The trouble with presenting small-scale concert version restorations of long-forgotten musicals is that it is usually difficult to find the material in the first place; difficult to make sense of the material, especially with no orchestra and little rehearsal, in the second place; and compounded by current-day directors and adaptors who tend to impose “improvements” on what the writers wrote, leaving us with a version of said musical but not what the authors actually put on stage.
These pitfalls have been avoided, to a great extent, with the York Theatre’s The Day Before Spring. This 1945 offering, which opened midway between Carousel and Annie Get Your Gun, was for all intents and purposes the first true Lerner and Loewe musical. (Broadway quickly forgot their ill-advised 1943 What’s Up—about a group of pilots and an Indian Rajah quarantined in a girl’s boarding school dormitory with measles—so we’ll forget it, too.)
The obvious reason to unearth The Day Before Spring is the score, which revealed Frederick Loewe—who had been around for a decade with little to show for it—to be an intrinsically interesting and creative composer. The considerably younger Alan Jay Lerner, too, revealed himself as a lyricist/librettist with ideas, willing to delve into the psychology of his characters as opposed to the generic types found in most non-Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the time.
The Day Before Spring was not quite a hit, though not exactly a failure. It had a 20-week run, plus a film sale which might theoretically have made the investors whole. (M-G-M bought it, but never filmed it.) Without a cast recording or film version, and with an unknown pair of authors, the show quickly faded from memory. By the time Lerner and Loewe established themselves with Brigadoon and My Fair Lady, the script and score seem to have disappeared altogether. Sixty years later, the materials were suddenly discovered stored deep away in the M-G-M archives, allowing the world a new look at the musical.
What is revealed at the York is the work of writers well on their way towards maturity. A few of the songs are quite nice: “This Is My Holiday,” “God’s Green World,” “A Jug of Wine,” and the title song, which weaves its way through the action. A fair deal of the material is more in the realm of musical scenes, demonstrating the team’s experiments in including the score in the script and the script in the score, as gloriously achieved in 1956 with “The Rain in Spain.”
We also see Lerner giving us psychological dream sequences, not in ballet (as was being done at the time by A. de Mille and J. Robbins) but in song. For example, a scene in which our lovestruck heroine gets advice from Voltaire, Plato, and Freud. This is the tale of a woman who can’t decide between staying with her husband or running off with the fellow she almost eloped with ten years earlier, who has written a best-selling novel (called “The Day Before Spring”) describing their happy marriage—which never in fact happened because the car broke down. Yes, that is the plot and might well be indicative of Lerner’s emotional state at a time when he was getting ready to leave his first wife—of eight!
Adaptor/director Mark Acito appears to honor the original, carefully preserving what seems to be the voice of librettist Lerner. Acito has chosen to alter the time period of the show, explaining that he finds it puzzling that this wartime musical ignored the existence of the War. (That sounds faulty, to me; the authors likely chose to purposely ignore the fighting, on the theory that the audience was looking for entertainment and life as “normal”.) Acito adds jokes about McCarthy, Davey Crockett, and even Brigadoon, which don’t enhance the entertainment.
What’s more, much of the music itself sounds like mid-World War II as opposed to 1958. This is compounded by the unwelcome addition of two relatively jivey but undistinguished songs (“The Ill-Tempered Clavichord” and “You Wash and I’ll Dry”) from the aforementioned What’s Up. Even so, these are minor carps given that Acito has managed to make a compelling argument for this forgotten show. Music director David Hancock Turner does a good job as well, leading a three-piece combo.
The 11-person cast has something of a difficult time, given the underdeveloped material and lack of rehearsal time. Coming across best is Madison Claire Parks as the befuddled heroine. She sings and acts with flair, and is an altogether chip-off-the-old-block of grandmother Betty Garrett. (The singing comedienne was starring on Broadway when The Day Before Spring opened, saw her career short-circuited during the blacklisting of husband Larry Parks of The Jolson Story, and later rebounded in sitcomland). Also standing out among the group is a promising comedienne, Alyse Alan Louis, as a lovelorn secondary girl named Christopher Randolph who is given two walloping big songs. This character is so successful within the show that Lerner seems to have cloned her as Brigadoon’s amorous milkmaid, Meg Brockie.
Listeners will be surprised to find some “old friends” within the score. I have always identified “God’s Green World” as a forerunner to the drivingly energetic “How Can I Wait” in Paint Your Wagon. What I was not prepared to find were two extended sections later reused in Gigi. “Where’s My Wife?” is familiar as the extended first part of the song “Gigi” (“She’s a babe, just a babe…”) And when Plato and friends burst into song with marital advice, they introduce music later used as “The Contract” in the 1973 stage version of Gigi.
Now, let it be said that The Day Before Spring is not here revealed to be a masterpiece, nor does it seem strong enough for future production. While you cannot but be struck by the maturity of the creative thinking—yes, this is a far way from flyboys and potentates in the girls’ dormitory—it is less an accomplished work in itself than a stepping stone to what was soon to come. Which in itself makes The Day Before Spring well worth seeing for those interested in the work of Lerner and Loewe.
The Day Before Spring opened February 10, 2019, at the York Theatre and runs through February 17. Tickets and information: yorktheatre.org