Dave and I went to see a small production of Hammerstein and Kern’sVery Warm for May at 42nd Street Moon last night. I’d always read that this was one of both men’s favorites among their musicals and that they were both very disappointed in its failure on Broadway, so I was all prepared for something no doubt flawed in its construction or uneven in its writing but with plenty of charming and special qualities all the same. At the end of the first act, though, Dave and I looked at each other with dismay — this dog of a show was the one they remembered fondly? The story and characters seemed both trite and clumsily written, the songs made very little impression, and the moments of real charm and wit were few. However, the second act started out a bit better, and continued getting better and stronger as it went along, and by the end of the show I could see how you could feel some affection for it.
Very Warm for May has a rather loose story about a theatrical family and an amateur production of a new musical, and probably works best as a vehicle for a bunch of talented and characterful performers. It doesn’t get that here; only Bill Fahrner as the eccentric writer and director of a very strange musical and Maureen McVerry as the wealthy woman who owns the barn in which the musical is being rehearsed created distinctive characters for themselves and had the presence and comic timing to make their roles sparkle. None of the others was bad or anything, they just didn’t seem very sharp. (Jimmy Robertson was only so-so in the spoken portions as the director’s geeky assistant, but suddenly outshone everybody else whenever dancing started.) That and a tendency to keep the musical numbers at an unvaryingly brisk pace gave the production a bit of a mechanical feeling sometimes.
One thing I found very interesting about the show was seeing how Hammerstein reused ideas from Very Warm for May in later shows. Dave and I had just been talking a couple of weeks ago about how playwrights and composers often recycle things from their failed or forgotten or unfinished works, and here you could see where Hammerstein had done the same; Very Warm for May contains early versions of ideas that later became “Song of the King” from The King and I, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music (though I might argue that A.E. Housman got to that one even earlier), and especially a whole lot of Me and Juliet.
Dave also speculated that Hammerstein may have gotten more than a few ideas for Very Warm for May out of Die Meistersinger, a suggestion that seems ludicrous until you actually stop and work it out.
I’m not 100% sure but I think one of the dances contained a rather snarky “quotation” from another well-known dance number from another show. I really dislike that sort of thing when it pulls me out of whatever involvement I was feeling with the characters and the story at that point. I laughed when I recognized the steps (or thought I recognized them), but if I’m right about the “quote”, it was kind of a cheap shot that didn’t have anything to do with the situation in the story, and I felt a bit slimy afterward for having laughed.