It’s not often that you look back at a forgotten musical, even when it comes to many of the most notorious flops, and can see very clearly why it is has been forgotten, why it flopped – or both. All American is precisely such a musical. Although the original cast recording of the show has been in my CD collection for the better part of two decades, I’d only really listened to it once before hauling it out so that All American could be this Friday’s Forgotten Musical – and now that it’s had a couple of spins, it probably won’t come off the shelf for another listen anytime soon.
My memory from listening to All American all those years ago is that it had great music, but that pretty much everything else was dispensable. Returning to it now, the music by Charles Strouse still seems to be the strongest ingredient of the piece. The lyrics, by Lee Adams, also seem to contribute a great deal to the mix, but there was something about them that made me hesitant. By the time I hit “It’s Fun to Think”, I was convinced that the lyrics weren’t well matched to the narrative. Two tracks later, “Nightlife” left me without the shadow of a doubt that this was the case. The song is sung by Susan, a character that recalls Kim in the Strouse and Adams’s earlier collaboration, Bye Bye Birdie. Both characters want more than the limitations her mundane confinement allows; in Susan’s case, it is because she has been gated for trying to sneaking into the men’s dormitories. Fine. But when Susan starts singing about Cole Porter and wanting the beguine to begin to a tune that might have represented hip theatre music a decade earlier, the piece starts to damn itself as a piece of storytelling within the context of the musical as a whole. A pity, because taken on its own terms, it’s a fine song.
This kind of rift intensifies when the score is paired with what’s going on in the plot. Fashioned by Mel Brooks from Robert Lewis Taylor’s novel Professor Fodorski, the narratives seems to grate up against the score, and everything seems to take a turn for the worse in the second act, for which director Joshua Logan crafted the book. Everyone on the creative team seems to lose track completely of what they are trying to say and the way in which they are trying to say it. What is most peculiar about this inconsistency is that Strouse and Adams were so in step with the milieu in which they were writing just a couple of years earlier that they were able not only to dramatise situations and attitudes contemporary to the time in Bye Bye Birdie, but also to satirise them. In All American, they are are so out of touch that the generation gap between the professors and their college students barely exists. It’s ironic then, that the it was in fact the generation gap between the writers and the director, Josh Logan, that seems to be most commonly attributed to the failure of the show. Strouse comments:
Josh was from a different generation, he looked at America, college, the youth culture in ways that were different from ours. Many times, later on, he told me he felt he had put his finger into the show the wrong way. He had seen it in more of the flesh and blood realities of the characters than we had, and, because of that, their physicality became more important than the satirical point of view we had initially envisioned.
To backtrack a little, maybe it is worth mentioning the plot of All American at this point. Professor Stanislaus Fodorski is a Hungarian immigrant, recently arrived in the United States to teach in the science faculty at the Southern Baptist Institute of Technology. Fodorski soon marks his mark, teaching engineering by comparing it to football, which in turn benefits from being approached scientifically. Fodorski finds himself attracted to the Dean of the college, Elizabeth Hawkes-Bullock, while the show’s secondary romance follows two of the students, Susan Thompson and Ed Bricker.
The similarities to Bye Bye Birdie are obvious, with two romances – an older couple and a younger one – built around popular obsessions of the time in both shows. But here, Strouse and Adams found themselves with Brooks and Logan instead of their Bye Bye Birdie collaborators, Michael Stewart and Gower Champion, whose path had diverged from that of their colleagues when they had decided to work with Bob Merrill in Carnival! the previous season. It’s an object lesson if ever there were one about how important it is to find the right collaborators and to do whatever it takes to make sure that everyone is working on the same musical.
What All American is able to offer, if a cohesive musical is nowhere to be found, is a couple of great songs, notably “We Speak the Same Language”, “Once Upon a Time”, the abovementioned “Nightlife” and “I’ve Just Seen Her”. “What a Country!” uses a distractingly similar hook to “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” from Oklahoma!, but the lyrics are still fun. These are all preserved on the cast recording featuring a strained performance by Ray Bolger and the intolerable vocals of Eileen Hurlie om the one hand, and the very agreeable delivery of the Ed and Susan’s songs by Ron Husmann and Anita Gillette on the other. In fact, if nothing else, the cast recording reveals how skewed the balance is between the two plots: Ed and Susan should be more prominent in the score. Consequently, the cast recording is not one that prompts the thought, “What went wrong?” The flaws of All American make themselves felt very clearly on disc. Other thoughts? “Physical Fitness” sounds a bit like something Leonard Bernstein might have chucked out of Wonderful Town and “It’s Fun to Think” seems like something that could slot into a Rodgers and Hart musical from the 1930s. But what can you do?So the big question: is All American fixable? Well, I think it offers as good a case for a ‘revisal’ as any, and at least the three writers are still with us, even if the youngest of them is 86 years old. If all three were robust enough to take on the task, I don’t see why they shouldn’t. Except, of course, the men who saw youth culture for what it was in the 1960s will see things through different eyes, which might leave us back at square one. Maybe the easiest fix would be to shift the 1960s setting to post-World War II and to tweak things from there. Could All American be reinvented a glorious 1940s-styled period piece? Who knows? I guess only a full production would reveal the answer, and I’d be willing to give it a shot.
To close off, here’s a recording of what most people consider to be the hit song of the show – but which of course was a trunk song from ten years earlier that eventually found its home in All American. On the cast recording, you have to suffer through Bolger and Herlie’s vocals and be able to look past them to find any beauty in the song, so here’s Frank Sinatra crooning “Once Upon a Time” in a way that lets the song speak for itself.
While you’re listening, why not share some of your own thoughts about All American in the comment box below. I’d love to hear your opinions!