The late, great Jerry Herman gave Broadway some of its most memorable musical scores, notably HELLO, DOLLY!. MAME, and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. He wrote several other shows that were not smash hits, even though they had interesting–and in some cases, inspired–music and lyrics. These were called “problem shows” by most critics, and the problem was usually the book, not the score. MACK AND MABEL and THE GRAND TOUR are two examples of the “problem,” with sparkling songs shining through the general murkiness and ennui of the stories: the tragic affair of a self-absorbed genius movie director with a fragile actress hooked on heroin, and the unlikely friendship of opposites, a WWI German colonel and a Jewish refugee in Europe. But none of Herman’s other “problem shows” was quite as–well, problematic as DEAR WORLD.
The 1969 musical was based on Jean Giraudoux’s famous play, THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT. In brief, Countess Aurelia, an addled-but-wise and enormously charming old cat lady in Paris (and not really a countess) gathers her eclectic group of friends–a lonely café waitress, a mute street mime, a philosophical sewer worker, and two other crazy old “countesses,” among others–to save the world from the greedy zillionaires who want to turn it into their own personal oil field. Her plan is to lure the villains to the sewers under Paris and lock them in there forever. This slender, funny wish-fulfillment fantasy was a big hit back in the day, with Dame Edith Evans, no less, scoring a triumph in the title role.
The musical version was not so well received. It got mixed reviews and only ran a few months, despite the Tony-winning central performance of the inexhaustible Angela Lansbury as Countess Aurelia. Everybody agreed that the songs were lovely and the production was handsome and well-directed, even as nobody liked the book. But something interesting has happened to this particular story over the years–it has suddenly become shockingly, frighteningly relevant. The crazy cat lady saving mankind from corporate raiders and bean counters now looks like just the hero we all need, even if we don’t know it yet. Yes, Climate Change (a.k.a. Global Warming) has added a new freshness and urgency to Jean Giraudoux’s–and Jerry Herman’s–vision.
The New York City Center Encores revival of DEAR WORLD benefits from the sea change in the plot. What was silly and far-fetched in the middle of the last century is now headline news. And the fantasy of marching all the Murdochs and Musks and Trumps and Putins down into the bowels of the “sewer under the sewer” and locking the door is worthy of a standing ovation–which is exactly how it was greeted at the performance I attended. Those real-life monsters aren’t specifically listed in the script, of course, but the audience was practically shouting their names. The book of the musical has been pruned and clarified, and the score has been rearranged from the Broadway version to fit more with Herman’s original plan as indicated in his notes. Two numbers that had been cut before the B’way opening have been restored, and others have been moved to new slots. The result is a fast, funny, perfectly clear comedy with several gorgeous songs and delightful performances from two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy (as Countess Aurelia) and the rest of the splendid cast. But the real star of the show is the 28-piece orchestra, something we rarely hear on Broadway–or anywhere else–these days.
Will this Encores production spark an actual revival of the show? Who knows, but I tend to doubt it. Even with its sudden relevance, DEAR WORLD is a bit too “artsy” to fit all tastes. I’m not sure it would fare any better now than it did in 1969. I’ve always been a fan of the original cast album, and I’ve heard a lot of musicians say they think it’s Jerry Herman’s finest score. At least three songs are on his all-time best list: “Each Tomorrow Morning,” “I’ve Never Said I Love You,” and especially “I Don’t Want To Know,” Aurelia’s adamant refusal to see ugliness in her dear world. And there’s a hilarious, show-stopping tea party with the three “countesses” that must be seen to be believed. It may not be perfect, but DEAR WORLD is definitely better than it was before. I’m glad I saw it.