Monday, May 5, 2008

Meet Me in St. Louis, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Meet Me in St. Louis on Stage: Reflections on Razzmatazz, Heart, and the Elusiveness of Theatre

When I told my college director that my favorite show of hers was Meet Me in St. Louis, her response was, “Well, that’s very kind of you.” I don’t think anyone would disagree that the show was beautifully produced and directed, as well as superbly acted (her John Truitt—the boy next door—later auditioned for ER, and her Lon Smith has since produced one or two movies). Her sensitivity was concerning the nature of the storytelling in the show, which, like the original movie, is remarkably satisfying while not particularly plot-filled. The show was well-attended when she directed it, but for some reason, she and the cast had been unsatisfied with the final effect.

When I was supremely disappointed, however, was when I bought my Original Broadway Cast Recording of the score because it didn’t reflect the libretto of the production I had seen twice. According to Charles Wright in The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings, the movie was originally adapted for a regional production in the 1960s with Tootie herself, Sally Benson, writing the libretto. The Broadway production, however, had a book by Hugh Wheeler, with a hodge podge of songs from the movie (which includes songs by other composers), other Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin versions of the score (that’s via Richard Barrios in The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings) and, according to the liner notes of the CD, ten new ones.

The production I saw in 1996 had a book credited to Sally Benson with the following songs:
“Meet Me in St. Louis”
“Meet Me in St. Louis” reprise
“The Boy Next Door”
“Skip to My Lou”
“You Are for Loving”
“How Do I Look?”
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
“Raving Beauty”
“Finale I—A Raving Beauty”
“The Trolley Song”
“What’s His Name?”
“If I Had an Igloo”
“Diamonds in the Starlight”
“Be Anything But a Girl”
“You are For Loving” reprise
“You and I”
“The Trolley Song” reprise
“Finale II—Meet Me in St. Louis”

The Broadway production, as preserved on the CD, has a very different song list—including songs dedicated to Banjos, Ice, and John Phillips Sousa.

By the time I was directing high schools shows and perused a copy of the libretto, the show Tams-Witmark was licensing for amateur productions was even more faithful to the movie with fewer jaunts into extraneous charm. I was very disappointed.

In a way, I think I’ve been chasing after the elusive experience I had with that first production of Meet Me in St. Louis. I had rented the movie in high school and now own the 2-Disc DVD, but the charm and warmth of that original stage production has never been recreated, largely because I haven’t been able to find the songs recreated anywhere else.

The Broadway album is a curious mix. I actually often find myself skipping through the album to the songs from the movie (and “Raving Beauty” and “You Are For Loving” from that original production I saw). Nothing would ever top hearing Judy Garland sing her songs, but Donna Kane has a lush voice with a warmth all her own. I could literally listen to “The Boy Next Door,” “Skip to My Lou,” “The Trolley Song,” and “You Are For Loving” about a hundred times in a row (and have . . . okay, we’ll just leave it at “many”). Those songs alone make this a must-have CD.

The other songs are a curious mix, many of them seeming disconnected from the characters (though honestly, perhaps I would have said the same about “If I Had an Igloo” had I not seen it in production).

Where some of the other songs fail, however, is in the polish. One thing Broadway does well is razzmatazz, that Broadway glisten and polish. It becomes difficult to translate a film like Meet Me in St. Louis to the stage because the process of enlarging both the story and the performances to fit a huge Broadway theatre means sacrificing the warmth and intimacy of the source material. It’s the Tracy vs. Tracy comparison. A Xerox of Nikki Blonsky’s performance would not translate well on a Broadway stage, and the energy and presence of Marissa Jaret Winokur’s performance would be out of place in a movie. Donna Kane, on record, was an excellent translation, but the show as a whole didn’t seem to have followed her lead.

My college director has since retired, leaving behind a legacy in her students, myself being one of them. She directed many fine shows (and the more I see, the more I realized what a rare talent she was), but my two favorites will always be Meet Me in St. Louis and Quilters, another show not recorded, another beloved experience that can never be revisited.

Curse the elusiveness of theatre!

the Broadway Mouth
May 5, 2008


Anonymous said...

I've been googling all over the web to try and get more information on why the production of Meet Me in St. Louis I'm currently in (2011) is quite different than the one I was in 18 years prior, in 1993. My character then (Lucille Ballard) was a much bigger part with her own song, whereas she's a bit part in the one currently. It baffles me that I can't find much information on what exact version I performed in 1993, and what version I'm currently in. There's a slew of songs that are either in certain versions or not, and are sung by different characters as well (depending on which version of many you are looking at). I thought it would be much easier to determine what the different versions were; i.e., the original, revival, revised, updated from (year), etc. etc. so that I can know what version I was specifically in back in '93 and what I am in now. It's frustrating! I'm so glad I have a videotape of my show from 1993 because it appears as though that version is a rarity!

Broadway Mouth Blog said...

I seem to remember that there were at least three versions of the show. I'd be curious to know if the show you performed in 1993 was the Broadway version or the same one I saw. I would assume that the version you are in now matches the perusal libretto I read in 2000, which was the most faithful to the movie.