality, low-price revivals at City Center. In 1959, she was named executive director of Paramount's Telemeter Productions, which appears to have been an early pay-TV operation. Telemeter went on the air in March 1960, apparently with this production of The Consul. (The scheme seems to have disbanded after four offerings. The final telecast— Carol Channing in Show Girl— seems to have been the first live transmission of a Broadway show. Wouldn't we like to see that?)
If the Cold War sensibilities of The Consul are not as riveting today as they were fifty years ago, Patricia Neway is. This performance is every bit as stunning as that of Marie Powers in The Medium; it is quite an experience to sit down and watch the two of them, back-to back. Neway sings from the heart, as you might say, giving a harrowing but honest portrait of Magda, the wife of freedom-loving patriot John Sorel.
Oddly enough, Powers shared the stage with Neway in the original production of The Consul; while Neway's character is clearly the main role, Powers (by virtue of her Broadway appearance in The Medium) received first billing. Ten years later, Powers did not appear in the TV version; I expect that she must have made a whole lot more of the role (as Sorel's mother) than the woman on the DVD. The only performer up to the level of Neway is Leon Lishner, recreating his Broadway role as the sinister-but-controlled Police Agent.
Neway's performance earns this DVD high recommendations. Her paying job, at the time of the filming, was singing about whiskers on kittens and raindrops and roses. There she was, picking up a Tony as the Mother Abbess climbing ev'ry mountain; The Consul reveals that she had the vibrance and passion of Anne Bancroft, who also picked up a Tony that night for The Miracle Worker.
AND ON A LIGHTER NOTE:
A flurry of Doris Day movies released by Warner Home Entertainment includes two of interest to this page. Please Don't Eat the Daisies tells of the move to the suburbs of a woman (Doris Day), her husband (David Niven)— a drama critic for a major New York newspaper— and their four children. This was based on a semi-autobiographical collection by Jean Kerr, who lived in Larchmont with her husband Walter (of the Herald Tribune). When the book was published in 1957, Jean herself was a struggling playwright; by the time the film was released in 1962, Mrs. Kerr had written a smash-hit play of her own. Mary, Mary, a pleasantly friendly comedy, was Broadway's sixth longest-running play ever, at the time; it remains at number eight on the list.
So here, in this newly released Doris Day comedy, you have the home life of the great Walter Kerr. The Hollywood version, that is, which bears little resemblance to the original. But how many drama critics made it onto the screen as fictionalized characters, anyway? Other than the larger-than-life Alec Woollcott, that is.
And then there's Billy Rose's Jumbo, as they called the 1962 film, although the resemblance to the Jumbo that Billy Rose produced at the Hippodrome in 1935 was little more than contractual. Jumbo, as Broadway people know it, was an odd amalgam of comedy (by Hecht and MacArthur), songs (by Rodgers and Hart), and circus (by John Murray Anderson), with Paul Whiteman and his band thrown in for good (or poor) measure. Thus, it was a play interrupted by pretty songs; after the characters got through with the songs, the clowns paraded to them; then the acrobats tumbled; and then the aerialists flipped their trapezes. Paul Whiteman, too. And then, back to the plot.
The top-heavy Jumbo, produced with Whitney money in the depths of the Depression, collapsed after five months in a cloud of red ink; never to be remounted, but apparently never forgotten by those who saw it.
Almost thirty years later, it reappeared as a Doris Day vehicle. It bore little resemblance to the original, other than the circus locale, the inclusion of five songs (including "Little Girl Blue," "My Romance" and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World"), and the presence of Jimmy Durante (in a role very different from the one he played in 1935). Billy Rose, who was quite the operator, managed to cement his name in the official title of the show; thus, he is given full credit on the film —although the results were nothing to shout about. The Times found it "unoriginal, solemn, sluggish and slow." Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker, used "elephantiasis" to describe it: "contains goodies for all ages, providing none of the ages is very bright." -- Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com(mailto:Ssuskin@aol.com)