Jul/Aug 2000 Humor/Satire

Perchance to Dream--or Then Again, Perchance Not

by Craig Butler

Rodgers and Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! opened in 1943 to an absolutely rapturous critical reception. After all, who wouldn't love a musical in which the entire American system of justice is bypassed and discredited just so the leading man doesn't have to delay his honeymoon? (After seeing my high school production of this show, my Uncle Ethan tried to use the same defense but was thwarted when the judge learned his bride was actually a sock puppet named Darla.)

Singled out for special praise in the original production was "Laurey Makes Up Her Mind," the famous Dream Ballet in which the leading lady must decide whether she will go to the social with handsome, dashing Curly or hygienically-challenged Jud. Quel dilemma, as my Aunt Opaline used to say. The impact of this Dream Ballet was such that for the next few years just about every musical that came down the pike had to have one. Eventually, when some of these turned out to be more nightmare than dream, the trend petered out, especially after the New York City Council passed a law making such ballets a crime punishable by banishment to the Kew Gardens Motor Inn for a period of time not to exceed forty-eight hours. (This punishment proved so effective that Mayor Giuliani later used the threat of it to convince organized crime to get out of New York's waste management business.) Following are some of the more obscure Dream Ballets, the ones that didn't make it past New Haven.

"Eliza Makes Up her Mind" (MY FAIR LADY, 1956, choreography by Hanya Holm; cut in Philadelphia) -- In its finished version, MY FAIR LADY ends with Eliza choosing between the chauvinist Henry Higgins and the milksop Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Originally, however, Eliza's choice was between Freddy and sweet, kindly Colonel Pickering, and this ballet served to clarify the situation for the rather dimwitted flower girl. During rehearsal, however, Rex Harrison subtly began shifting the focus of the show away from Eliza and onto Higgins, usually by standing in the middle of the rehearsal and imitating Charles Boyer until his wishes were met. Director Moss Hart had to give in to some of Harrison's shenanigans, but resisted his attempts to sabotage this crucial plot point. (Robert Coote, who played Pickering, reported that Harrison often would scrape his hangnail along Coote's tights just before he went on to dance the ballet's pas de deux, giving him a run that was "frightfully embarrassing." This so distracted Coote that he would forget to lift Julie Andrews and would instead twirl the entire string section over his head by mistake.)

Eventually, however, Hart had no choice but to accede to Harrison's wishes, on the condition that he give "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Wouldn't It be Loverly" back to Miss Andrews to sing. By the time the show reached Broadway, no one would ever have known that Higgins had initially been a mere supporting character. (By the way, for those who care about such things, the ballet ended with Eliza making the only possible choice and eloping with Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper.)

"Zack Makes Up his Mind" (A CHORUS LINE, 1975, choreography by Michael Bennett, Bob Avian, Baayork Lee, Thommie Walsh, and a funny old gent who did a peculiar little two-step; cut over a bowl of chicken chow mein at The Mandarin's Neckbone) -- This ballet, intended as an homage to OKLAHOMA's choreographer Agnes DeMille, recounted how director Zack would decide which of the dancers he had been auditioning would make the final cut. It was abandoned after Michael Bennett realized he didn't actually like Agnes DeMille and after he despaired of finding the choreographic equivalent of "I pick the short guy with the huge honker of a nose and the mediocre talent who couldn't do a proper jete to save his life but whose feet are so big I'm really, really curious to get a closer look at his dance cup."

"The Mother Superior Makes Up Maria's Mind" (THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1959, choreography by Joe Layton; cut in the nick of time) -- When Maria returns to the convent, unsure of her feelings for the Captain, the Mother Superior originally gave her a drugged cup of holy water so that she would shut up for once. In the dream that followed, the head nun danced an abstract ballet which clearly meant "Follow your heart, stupid, don't you know this is a musical?" Unfortunately, Patricia Neway, who acted the role of the Mother Superior beautifully, could only Charleston, which clearly meant "We live in Austria and all we get is boiled potatoes? Oy!" Although a limited dancer, Neway was a seasoned semaphorer, and for a while she used flags to relay her message. This was abandoned after an old World War II pilot in the audience rose out of his seat and buzzbombed the cast, frightening one of the children so much that she began impersonating Norma Shearer. Eventually Rodgers and Hammerstein solved the problem by replacing the dance with a song, "Climb Every Mountain," which most critics didn't realize was simply the Marseillaise played sideways.

"I'm on the Make, Do You Mind?" (OH! CALCUTTA!, 1969, choreography by Margo Sappington; cut on the way to night court) -- Also known as the Wet Dream Ballet, I suppose this would have been the closest thing to a high point in this legendary nude revue. It was cut after the first preview in order to keep the Vice Squad from closing the show, but the very specific physical demands the choreography made on the male members of the cast (an expanded definition of the term "releve," a precisely-timed and hard-to-guarantee climax, etc.) would have made it difficult to repeat on the consistent basis required.

"Mind That Make-Up!" (EVITA, 1979, choreography by Larry Fuller; cut -- or "disappeared" -- by popular demand) -- Nervous and anxious about her upcoming Rainbow Tour, Argentinian First Lady Eva Peron has a terrifying dream in which her beautician transforms her into the spitting image of Adolf Hitler! Cut when the creative team discovered that audiences found Hitler more sympathetic -- and attractive -- than Evita.

"Patrick Makes Up as Mame" (MAME, 1966, choreography by Onna White; cut in a snit) -- Patrick, impressionable and sensitive young nephew of vivacious and flamboyant Mame Dennis, dreams that he grows up to be his beloved Auntie -- right down to the coiffure and wardrobe. Entirely superfluous, the proposed ten-minute ballet was quickly cut when composer Jerry Herman petulantly declared that he would withdraw his entire score if any man other than himself or Bea Arthur walked onstage wearing bugle beads. The producers acquiesced, although later, when they actually heard Herman's score, they agreed they had acted too hastily.

Times change, of course, even in the theatre. Outside of revivals, Dream Ballets are rarely seen on Broadway nowadays. But then again, neither is Barbra Streisand. Is there a causal relationship? Beats me, but if the death of the Dream Ballet keeps my theatregoing experience Streisand-free, I'm happy to make the sacrifice.


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