This weekend’s Musical Theatre Sunday School continues with the readathon of the libretto of The Boy Friend by Sandy Wilson, which we started last week. Today’s reading focuses on Act I – pages 23 – 52 in the copy I own, which is the 1955 Andre Deutsch edition.
Once again, one of the most striking things about this edition are Sandy Wilson’s fantastic little illustrations, which pop up from time to time in the text. My favourite of the Act I illustrations is the drawing illustrating “Fancy Forgetting”, with Mme Dubonnet and Percy Brown clinking a glass of champagne.
As for the text itself, the first act of The Boy Friend is bright and breezy and simply wonderful. It is amazing just how straightforward it is and you can see why Wilson doesn’t want the piece played as a burlesque of 1920s musicals. That approach would simply make a sweet, unaffected romantic comedy into something mannered and unlikable.
The plot is a simple one. Polly Browne is at a finishing school and, unlike her friends, is unable to have a boy friend, having been practically forbidden by her father to do so because he is worried that she will be pursued by a gold digger. So when she meets Tony, who appears to be a delivery boy from a local costumer, she pretends to be a secretary and makes a date with him for the upcoming Carnival Ball. Meanwhile, the other girls also get their ducks in a row for the dance, particularly Maisie Merryweather, who has a serious suitor, Bobby, who wants to dance every dance with her. Polly’s father also comes to call and it is revealed that he once had a romantic fling with the school’s headmistress, Mme Dubonnet.
All of this exposition flies by in the blink of an eye, with a handful of diverting musical numbers to boot. Act I includes the following songs: “Perfect Young Ladies”, “The Boyfriend”, “Won’t You Charleston With Me?”, “Fancy Forgetting” and “I Could Be Happy With You”. Each is wonderful and just beautifully crafted, with real rhymes and instantly memorable tunes. There are some great stylistic period moments too, including the sudden arrival of the boys in the title song for no other reason than to build the number, and they way that the syncopated rhythms of the 1920s music break up the lyrics rather unconventionally in, for example, “Won’t You Charleston With Me?” That kind of breaking up of a single thought over several lines of music can be disastrous in lyric writing, but thanks to the use of rhyme schemes that really hold stanzas together, Wilson manages to make it work for the songs instead of against them.
The characters are delightful little constructions. True to the style that is being evoked, the characters aren’t fully rounded; in fact, they are pretty much the same stock characters you might find in a 1920s musical, and no less captivating for it. There is the central young couple, Polly and Tony; a comic secondary couple, Maisie and Bobby; an older couple, Mme Dubonnet and Percival; and a clever servant, Hortense. In short, a set of characters that harks back to the days of operetta and melodrama. I guess that is why it feels so easy to identify with these characters and get involved in all their little romantic intrigues.
The language piece uses to bring its characters to life is delightful, full of 1920s references and slang. I loved the references to things like “dorothy bags” and phrases like “I’m rather on my beam ends” had me grinning from ear to ear. Wilson’s love for the period really shines through in moments like that and it makes it easy to imagine this piece coming to life in the theatre of one’s mind.
It is clear from the start that The Boy Friend is not working with complex themes or big social truths. I’m reminded of Wilson’s comment in his Author’s Note that this was not a reply to Oklahoma!, which is so often criticised for being as simple as The Boy Friend is. But looking at The Boy Friend, it is clear that no one could take the show and plough for hidden depths as, for example, Trevor Nunn did with Oklahoma! in his landmark revival of the show. All Nunn did was highlight the themes around which Oklahoma! was built in the first place. The Boy Friend simply wouldn’t support that kind of reinvestigation. It is precisely what it appears to be, a light entertainment that recalls the delights of a bygone era. Hopefully we haven’t all become too cynical to appreciate that.
That’s all for today, folks. Next week, we’ll look at Act II, but hopefully you’ll share your thoughts about this act the comment box below before then. (Of course, even if you come upon this column long after today, I hope you will share your opinions. I’m always up for some good discussion.) See you next week!