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The recently released Collector’s Edition Original Cast CD of Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying lists a number of bonus tracks on its cover, including one song with the unfamiliar title “Organization Man.”
It turns out to be an early draft of “The Company Way,” which evidently underwent some fairly major tweaking on its way to becoming a Broadway showstopper for Charles Nelson Reilly, and in its complete but unfinished state, the song is instructive about the perfectionism Loesser brought to his work. The number is perfectly engaging in this early iteration, as the composer sings it in his thin, reedy voice. It’s easy to imagine listeners at a backers’ audition thinking it a finished product. But Loesser clearly wasn’t happy with it, and by the time the show opened on Broadway, only the introduction and the last few bars were left intact. The melody was completely reworked, the lyrics made considerably less caustic, more comic.
I mention this by way of noting that Loesser was a smart craftsman who was unwilling to settle for good if terrific was possible, who was adept at reworking material once it was up and on its feet on a stage.
Illness prevented him from doing any of that for Señor Discretion Himself, the musical fable he set in a Broadwayized, mariachi-crazed Mexico, on which he was working in the last years of his life. So to get
the show up and running some 35 years later, a team of Arena Stage imagineers headed by director Charles Randolph-Wright has elected to do it for him, rewriting an overlong and incomplete libretto and occasionally interpolating trunk songs written in and for other contexts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their labors have resulted in a lesser Loesser patchwork. If the composer had had a chance to work out the kinks himself, the evening might well be stronger.
By the time Loesser died, in 1969, he had reportedly penned some two dozen songs for Señor Discretion, plus an enormous, nearly 300-page libretto centering on a man who is accidentally transformed from a small-town drunk into a small-town mystic. At Arena, in a version trimmed and rewritten by the West Coast comedy team Culture Clash, the man is Pancito (Shawn Elliott), a baker whose wife has died, leaving him with two daughters to care for: responsible, spinsterish Carolina (Margo Reymundo) and blithely innocent, 15-year-old Lupita (Elena Shaddow). The family is surrounded by plenty of hangers-on, including Lupita’s idealistic teacher (Ivan Hernandez), who dreams of going to college; a witch (Doreen Montalvo), who acts as a sort of narrator; a shady stranger inaccurately named Hilario (John Bolton), who makes no secret of his lust for underage Lupita; and a trio of comically unprincipled priests, who are so bored by their parishioners’ wan confessions that they greet Hilario’s lust as a blessing. There are also a touring circus aerialist and sword swallower, on hand mostly to lend local color.
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If this sounds like a jumble of characters, you should see the plot they’re mixed up in, which goes out of its way to set up (and then ignore) such complications as a bakery rivalry, the disappearance of a ghostwritten letter, and the supposedly imminent arrival of a miracle-sanctifying cardinal. Just for spice, the authors also throw in a bit of untranslated swearing (hijo de la chingada, heard several times, is roughly as bad as “motherfucker”), some comic pyromania by a serial arsonist, and a lot of leering as everyone waits for the 15-year-old to turn 18. (Señor Parental Discretion, anyone?)
Considered simply as a clothesline on which to hang songs, the plot, though tangled, could probably be made serviceable by a librettist who understood musical comedy structure better than the Culture Clash folks do. The problem at present is that the story never becomes either credible or involving. And more important, it doesn’t give Loesser’s songs a stable situational or emotional springboard from which to soar. Some of the melodies are pretty—there’s a nifty Latin lilt to Reymundo’s rendition of “Papa Come Home,” and “I Love Him, I Think” gives Shaddow a chance to show off a bell-like soprano—but even the best songs aren’t getting much lift from Arena’s staging, and occasionally they’re being actively sabotaged.
Take the score’s sweetest ballad—a meltingly tender heart-tugger in the second act called “I Cannot Let You Go” in which the finally-of-age Lupita and her former teacher say goodbye at the town’s train station. The opening moments of the song have conversational asides mixed in among choruses of yearning, and I’m pretty sure the characters are meant to be not hearing each other during the choruses—to be singing their unspoken desires past each other. A later moment depends on their not being sure their love is reciprocated. If I’m right, the distinction between hearing and not hearing is lost—Randolph-Wright has the performers turn this way and that as if his only concern is that they face all four banks of seats at the Fichandler. And if I’m not right, well, the moment’s just confusing.
Arena’s designers manage to keep things colorful—Thomas Lynch’s bright, faux-tile floor is riddled with pop-up cemetery headstones and trapdoors and encircled by a dollhouse-size town with light-up windows. Costumer Emilio Sosa’s gowns shimmer in a riot of brilliant shades, and lighting designer Michael Gilliam not only bathes the stage in blues, greens, golds, and scarlets, but also strings strands of electric bulbs in those hues throughout the auditorium. In short, Senor Discretion has been dressed up and Latinized to a fare-thee-well, but its creators have been unable to imbue it with what one of Loesser’s lyrics calls “the wisdom of the heart.” As things stand, it’s a work in progress that still needs considerable work.
Having just caught a preview screening of Hollywood’s earnest but pop-star-infested biopic Delovely, in which the likes of Elvis Costello and Alanis Morrisette variously, um, reinterpret Cole Porter ditties (Sheryl Crow renders “Begin the Beguine” all but unrecognizable), I headed out to the Olney Theatre Center’s Noel Coward revue, Oh, Coward!, in a mood to experience at least a few of the era’s songs roughly as they were intended.
I wasn’t disappointed. On a deco-decorated stage, upright baritone Thomas Adrian Simpson, knowing diva Valerie Leonard, and effetely comic tenor John Leslie Wolfe had at several dozen Cowardly standards, from the wistful “Mad About the Boy” to the mocking “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” and a few dozen additional passages from his delectably overstated comedies. Coward “was born into an era that took light music seriously,” says someone or other, as the trio launches into a set of briskly comic music-hall numbers that somehow modulates to a softly sighing “If Love Were All.”
If, as the composer said himself, his gift was “just a talent to amuse,” it was nonetheless a prodigious talent, and at Olney, it’s treated with the right mix of irreverence and deference. Watching Leonard playing a panicked actress about to meet the queen, or Wolfe nursing a martini as he moans through a hangover that he has been to a maaahvelous party, it’s hard not to be caught up in the gowned and tuxedoed world Coward championed. The opening-night crowd was slow to warm to the delicacy of his wit, but after intermission, they roared often enough to suggest that they’d been to a maaahvelous party themselves. CP