Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Take Me To The World ... of Mannequins

Dear Muse,

Sondheim musicals and Rapunzel seem to go hand-in-hand in my mind lately. No sooner had I finished talking about Into the Woods' Rapunzel story than I found myself envisioning the perfect song for Rapunzel to sing to Flynn Rider when she holds him prisoner in Tangled. That song? "Take Me To the World" from Evening Primrose.

It just occurred to me that I've referenced Tangled in several of my posts. As Flynn Rider would say, "This doesn't usually happen."
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

For all intensive purposes, however, this post isn't going to be about Rapunzel. I just used her as an excuse to talk about Evening Primrose, one of my favorite Sondheim musicals ever.

                                                                          Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Evening Primrose 
is another show that I learned about courtesy of my friend DivaStar. As we were rambling around my neighborhood one summery evening, discussing musicals in general, her mention of Evening Primrose sparked my interest. Apparently she (or someone she knew) had studied "Take Me To The World" to perform at some voice class, but as I listened to her elaborate on the rest of the show I became increasingly enchanted by this Sondheim musical I had never heard of before.

I don't think I'm alone in my ignorance, though. In one sense, I can understand its being a lesser-known Sondheim work. Written for television, Evening Primrose aired in 1966 and has since scarcely been revived. And with only 4 songs to its credit, it can hardly be called a legitimate musical. Various artists have recorded the individual songs, of course - but given how few revivals and soundtrack recordings there have been, I have serious doubts as to whether many people today even remember the story.

But they should - it's quite weird and disturbing. After all, how many other musicals do you know of about secret societies in department stores at night where people get turned into mannequins?

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Piqued your interest? Then let's dive into the story.

Anthony Perkins as Charles; Charmian Carr as Ella.
The story begins with a poet named Charles Snell taking refuge from the world in a department store after closing hours. There, he meets a secret group that has lived in the store for years, but whose members forbid anyone to return to the outside world and risk revealing their existence. (I would love to know why - after all, it's not like they're running a drug ring or anything. They're just really controlling for some unexplained reason.) If anyone does try to leave, the "Dark Men" take them away and turn them into mannequins in the clothing department.

Mrs. Monday, the leader of the group, accepts Charles when she learns that he is a poet. While settling into the group, he meets Ella, Mrs. Monday's maid. She reveals that she has lived in the store since she was 6, and has not seen the outside world for 13 years. This brings us to the musical's most popular song, "I Remember."                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Of all the songs, "I Remember" is the most poignant. Ella sings it to Charles as she tries to capture her fading childhood memories of the outside world, conveying both her nostalgia and longing to see the world again. If you watch the video clip below, you'll see Charmian Carr (Ella in the original 1966 production) do an absolutely wonderful job of portraying the song's emotions. While her voice isn't nearly as good as that of Theresa McCarthy (in the 2001 studio recording), the expressiveness of her voice and her face is captivating to watch, and she speaks with a childish exuberance that is simply charming.

Charles falls in love with Ella over time, realizing that he cares even more about her happiness than he does about living an isolated life and writing poetry. However, Mrs. Monday has forbidden their relationship (again, explanation?), so they take pains to try and hide their budding romance. Eventually, Charles decides to escape with Ella, but not before Mrs. Monday and the others find out and send the "Dark Men" after them. As for the ending - well, that's the disturbing part.

The way I understood the ending (from DivaStar) was that it was left purposely ambiguous, with a Twilight Zone-ish twist. When the store opens the next morning, a couple is standing on the sidewalk staring at two new mannequins in the window display. But, since the camera is aimed at the couple's back and you can't see their faces, it's left to the viewer to decide on a happy ending (Charles and Ella escaped and are the couple outside) or a tragic ending (Charles and Ella got caught and are now mannequins). Although the wikipedia article argues that it's definitely the latter ending, I'd prefer ambiguity so I can believe in the former.

Looking at Evening Primrose in light of everything Sondheim's ever done, this may be his most peculiar work. (Then again, it came out around the same time as that musical about a reincarnated plant esper with low self-esteem, so maybe I should blame the late '60s for churning out supremely bizarre shows.) But I think it's also one of his most creative. And I definitely think more people should know about it and remember it.

So, for your listening pleasure, I have included mp3 files of all 4 Evening Primrose songs below. Although I hope to find the original TV soundtrack someday, for now you'll have to content yourself with the 2001 studio recording (starring a young, not-yet-Dr.-Horrible Neil Patrick Harris as Charles).

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