It’s amazing that this tiny little Musical-Comedy trifle is both the longest-running and most widely-performed show in the whole history of the Musical-Theater genre, but it isn’t really all that surprising given its quality. Based on a play by Edmund Rostand, the book is almost bizarrely brilliant, swinging between quirky comedy and rich, beautifully written poetry that really is reminiscent of Rostand. The show works best in small theaters and features extremely minimal sets and props, and it suggests far more than it actually portrays, but it has one of the richest and most evocative atmospheres of any stage production in existence.
Some scenes are bathed in moonlit, intoxicating romance, such as the lovers’ secret meeting in the first act. But in the first scene of Act Two, the show captures the burning glare of unromantic daylight and the reality that comes with it, as the characters are forced to face not only the truth behind their fanciful ‘happy ending’ in Act One, but also the fact that life always goes on, with the brassy, almost stringent, yet still incredibly catchy “This Plum Is Too Ripe”. By the final curtain, the lovers have grown into a far deeper and more real love for each other, one that can actually survive the realities of day-to-day life.
The score is the central key to all this atmosphere and emotional development. Out of context the songs, lovely as they are, might sound generic, because by and large they emphasize the universality of the story and characters. A few of them follow the strangeness of the book, such as the outrageous and often controversial “It Depends On What You Pay” or the disturbing “Round and Round”. But generally, they focus on a beautiful simplicity, as in the show’s haunting introduction with the legendary “Try To Remember”, or the yearning, ultra-romantic ballad for the female lead, “Much More”, or the shimmering love duets “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You”.
The lovers’ fathers, in more comic roles, philosophize on the trials of parenting with the delightful “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish”. Throughout, the melodies are tuneful and timeless, with a unique sound that was only heard elsewhere in the later scores by this team, and even then never with quite the same degree of purity.
This is truly one of the greatest musicals ever written, which I suppose it would have to be to have attained its special status, and while the dreadful film version is best avoided, if you ever have a chance to see the show on stage, take it.