Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Geoffrey Block's "A Fine Romance"

Geoffrey Block is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Music History and Humanities at the University of Puget Sound. He is the series editor for Oxford's Broadway Legacies and has published widely on American musical theater and film. His books include Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from “Show Boat” to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber and The Richard Rodgers Reader.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, A Fine Romance: Adapting Broadway to Hollywood in the Studio System Era, and reported the following:
This is what happens when you turn to page 99 in A Fine Romance: the page begins with the final paragraph of a discussion of Call Me Madam, a popular stage musical from 1950 that was successfully adapted into a film musical three years later. The musical features music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and the huge star Ethel Merman on both stage and film versions. So far in the chapter readers have learned how the stage and film versions are both similar and different, including how and why one major song was replaced in the film and two others were deleted entirely in the transfer from stage and film. The first lines of page 99 come at the end of this story when they explain how the film version alters the context of the song “It’s a Lovely Day,” which appears in both versions, and alters its presentation from a non-diegetic stage song (a song in which the characters don’t know they’re singing) to a diegetic film song (where the characters are fully aware they are singing a great tune by Berlin). Both the characters and film viewers even get to see a close-up of the sheet music with Berlin’s picture on the cover.

What happens next on page 99 is the beginning of a new section about the last song to be introduced in the stage version, an “11 o’clock number”—“a show-stopping song designed to wake up an audience toward the end of an evening about 11:00 P.M. in the days when musicals started at 8:30 P.M and ended about 11:30 P.M.—called “You’re Just in Love” (99). The text explains that this song was a late addition that came about when Merman asked her friend Berlin to write a song that featured the star in a duet with her talented young co-star Russell Nype. “You’re Just in Love,” which quickly became the hit of the show, is a counterpoint song, “a Berlin specialty, a song-type that presents two (usually) contrasting melodies and lyrics successively before combining them simultaneously” (99). Nype sings a romantic love-song type of tune against Merman’s rhythmic and faster-moving counter line. The rest of the page is devoted to an explanation of the song’s context and what the characters are conveying in their individual tunes both before and after they sing them together.

Overall, browsers looking at page 99 would get a good idea of the work as a whole, which devotes considerable attention throughout to how stage musicals and their film adaptations treat songs and dances both similarly and differently. At the top of the page they get a sense of how one song (“It’s a Lovely Day”) was used in the film version and after that how another song, “You’re Just in Love,” was used on the stage. Browsers who turn the page would learn the song’s screen treatment and discover a musical example of the two melodies sounding together in counterpoint. And if browsers continued to break the rules and turn one more page they would discover an entire page devoted to a both a stage photo of Merman singing “You’re Just in Love” with Nype and a screenshot of Merman and Donald O’Connor singing the same song in the film. Thus with only a little cheating page 99 could serve as a reliable shortcut to the book’s content and approach. All that’s missing is one of the periodic connecting links that convey the central conclusions of this chapter and the book as a whole.

The larger context of the musical and dramatic changes from stage to film in Call Me Madam hinted at on page 99 is the transition between two sharply differing approaches to the adaptation process. Before 1950, film studios were not particularly concerned with producing faithful adaptations and employed studio composers to replace stage songs with new film songs that catered to their stable of popular film stars. The first film musical discussed in this chapter, On the Town (1949), illustrates this approach when it removed most of Leonard Bernstein’s now-acclaimed stage score. The new decade brought with it a new desire for more faithful film adaptations that preserved most of the original stage score and often one or more cast members from the original stage version. The film adaptation of Call Me Madam illustrates this now marketable approach with in which the film studios preserved nearly the entire Broadway score and Ethel Merman repeated her starring stage role. By converting the non-dancing Russell Nype with Donald O’Connor, who both sang and could make a suitable partner for great dancer Vera-Ellen, the film version also added an exciting new dimension destined to please a new film audience.
Learn more about A Fine Romance at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue