Guys and West Side Mattress

ShyIf nothing else (and there was plenty else), my first year at Penn State in 67-68 included a cornucopia of rich theatrical performances on campus.

I’ve previously mentioned the outstanding Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, but the Theatre Arts student performances also included Marat/Sade (I’m too tired to type out the full name of the play), Shaw’s Antony and Cleopatra (on my (mental) list to write about some day), and the opera The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten (it was awful (the opera, not the performance) and it set me against Britten for years, even though Sondheim counted him among his musical influencers).

And then there was the Penn State Thespians. This was a student organization separate from the Theatre Arts productions, and they produced three musicals per year in Schwab Auditorium

And that first year they did Guys and Dolls (superb!), West Side Story (even better, if possible), and Once Upon a Mattress, which was also superb.

While I remember thoroughly enjoying that last one, the only thing I clearly recall about it is the human-sized caged bird, who tries to serenade the princess to not fall asleep near the end of the show. The bird is memorable for two things: 1) he whistled his serenade and seemingly had no breaths between phrases, and 2) the part was played by a fellow from my roommate’s home town.

In trying to figure out how he could have managed that non-stop-for-breaths whistling tour de force, some suggested that he whistled while both inhaling and exhaling, but I now believe that he may have just been miming the whistling which was done by two or more folks behind the scenes.

I did run into that fellow briefly a couple years later, and while I mentioned that I had seen him in the show, I wish I had thought to ask how that feat was accomplished. Oh, well.

Anyway, Once Upon a Mattress is a musical version of the Hans Christian Andersen “Princess and the Pea” fairy tale with the music composed by Mary Rodgers, the mother of Adam Guettel and close friend of Stephen Sondheim. Oh, and she was also the daughter of Richard Rodgers, a fact that I think she spent her whole life trying to live down, or even forget.

Mattress is her only bona fide hit, but it was quite a lucrative one, as it is easy for community theater and students to mount. And mount it they do. A footnote in her autobiography mentions that at her death she was still earning about $100,000 per year in royalties from this 1959 work.

I’m reading that posthumously published autobiography Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, cowritten with Jesse Green, and it’s quite a hoot.

Mary (may I call her Mary? I suspect that she wouldn’t mind) writes in very short chapters, and doesn’t worry about keeping a strict chronology, so it’s easy to read just a chapter or two at a time when I have a few minutes.

Some of the items that Mary includes:

  • Lenny (that’s Leonard Bernstein) was so envious of Sondheim’s talent that he had this to say about Sweeney Todd: “Disgusting, enough to make you want to throw up in your galoshes! I guess Steve finally got to write a musical that suits his temperament perfectly.” She doesn’t reveal whether he ever said that to Sondheim himself. Or whether she relayed it to him. Probably not, as Lenny and Sondheim remained friendly for the rest of his life.
  • “Everyone should marry a gay man at least once.” That’s the moral she draws from having married a gay man and falling for quite a few others.
  • Mattress was originally developed as a starring vehicle for Nancy Walker, but when George Abbott (a towering figure in the theatre world) agreed to direct it, he insisted on casting an unknown so he could turn her into a star. Enter Carol Burnett. (BTW, the book is filled with footnotes (or popups in the ebook edition) about every person mentioned, devoting at least a sentence or two to bring the readers up to speed in case they don’t recognize Nancy Walker or George Abbott. For example, the entry for Carol Burnett says— On second thought, I’ll let you discover that one for yourselves.

BTW, Mattress has been done three times on TV. The first time was in the early 60s with Carol Burnett repeating her starring role and several other members of the original cast. It can be found in a so-so version on YouTube: Once aUpon a Mattress – 1964.

Then in the early 70s Burnett repeated her role once again, this time in color. That performance is currently a bonus feature on the DVD Carol + 2 Original Queens of Comedy.

And then in 2004 Disney did it, this time with Burnett playing the evil queen and Tracey Ullman taking on the role of the princess (good casting). There are a couple other nice surprises in the cast.

All three versions are shortened, with some songs cut and/or some subplots eliminated. For example, the Disney version eliminates Mary’s favorite number. Oh, well.

If you enjoy student productions, there are lots of those as well. Like this one. Once Upon a Mattress – Legend High School – Spring 2014

I watched the Disney version last evening and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s fun and silly and tuneful, which is fine for a musical comedy. I think Mary’s songs (the lyrics are by Marshall Barer, another guy that Mary didn’t realize was gay; I think she bedded him also, but I’ve lost track) are just as good as some of the other musicals from the 50s, such as Damn Yankees. Interestingly, I found that I did remember a couple of the songs, in particular the climax of the “duet” between the mute king and his son. It’s possible that I had heard the cast recording sometime in the intervening years, but as far as I know, the Penn State Thespian performance was the only time I ever saw it until last night.


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