From Montmartre to Midtown: Encores! Presents Irma La Douce, the Original Hipster Musical

By Jack Viertel
May 9, 2014

Playbill.com looks at the history of the French musical Irma La Douce.



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When it opened in September of 1960, Irma La Douce was by far the hippest musical on Broadway.

It wasn't the most successful — that would be The Sound of Music, which was undoubtedly the un-hippest. In a contest between a heroic singing nun and a cheerful Parisian street-walker, the nun is bound to draw the bigger audience of respectable Americans eventually. But Irma was the show for those in the know. Midwestern college girls, absorbing the sophistication, the wit, the sheer newness of what New York had to offer, brought home Irma's cast album to try to wake up their parents, who were, not surprisingly, still more comfortable in the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Irma's pedigree is fascinating, especially in the context of New York at the very end of the 1950s. JFK was a little more than a month away from being elected President when the show opened, and America was about to awaken from a self-satisfied, prosperous and sleepy decade into a tumultuous one that would eventually see the country torn apart. Rodgers and Hammerstein's evergreen tribute to the Von Trapp family was to be their last show, and, though the immediate cause was Hammerstein's death in 1960, it may be that it was just time for that era to end, their genius and influence notwithstanding. In January of 1960, Edward Albee's The Zoo Story ushered in the age of modern Off-Broadway premieres by young-playwrights-too-dangerous-to-play-uptown (though he'd get there soon enough) and hipster comedians from Mort Sahl to Nichols and May were twisting American comedy away from the Borscht Belt and "I Love Lucy." It's not for nothing that Irma is set in the Milieu around Montmartre, in some ways the French equivalent of the West Village.

Irma arrived on Broadway from sexy, sophisticated Paris, where it had run for years, via highbrow London, where, in a new version, it picked up a singular director named Peter Brook. Four years later he would be one of the leaders of the Royal Shakespeare Company, creating the landmark production of Marat/Sade, but in 1958 and 1960, he turned out Irma, first in the West End then on Broadway. And the composer was Marguerite Monnot, best known for having written a series of hits for Edith Piaf, including "La Vie En Rose" and "Milord." Piaf, of course, was, and has remained, an icon of hipness, as well she should, defining, along with Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, an enduring, if world weary, sense of Gallic savoir faire. Add in the films of Francois Truffaut and the other auteurs of French New Wave cinema, and you have a clear picture of the world in which Irma was born. French playwright Alexandre Breffort provided the libretto, which was then translated (book and lyrics) by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. Of the three, only Heneker would experience a second Broadway success, writing the music and lyrics for Half a Sixpence.

Piaf and Monnot, once best friends, had hit a snag some time in the late '50s, and the collaboration ended, but Monnot remained one of the very few women who had a successful career composing pop and theatre songs in an era in which women had to fight hard to be heard. Her influence made it possible for women from Carolyn Leigh (who provided the lyrics for Little Me) to Carole King to pursue a life creating songs. Her "sound," a kind of guttural Continental sing-song, influenced many hits that followed in her wake, most notably "Those Were The Days", which briefly made Mary Hopkins a star when it was one of the four original singles released by the Beatles' newly formed Apple Records label.

Jennifer Bowles and Rob McClure
Photo by Joan Marcus

Monnot's career with Piaf having effectively ended, she decided to try her hand at a book musical that still had one foot in the world of cabaret, and Irma La Douce was the result. The show's semi-enduring standard, "Our Language of Love" could easily have been a hit for Piaf had the two remained collaborators — and the entire score is easily recognizable as the product Monnot's particular way with an existential French head-toss. (In the 1963 Hollywood movie of the show, which starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, the entire score was tossed out — the movie has no songs, only underscoring provided by Andre Previn).

Despite its hipster profile, the show itself — seen today — is basically an antic French farce re-tooled for the Gauloise and beret set, an intimate jape. But on Broadway, it created a sensation. There was nothing really dangerous or revolutionary about it — it just felt adult, while telling a story that was preposterous enough that it might have originated as a somewhat stoned Off-Broadway sketch. It gave audiences a chance to witness something they didn't see every day — the comically reimagined world of sex-for-pay in Paris, where men and women seemed to know something that had long-eluded Eisenhower's America. In this, it shared its success and worldview with the film "Never On Sunday," which opened in the U.S. two days after Irma, and also featured an exotic musical theme that was considered the height of European sophistication.

The producer David Merrick moved Irma La Douce from the West End more or less intact, including the two English leads, Elizabeth Seal and Keith Michell. Seal took the town by storm, and took the Tony that year for best leading actress in a musical, besting Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Nancy Walker.

The American production featured a few improvements from London, including a new overture orchestrated by the great Robert "Red" Ginzler (who had orchestrated the Gypsy overture with Sid Ramin), and new dances by Onna White, necessitating new dance music, which was written and arranged by a young John Kander.

The new dances were also orchestrated by Ginzler, who took no mercy on the percussionist in the small, café-style band that played Irma's score, complete with an accordion for Parisian color. We have been faithful to the original instrumentation of the piece, giving several sections of the Encores! Orchestra a little time off after the herculean challenge of The Most Happy Fella.

Irma La Douce marks the first time that Encores! has presented a musical that didn't originate on American soil, but it seemed like the time was right. After two decades of fealty to shows that were written directly for Broadway, we felt entitled to look across the water, where writers and directors have, for a century and more, been turning out shows both in tribute, and in answer to, what Broadway originally created. It's unlikely to become a habit for Encores!. But, as Irma preaches, it's a good thing to break the rules once in a while and see what transpires.

Jack Viertel is artistic director of Encores!.