For the loyal readers of KnightsofBroadway, I offer a preview of a passage from my upcoming book, which goes by the working title of An Honest History of Musical Theater. This particular passage concerns the musical Brigadoon, which just finished playing at City Center’s Encores! program.
The other great fantasy show of this era was Brigadoon, the first top-shelf masterpiece by the team of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe. This show is essentially a Mass with a plot, like Bach’s sacred Oratorios such as The Passion of St. Matthew. It tells the story of a miracle, and in its sacred atmosphere and solemn, ritualistic dance sequences, it really does resemble a kind of religious service. Even its love songs have a hymn-like feel to them, and the song about the show’s villain, Harry Beaton, sounds like nothing so much as a Dies Irae setting from a Classical requiem. Indeed, one of the first lines of the show is “There’s something about this forest that gives me the feeling of being in a cathedral”. The hero’s best friend, a hard-drinking, wise-cracking pessimist, serves as the voice of the hero’s doubts and ingrained cynicism, in a device that is as old as the medieval morality play but somehow timeless in its effectiveness.
The often ravishing score was instrumental in creating this atmosphere, with lilting Gaelic-flavored ballads like “The Heather on the Hill”, “Come To Me, Bend To Me”, and “There But For You Go I” and a breathtaking chorale of a title-song. Two bawdy showstoppers for the female comic part help to provide a sense of contrast and keep things from getting too weighty. The score even managed to produce a massive hit tune, the delicately jazzy “Almost Like Being in Love”, which became one of Frank Sinatra’s all-time signature songs.
It’s been pointed out that Brigadoon bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the novel and film Lost Horizon, both in its basic premise and in the overall structure of its plot. But Brigadoon has far more emotional weight and impact than the campy, dated and somewhat pretentious Lost Horizon. And certainly, the two attempts to musicalize the Lost Horizon property, Harry Warren’s short-lived Fifties stage musical Shangri-La and Burt Bacharach’s disastrous musical film version from the Seventies, both turned out infinitely inferior to Brigadoon, so if you really must think of it as a rip-off of Lost Horizon (which is as short-sighted as calling The Yeomen of the Guard a rip-off of Maritana), think of it as the great musical version that franchise never got.
Unfortunately, Brigadoon’s reputation has long been marred by the mediocre movie version. For one thing, the score is vastly cut to make room for extraneous choreography, but even with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse doing the dancing, the results were never interesting enough to justify the loss of “Come to Me, Bend to Me”, “There But For You Go I”, “From This Day On”, or “My Mother’s Wedding Day”. For another thing, Gene Kelly is a wonderful dancer and a winning actor, but his singing voice, while suitable for his usual Musical-Comedy roles, isn’t up to this kind of Operetta-caliber music, and he ruins much of the remaining score. Cyd Charisse had her singing dubbed here by a reasonably pretty-voiced studio ringer, but she comes across as uncomfortably modern for a role that is supposed to be a sheltered Scottish country lass. The movie was also very obviously filmed on a studio back lot, which sabotages the rich atmosphere of the Scottish hills the stage show captured: if this story had to be filmed at all, it should have been shot on location.
The only thing the movie seems to have done right is casting Van Johnson, who does a potent job as the resident voice of cynicism. But making the cynic who is supposed to be proven wrong by the story more compelling than any other element is arguably even worse for the film’s intended message. In addition, the villainous Harry Beaton, who is supposed to be the symbolic embodiment of bitterness, self-pity and spite, (in other words, the Devil in the show’s religious construction), comes off in the movie more like a voice of reason with a perfect legitimate and understandable grievance against The Miracle. Beaton is supposed to be a cautionary example of people who dwell so deeply on the things they can’t have that they come to hate themselves and everyone else, and while we are supposed to feel a certain measure of pity for him, he’s certainly not intended to offer any valid insights.
Worst of all, with all the religious atmosphere stripped away, audiences are naturally going to interpret the film’s plot as a fantasy that is meant to be taken more or less literally, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And the show cannot survive that treatment, as once the story is treated as a literal event a myriad of logical flaws immediately crop up that make it completely impossible, even as fantasy.