My “Song of the Day” blog began this week with an enchanted train; in actuality, a wheezy rickety commuter train on the Long Island Rail Road. Today, I’ll turn to the “prince of wheels—the luxury liner of locomotive trains”: the Twentieth Century, Ltd., which zoomed like a comet through the Broadway firmament of my halcyon days.
On the Twentieth Century was hardly the first Broadway musical I had ever seen, but it was the first Boston tryout I ever attended. A musical in its Boston tryout could be the stuff of legend and, as a college freshman in Providence, I was damned if I was going to miss this one. The show was based on a movie I loved, Twentieth Century, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard; even better, the show was directed by Hal Prince, an idol of my youth, who had rocked my adolescent world with his revival of Candide. Even better than better, the musical starred Madeline Kahn, who was the glamorous reigning queen of movie comedy in the mid-1970s; her glorious set of pipes was the icing on the cake. I was so excited, I hardly noticed the snow beginning to fall as I stepped off the Greyhound bus and made my way to the Colonial Theatre for the matinee.
The next three hours were among the happiest I have spent in the theater (yes, three hours—every Boston tryout ran long). It was a giddy, elegant, hilarious, lunatic, bombastic, melodic afternoon in the theater. At intermission, the couple sitting in front of me turned around and said, “Would you mind not enjoying it so much, please? You’re ruining it for the rest of us.” I couldn’t have cared less; I walked on a cloud back to the bus, back to Providence. Of course, I may have been walking back on a snowdrift, too: this was the beginning of a massive blizzard in February of 1978 that closed Rhode Island down for four days and paralyzed Boston. Years later, Kevin Kline, who got his first big break in that production, told me the weather grew so dire that, for a few days after I saw the show, the show’s producers were pressed into service as the backstage crew.
Nearly all of the action in On the Twentieth Century takes place on the streamlined Art Deco marvel of motion as it hurtles from Chicago to New York in sixteen hours. A frayed but megalomaniacal theater producer named Oscar Jaffe uses that precious time to inveigle his former protégée and ex-lover, movie queen Lily Garland, into signing a Broadway contract that will lift him out of dereliction and restore both of them to the throne of celebrity and stardom. Lily, easily seeing through all of Oscar’s manipulative stratagems, will have none of it. In the eye of this screwball hurricane comes the show’s one quiet and affecting moment, when Oscar and Lily affirm their unique, starry, romantic devotion to each other.
When I saw it in Boston, “Our Private World” was performed as a flashback in Oscar’s beautifully appointed apartment, overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Eventually, Prince cut the whole scene and staged it in the present, as Oscar and Lily, in separate train compartments, recall what they once meant to each other. Cy Coleman made the brilliant decision to use the couple’s outsize egos as a springboard for a score approaching the breadth and ambition of operetta, full-blown with brio and daring. Luckily, he was blessed not only with the transcendent Madeline Kahn, but also with the robust singing voice of John Cullum. Together, they make this duet as touching as “You Are Love” from Show Boat and as nostalgic as “Wunderbar” from Kiss Me, Kate. But the counterpoint that Coleman weaves between Lily and Oscar transforms into a web that hints at strangulation; pay attention to Comden and Green’s sly lyrics, which suggest that the exalted isolation of Lily and Oscar’s love affair will ultimately lead to suffocation and dissolution: two large personalities crowded into one tight spotlight.
The show itself was not for all markets. Although it won several major Tony Awards—including Best Score and Best Actor in a musical for Cullum—On the Twentieth Century never really caught on with the larger public. Kahn left the run early, which didn’t help, but I got to see her twice–once in Boston and once in New York—and she was hilarious and luminous. To like the show, you had to be a sophisticated theatergoer; to love the show, you had to be infatuated with the 1930s, screwball comedy, Art Deco design, overblown theatrical personalities, comic operetta, Madeline Kahn and you had to adore one of the most rhapsodic—and underappreciated—duets in the history of the musical theater. But, then, I’ve always enjoyed this show too much.
[I devoted an entire episode of my radio program, Broadway to Main Street to the divine Madeline Kahn—it was one of our most popular podcasts ever. You can listen on iTunes by clicking here.]
Our Private World (1978)
Cy Coleman, music
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, words