By Steven Suskin
10 Aug 2003
ERNEST IN LOVE [DRG 19045]
The 1954 Marc Blitzstein adaptation of The Threepenny Opera proved, as it ran along for six years, that there was a place for musicals Off-Broadway. A second, long-running Off-Broadway musical came in the spring of 1959, when a revival of Kern & Wodehouse's Leave It to Jane opened for a run of more than two years. These shows convinced commercial producers and investors that there was money — significant money — to be made downtown. And I'm not talking about producing shows in hopes of a transfer; rather, small-scale, small orchestra musicals that were decidedly not Broadway fare.
The 1959-1960 Off-Broadway season saw no less than 12 musicals and revues. The fall was highlighted by an operetta spoof that proved to be a little goldmine, Little Mary Sunshine. May saw back-to-back openings of two intimate, gentle musicalizations of late-nineteenth century plays. The first, from an obscure 1894 work by Edmond Rostand (of Cyrano fame), was to become Off-Broadway's most enduring hit; the second was a musicalization of Oscar Wilde's 1895 The Importance of Being Earnest, no less.
Ernest in Love was warmly received. "Everything has been done in the most impeccable taste," said Brooks Atkinson of the Times, "Lee Pockriss's music is deft and droll. Anne Croswell's book and lyrics are clever." Mind you, this is the same Atkinson who didn't much like The Fantasticks the night before Ernest in Love opened or Bye Bye Birdie three weeks earlier. The long-time dean of theatre critics had already handed in his notice and was gone by the first show of the fall. But other major reviews were as enthusiastic as Atkinson.
The venture began as a television musical. Croswell came from advertising, where she wrote commercials. Pockriss was a pop composer with one standard to his credit, "Catch a Falling Star"; his theatre credits included dance music for Three Wishes for Jamie and Top Banana. Who's Ernest was presented in October 1957 on the U.S. Steel Hour, under the guidance of the Theatre Guild. The reaction was positive enough to encourage the authors to expand their show to full length, although it took a few years to line up a production.
As it turned out, Ernest in Love did not have the staying power of The Fantasticks or Little Mary Sunshine, closing after a moderate run of 111 performances. The show had a respectable afterlife on the stock and amateur circuit, in the early sixties at least. (It must have been a natural for school groups, in the days before Music Man, Sound of Music, Birdie and Fiddler became available.) But the show has long since faded from memory.
The quickly deleted Columbia LP has finally made the transfer to CD, with pleasant results. Pleasant is the correct word; Ernest is not a high-powered show or a high-powered score. It makes a nice CD, though, for people who like literate, gentle musicals with pretty tunes and charming performances. (If Little Mary Sunshine and The Fantasticks spawned Broadway stars-to-be, none of Ernest's cast were so fortunate.) The music is generally catchy, rising to its best in the ballad "Perfection." There are quite a few other bright spots, like "You Can't Make Love," "The Hat," "Wicked Man" and "A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother." Bright spots musically, anyway; the lyrics are generally too specialized for their own good. I can think of some lyricists who might have the dexterity to take on Oscar Wilde, but Ms. Croswell isn't one of them.
The success d'estime of Ernest in Love was enough to get Pockriss and Croswell a Broadway assignment. Tovarich it was, a problematic enterprise with a problematic Vivien Leigh in the lead. That score [DRG 19025], like Ernest, has some infectiously lively numbers. If you like to listen to Tovarich, as I do, then you might well want to try Ernest.
The songwriters did not come to a happy end. Croswell went on to write the lyrics for the 1968 fiasco I'm Solomon, which sent her away from Broadway forever. Pockriss hasn't been back either, although he is still out there writing musicals. His Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? tried out in Houston in 2002, although at present it seems unlikely to reach New York. Continued...