Our penultimate Musical Theatre Sunday School for the month concludes our little readathon of Sandy Wilson’s libretto of The Boy Friend, which we started at the beginning of March. Today’s reading focuses on Act III – pages 93 – 126 in the copy I own, which is the 1955 Andre Deutsch edition.
Sandy Wilson’s charming illustrations dot the action of the play once again in this act. I adore the one that is on the title page for Act III, which features the cast in costume at the ball, one of them looking decidedly like Charlie Chaplin. I wonder if the other figures in the illustration are also overt references to figures from the 1920s that are perhaps less instantly recognizable to someone like me, who grew up in the last two decades of the twentieth century. (If you are keen to play detective, the illustration is below left and you can leave your ideas of who the other figures might be in the comments box. Of course, they may just be fun generic figures in the style of the times.)
The third act is, by necessity, a little more plotty than the first two. By necessity, because all of the narrative threads need to be resolved by the final curtain. That means more book and fewer musical numbers. In fact, there are nine pages of dialogue before we get to the first number. Even with all of the time spent on reuniting Polly with Tony, Percival finally capitulating to Mme Dubonnet’s desires to rekindle their lost romance and all of the other girls receiving proposals and stalling until the final lines of the show to say yes, there’s still one narrative strand that is neither developed nor concluded satisfactorily. While the plot of The Boy Friend may be inconsequential, it never falls into the illogical pitfalls of genuine 1920s musicals until this point.
The moment of which I am speaking involves the delightful duet, “It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love”. The subplot of which this number is the climax starts with the introduction of Lord Brockhurst in Act II. You’ll remember that he had a thing for all the young ladies of France, much to the distaste of his wife. In the third act, Wilson develops this by engineering a situation where he ends up with Dulcie, a situation which can’t really be developed any further because Lord has to be reunited with Lady as does Dulcie with her beau, Pierre. The problem is that Wilson doesn’t have the stage time in Act III to set up the scene that introduces the song well enough. In fact, Dulcie’s temporary disenchantment with Pierre is introduced in a short piece of onstage pantomime:
ENTER BOYS and GIRLS, followed by LORD B. Laughter and gaiety in the course of which DULCIE slaps PIERRE’S face. EXEUNT OMNES, leaving DULCIE disgruntled. LORD B. sees DULCIE and approaches her.
There’s a scene missing there, as well as one in which Dulcie’s apparent conflict with Pierre is resolved. Lord Brockhurst is neatly pulled out of the situation by an irate Lady Brockhurst, but the next time we see Dulcie, she’s accepting Pierre’s proposal. This time, there isn’t even a stage direction to get us from A to B. It’s the single flaw of an otherwise completely delightful book.
Other than the 1920s slang infused “It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love”, the only other new songs in this act are “The Riviera” and “Poor Little Pierrette”. There’s also a dance showpiece, “The Carnival Tango”. The first is the kind of piece that was common in 1920s musicals, one that pays tribute to a new dance craze, like “The Varsity Drag” from Good News (1927). It’s my least favourite number in the show, but it does what it needs to do. “Poor Little Pierrette” is a diegetic number sung by Mme Dubonnet to Polly. Although the introduction of the number flows neatly out of the dialogue and into song, I’m not crazy about the piece being diegetic. It makes the setup of the number seem more contrived that it would, were it just a story Mme Dobonnet was telling that then slipped into song almost without the audience noticing. “The Carnival Tango” makes use of another musical comedy tradition, the exotic or ethnic number. Performed by a pair of speciality dancers, Pépé and Lolita, the number doesn’t achieve much plot-wise, serving only as a part of Wilson’s tribute to the traditions of his beloved 1920s shows.
Overall, Act III isn’t as tight a piece of work as the first two acts. There’s a little too much focus on gaining enough momentum to get to the end of the show and too little placed on the our journey there. Fortunately, the style of the piece probably pretty much neutralises those problems for the audience, who have gone with the flow of things for almost 60 years.
That’s all for today, folks. I’ll have to think of something smart for next week’s Sunday School – perhaps I’ll do something about various recordings of The Boyfriend. In the meantime, why don’t you share your thoughts about Act III of the show using the comment box below. (Of course, even if you come upon this column long after today, I hope you will share your opinions. I’m always up for some good discussion.) See you next week!