Fifty Million Frenchmen: They Can't Be Wrong
The musical comedy bookwriters of the pre-Oklahoma! period are often given a bum rap for the quality of their work. Sure, some of the greatest songs from the likes of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins were framed in lightweight stories, predictable and silly, but you have to consider the conditions they were writing under. Producers would often hire stars and songwriters in advance, with maybe the slightest idea of what the new musical would be about. Not only was the bookwriter required to whip up something in a hurry, with new material frequently added during out-of-town previews, but usually the author had to work around a handful of pre-existing songs and star contracts that made certain requirements as to how much and what type of material their clients would have. Oh, and if Betty Compton was in the cast, you'd better make sure she was happy with her part, otherwise her boyfriend, The Honorable Mayor of New York Jimmy Walker, might find a reason to have noisy street repairs done in front of your theatre on opening night.
Though few who aren't musical theatre historians know of him today, Herbert Fields was one of the more prolific bookwriters of the 1920's and 30's; penning fifteen new musicals in the years from 1925 through 1943, including notable hits like A Connecticut Yankee, Du Barry Was a Lady, and Let's Face It!. And though I couldn't quote you the exact conditions under which he write the book for Cole Porter's 1929 hit, Fifty Million Frenchmen, when a score has one song about procreating animals and another about regurgitating an oyster, while a supporting player has a solo in the 11 O'Clock spot after the top-billed star has already sung his final number, it's safe to say he probably didn't have an easy time writing this spoof of American tourists living it up abroad. (To give you and idea how quickly the show was written, it was inspired by the Rose/Raskin/Fisher song "Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong" made popular by Sophie Tucker less than eight months before opening night.)
So to honor this hard-working craftsman of the Broadway musical, who really was one of the best at what he did, the British company Lost Musicals, dedicated for the past sixteen years to presenting unrevised staged readings of lesser-performed American tuners, has assembled a terrific team of Yanks to mount Fifty Million Frenchmen using Herbert Fields' original book. Director Ian Marshall Fisher mounts all his productions on bare stages with no props. Just actors in evening wear performing with books in hand.
And while I have no reason to doubt that every word spoken comes from Fields, the tricky thing about trying to present an unrevised text for Fifty Million Frenchmen is that songs were cut and replaced (or not replaced) during the Broadway run. Cole Porter reluctantly cut "The Tale Of The Oyster" several weeks after opening night because many thought it to be in bad taste. It's restored here, along with "The Queen of Terre Haute," which was cut for good in previews. Neither the opening chorus of "A Toast To Volstead", which was cut five weeks after opening night, nor "The Happy Heaven of Harlem," which lasted the entire Broadway run, is heard in this production, but audiences will hear "The Boy Friend Back Home," which was added a few weeks after the opening (a belated replacement for "Please Don't Make Me Be Good," which was cut in Boston previews) but was eventually ousted for "Let's Step Out." (Does anyone need a scorecard?) But this is the libretto kept by the Cole Porter Trust, so it's as authentic as anyone can possibly get.
And few songs in the show really have anything to do with Fields' plot about an American playboy in Paris, Peter Forbes (Edward Watts), who bets his friend that within a month he can get engaged to the mystery girl he's fallen in love with at first sight without using his money or connections. (Yes, in 1929 musicals guys would bet that they could get a girl to marry him, not sleep with him.) Our hero gets a job as a guide at the American Express center, which helps introduce comic complications with a variety of ugly Americans.
As with any satirical show from long ago, some lines that triggered guffaws when introduced are barely recognized as jokes today (I had to Google to understand the significance of ordering a sidecar at Harry's Bar) and, for the sake of understanding our musical theatre past, we must sit through a few ethnic slurs. (Fields' father was the famous Dutch comic, Lew Fields of Weber & Fields. In his day, good-natured humor based on ethnic stereotypes was considered acceptable family entertainment among European immigrants.) But as evidenced by opening night audience, there are still plenty of entertaining wisecracks and zingers.
KT Sullivan, as the jaded American who comes to Paris wishing to be insulted, is the happy recipient of the evening's best jokes, delivering commentary on French post cards and censored copies of Ulysses with cracker-jack precision. Her character works in the fur trade, for no other reason than to include the hilarious "Where Would You Get Your Coat?," a list song in praise of bestial mating habits. ("If the dear little beaver / Were a birth control believer / Where would you get your coat?")
Leading man Watts is a dashing chap with an easygoing charm. His attractive and expressive baritone warmly compliments one of Porter's most artful ballads, "You Don't Know Paree," whose lyric can apply to nearly any city where tourists flock to the popular sights without experiencing the real soul of the town. He also exercises a fine comic flair in the show's most complex musical scene, the fascinating "Do You Want To See Paris?" A reworking of Porter's "Omnibus" from La Revue Des Ambassadeurs, the song has the broke playboy driving a tour bus, flippantly describing the city's major attractions. ("That building there, upon the right, is the famous Hotel Claridge. / It's where the ladies go at night when they get fed up with marriage.") The Americans respond with musical quotes from recent Broadway hits while one exclaims "I'll buy it!" after seeing each historic landmark.
Christine Pedi has few lines and it's never quite clear why her character is there, but her knack for romantic exasperation was made for numbers like "Find Me A Primitive Man" and "I'm Unlucky At Gambling." Adorable Mary Ellen Ashley lends a nasal regality, and even some interpretive ballet, to "The Queen of Terre Haute" and Broadway veteran Sondra Lee is a riot, emphasizing every syllable she's assigned as Pedi's overbearing mom.
Ingenue Michelle K. Nicklas has little to do acting-wise but be confused by the antics of her suitor, but she lets loose with some delightful soprano trilling in a smashing rendition of "I'm In Love." Sean McKnight and Katie Adams are quite snappy as the secondary dancing couple, even with the concert's limited choreography. And there's very funny character work done by Donna Coney Island, Maurice Edwards, Dale Radunz, Roger DeWitt and Catherine LaValle in smaller roles.
Music director Mark Mitchell, the production's only instrumentalist, sounds just swell at piano, and the cast shuns microphones for that wonderful natural sound. Two and a half hours with Fifty Million Frenchmen is a relaxing bit of sophisticated, witty escapism, proving fluff can be deliciously satisfying.
Top photo (courtesy of The Cole Porter Trust): From the 1929 Broadway production, guide William Gaxton introduces tourist Helen Broderick to erotic French art.
Bottom photo by George Kleiman: KT Sullivan and Edward Watts play the same scene for Lost Musicals in 2006.