Coda: The Flop I Can't Forget

by ROBERT SANDLA

Coda Flop sm 814
Eye of the Apple: Kaye Ballard as Helen
Photofest

Corral a gang of musical-theater fanatics, and sure enough, the topic comes up — your favorite flop. Among failed musicals, there are hilariously misbegotten head-scratchers such as Chu Chem (Borscht Belt tummlers running amok in twelfth-century China); lurid spectacles of camp such as Whoop-Up (chanteuse Sylvia Syms as an Indian squaw, with ineffable songs such as "Nobody Throw Those Bull"); and mediocre shows with wonderful performers (anything with Karen Morrow). 

Then there are the shows that should have succeeded but vanished all too soon. One show that flopped on Broadway but gets theater fanatics all misty-eyed is The Golden Apple (1954), produced by Alfred De Liagre, Jr., and Roger Stevens and directed by Norman Lloyd, with choreography and musical staging by Hanya Holm. It's the musical everyone agrees deserves a second chance: Jerome Moross's score is packed with melody, John Latouche's lyrics are deft, poetic and funny, and the show offers charismatic roles for gifted singer/actors. Not bad for a show that ran for 125 performances more than half a century ago, with an original-cast album that contains barely half the score. But The Golden Apple is so seldom revived that it's virtually never seen. Why not?

"The Golden Apple is a masterpiece," says Kaye Ballard, who originated the role of Helen of Troy in the show and introduced its sultry, seductive tune "Lazy Afternoon." (The song went on to become a standard in the American songbook.) "It's a masterpiece that everyone's afraid to try, because it's an opera. I've been going to Santa Fe Opera the last few years — I love the opera there. I asked them, 'Why don't you do The Golden Apple?' People do Menotti's operas, and some of them are obscure. TheGolden Apple is spectacular. But I get the feeling that they and other groups are afraid of the show."

Based on a notion of Latouche, The Golden Apple dexterously transposes sections of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to 1900 and 1910 in Washington State, which has its own Mount Olympus, so that the stories of Ulysses and Penelope, Paris and Helen are framed in an America of jingoism, strutting pride and a kind of innocence. Ulysses is a veteran returning home to patient Penelope after the Spanish–American war; Helen is a farmer's daughter of rather too easy virtue; and Paris is a traveling salesman who arrives via hot-air balloon. The competition for the golden apple is a country-fair baking contest among three matrons who just may be goddesses. Guys named Scylla and Charybdis bounce through a vaudevillian's soft-shoe routine. The transpositions work if you know the source — and stand on their own if not. 

Jerome Moross's score unfolds in a continuous musical flow; we hear ragtime tunes, plaintive Stephen Foster-type ballads, martial airs that snap like Sousa, songs right out of Tin Pan Alley, and blues-y vamps. When Ulysses and his men visit the fleshpots of the big city, they get shanghaied by a Siren and her Sirenettes doing a goofy hula. Though the songs are discrete numbers, the whole thing moves like a dream, with a natural, unpretentious tone. The Golden Apple's ambitions are high — an American folk opera that retells an ancient epic — but the feel is vernacular, easy, at once smart and approachable. 

The initial Off-Broadway staging was met with critical hosannas, and The Golden Apple became the first Off-Broadway show to head uptown. It opened at Broadway's Alvin (now Neil Simon) Theater on April 20, 1954, with a cast led by Ballard along with Stephen Douglass (Ulysses); Priscilla Gillette (Penelope); Portia Nelson, Bibi Osterwald and Geraldine Viti (goddesses); and Jerry Stiller as a mayor on roller skates. In another innovative choice, Paris was a non-singing role, performed by dancer Jonathan Lucas. Again, critics vied for superlatives — and reassured readers that the show was not too arty. It picked up a Best New Musical award from the New York Drama Critics' Circle. Audiences stayed away. 

James Morgan, artistic director of Manhattan's York Theatre Company, has some thoughts on why The Golden Apple is seldom staged. The York bears the probably unique distinction of having produced The Golden Apple twice — in 1977, when the group was under the direction of its founder, Janet Hayes Walker, who was in the show's original cast, and in 1990, with a cast that included Muriel Costa-Greenspon. "The reason we have not done it again," says Morgan, "is that our current theater space does not lend itself to such a large production. It cannot be done with fewer than eighteen people. There are several major scene changes, and even a simple production would cost a lot of money. Another problem is that it's not well-known enough, so people who decide to do it are afraid that audiences will stay away, are afraid of it because, oh, it's opera." 

Maybe the term opera isn't so scary nowadays. Sweeney Todd is far from a cheerful show — its main characters are a Victorian mass murderer and his cannibalistic accomplice — yet it's regularly staged by opera and theater companies. Through-sung shows such as Phantom of the Opera and its lugubrious sibling, Les Misérables, keep running and running. For a look at The Golden Apple in full force, the magic that is YouTube offers a fascinating glimpse — about twenty-five minutes of the Chicago-based Light Opera Works' 1995 production, complete with a twenty-eight-piece orchestra, a cast of forty, and big sets and costumes. Even though it captured only fragments of the score, the show's original-cast album galvanized the imaginations of theater fanatics for decades. But those video clips of a fully staged production really make the case for the show as worth rediscovering — half a century after it first appeared. spacer 

ROBERT SANDLA is editor in chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras, and has written extensively on musical theater. 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2