On the Twentieth Century
"Mrs. Primrose is a nut? But, but, but, but, but, but, but, but!"
- Music by Cy Coleman
- Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
- Directed by Harold Prince
- Opened 2/19/78 at the St. James Theatre in New York. Closed 3/18/79 (460 performances).
*George Lee Andrews
- * = Does not appear on CD
This musical was based on the 1932 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play Twentieth Century and the 1934 movie of the same name with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as Oscar and Lily.
Oscar Jaffee, an egotistical and perpetually broke theatrical producer, plots to talk his estranged paramour, Lily Garland, into appearing in one of his plays. He contrives to book a drawing room on the Twentieth Century (a luxurious train) at the same time she does. However, she's a successful and equally egotistical movie actress and wants nothing more to do with her "Svengali in an alley" despite the pleas of Oscar's hapless assistants, Owen and Oliver. Complicating matters are Lily's current lover, Bruce Granit, who doesn't want to see his meal ticket evaporate, and Letitia Primrose, a rich old religious fanatic who gives Oscar $200,000 to produce the play Mary Magdalene--and chaos results when Mrs. Primrose proves to be a fraud.
- Stranded Again / Saddle Up the Horse / On the Twentieth Century
- I Rise Again
- I Have Written a Play (previously unreleased)
- Our Private World
- I've Got It All
- On the Twentieth Century (previously unreleased, reprise)
- Entr' Acte: Life Is Like a Train
- Five Zeros
- She's a Nut
- The Legacy
- Lily, Oscar
- On the Twentieth Century (previously unreleased, reprise)
Entries in red were winners.
- Best Musical
- Best Score
- Best Book
- Best Director
- Best Set Design
- Best Actor (John Cullum)
- Best Actress (Madeline Kahn)
- Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Kline)
- Best Supporting Actress (Imogene Coca)
This is my second-favorite musical of all time, behind Sweeney Todd. It boggles my mind that not only has this delicious show never been revived in any major way, but that practically no one remembers it despite its raft of Tonys and unusually distinguished pedigree. Coleman's impressive score ranges from operatic ("On the Twentieth Century" ) to jazzy ("Babette") to deliberately overblown love song ("Lily, Oscar") to contrapuntal ("Life Is Like a Train," "Sextet") to indescribable ("She's a Nut") and includes one of the greatest overtures ever written for the stage--one of the few that actually sounds like a song and not like a bunch of incompatible tunes welded together. I consider it audio cocaine; just listening to it perks me up. There isn't one dull song in the score--not one! Even Sweeney Todd can't boast that. And the music is incredibly expressive of what the show actually looked like. It's almost the only recording I own where I can close my eyes and imagine the sets and the choreography.
The lyrics are vintage Comden and Green (they're described as "giddy and frivolous" in Ken Mandelbaum's liner notes) and include such gems as "Repent, repent, repent/In the fiery pits of Hades/Is too late for your laments/Repent, repent, repent/There's a fiery pit for ladies/And a fiery pit for gents" ("Repent") and "I sneer at them/I jeer at them/I thumb my nose and bite my thumb/And bare my royal rear at them" ("I Rise Again").
The performances are all standouts--as might be expected from a bunch of Tony nominees/winners.
- Cullum's Oscar Jaffee is one of the most over-the-top characters ever put to plastic. IMHO, this is one of the greatest Broadway performances ever preserved on CD. It's one of those performances where I said "Jeez! Who is that?" and went running out to get everything else he appeared in (notably Shenandoah, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Camelot--he replaced Richard Burton as King Arthur, but on the CD he was merely Sir Dinadan). No one can roll R's better than him; no one can sing "snarly" better than him. And he has a wonderfully commanding voice. Hard to imagine that Danny Kaye was initially considered for this role. Thank God they turned him down! (And no, Cullum doesn't overact. For an example of real overacting on a Broadway CD, check out Ann Reinking's embarrassing turn as Roxie Hart in the recent version of Chicago.)
- Kahn was replaced by Judy Kaye early in the run because of personality conflicts between her and Harold Prince, but she's preserved on the CD in all her quavery glory. Admittedly, she goes flat on several notes, and one wishes they'd rerecorded her--or was that her best? Anyway, she acts the part of Lily very nicely--listen to her go from shy accompanist Mildred Plotka to self-confident Lily Garland over the course of a single song ("Veronique"), or her hilarious verbal torment in "Sextet" and "Babbette." And she holds her own against Cullum in "I've Got It All," which is pretty impressive.
- Coca is no great vocalist, but she's on key, and like Kahn, she acts her role to perfection. She's on three songs, "Repent," "Five Zeros," and "Sextet," with her big number being "Repent."
- I'm not aware whether Kline appears in any other musical. Apparently he was hysterical in the part of Bruce Granit (he won a Tony for it, after all, and Ken Mandelbaum said in the liner notes that this was his first big step toward stardom), but like Coca, he's only represented on the CD by two songs, "Mine" and "Sextet," with a brief appearance in "She's a Nut." He has a pleasant, slightly timid voice, but he makes the most of it.
- Coe and Dittman, stage and screen stalwarts, have Frick-and-Frack roles here, appearing more often than everyone but Cullum and Kahn. Their anguish at their boss's antics and, later, when Mrs. Primrose turns out to be a fraud, is wonderful to hear.
This is a peculiarly packaged musical. The case is double-CD sized, but there's only a single disc. The booklet is thick and seems to promise a libretto, but what it actually contains are four versions (English, German, French, and Italian) of the liner notes, which provide useful history about the show and a plot synopsis but no lyrics. However, there are more photos than usual: several of the musical, several of the recording session, and one very nice two-page spread of Kline, Kahn, Coleman, Green, Comden, Cullum, Coca, and Paul Gemignani.
Joyous, lively, original, hilarious, and loaded with great performances, On the Twentieth Century is one of the 1970s' lost musical gems. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's an essential purchase, especially for Coleman, Comden/Green, and Cullum fans. (Dad says: "Delightful!")
All non-lyric material copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved
I invite other examples, or comments about the examples above. All submitted material will be properly credited and copyrighted to the submitters. Please see the submissions page for more information.
Or, if you're not in a mood to publish, just let me know your opinion of this page.
Return to Bursting with Song Return to Rational Magic current issue Go back to the Rational Magic home page