Meet the Millers
Mark Andrew Lawrence | Toronto | 02/10/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"There have been two attempts to turn Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, AH! WILDERNESS into a musical.
The first was an M-g-M film called SUMMER HOLIDAY directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Mickey Rooney, Gloria Delavan and Walter Houston. The film, had it been a success, might have allowed Mamoulian to pursue more integrated movie musicals in the same way he encouraged Rodgers and Hammerstsin to integrate their scores on stage for OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL. The film sat on the shelf for nearly two years before M-g-M released a heavily edited version that failed. (Rhino has issued the complete score on CD if you are curious.)
The second attempt was announced as CONNECTICUT HOLIDAY but by the time it arrived on Broadway it had a new title, taken from the show's hit song - a soft shoe routine for Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon, "Take Me Along."
That points up one of the major flaws: Pidgeon (playing the hero's father) and Gleason (as his Uncle) are not the main characters. Their song, though a crowd-pleaser, doesn't have anything to do with the plot, and despite a festive 4th-of-July styled show poser (and album cover) this play is not about a 4th of July picnic. Rather it is bittersweet coming-of-age story steeped in nostalgia for a world that is long gone, if in fact it ever existed at all.
Robert Morse played the sensitive and romantic Richard, so it's a little odd that he gets so little to sing here. Pidgeon and Gleason do, and while neither has a great singing voice both are loaded with character. Pidgeon's touching second act reprise of "Staying Young" (in which he sadly concludes he isn't) is one of those special moments that made this a better than average cast album
Another is Eileen Herlie (the late Eileen Herlie as I write this) as the wounded bird, Aunt Lily: In love with Sid but unable to stomach his constant boozing. Her "Promise Me a Rose" perfectly captures O'Neill's character.
Jackie Gleason was the top-billed (and highest paid) member of the cast and from all reports he gave a superb performance as the alcoholic Uncle Sid. Or at least he did until he got bored with playing 8 shows a week. The problem is that this isn't SID's story, much as Gleason wanted it to be. So it is Gleason who gets the big numbers, roaring into town with "Sid Ol' Kid", romancing Lily in "I Get Embarrassed", dueting with brother Nat for "Take Me Along", reassuring his hung over nephew with "Little Green Snake" and wrapping up the show with a promise to reform in "But Yours" heading off on the trolley with Lily in tow in the "Finale." This is a great and varied score, but with the emphasis shifted to Uncle Sid, Richard's story (Which was the heart of O'Neill's play) gets lost in the shuffle.
Audiences didn't seem to mind as long as Gleason was there giving his all. But when he grew bored and restless, so did the audience and the show eventually folded after year long run. A revival in 1985 lasted just one performance.
The show deserves better because in spit of the imbalance in the book, the score is very enjoyable and the story - even as told - is still effective.
This original cast recording preserves Bob Merrill's score. Even if he did have to bang out the tunes on a xylophone letting his orchestrators work out the details, the songs in this score have more period flavor and character detail than his songs for NEW GIRL IN TOWN.
RCA Victor recorded the show a few days before its Broadway premiere in rare vote of confidence. The LP remained in print for almost 20 years, reappearing (briefly) on CD in 1995. Now DRG is giving collectors a second chance to meet the Millers.