Forgotten Musicals Friday: The Merely Marvelous REDHEAD

Gwen Verdon, standing on a ladder in a white Victorian dress with blue stripes, speaks with Richard Kiley, in a black suit, in REDHEAD.
Gwen Verdon and Richard Kiley in Redhead

Today is Gwen Verdon’s birthday! What better way to celebrate it on Forgotten Musicals Friday than to take a look at one of her key shows, Redhead. Although it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1959, Redhead has never had a revival on Broadway, been adapted for film or played on the West End – nor is it likely to do so any time soon. Many Broadway fans will tell you that this is because of how well the show was tailored to Verdon’s strengths and that there simply isn’t anyone who could do what she did in the original production, which also marked Bob Fosse’s debut as a director-choreographer. While it is true that Redhead was moulded to Verson’s talents, it’s also true that the show is just not great, little more than a passable musical comedy of its time elevated by a fantastic performance and virtuosic staging.

Redhead was first conceived in the 1940s by Dorothy and Herbert Fields after a visit to Madame Tussauds. At that time, the show was called The Works, the core idea being a musical murder mystery set in and around a wax museum in Jack the Ripper-era London. It was thought that the show might be written for Beatrice Lillie, but the project never came together. Years later, it was picked up as a potential vehicle for Verdon, a Broadway superstar following her appearances in Can-Can, Damn Yankees and New Girl in Town, each of which earned her a Tony Award. Verdon now had the power to shop around for roles and directors and used her influence to secure Fosse his directorial debut on the show. Herbert Fields had died, so Sidney Sheldon joined Dorothy Fields to write the book, along with David Shaw, who had to be on board due to a contractual requirement that Verdon was to have appeared in a show written by him. Fields also wrote the lyrics, with Albert Hague providing the music.

Listening to the cast recording today, the “Overture” sums up the production well. Following a thrilling and evocative opening, the melodies shift into standard Broadway mode, alternating with tunes in an Americanised version of the English Music Hall style. There’s some irony in the appropriation of an essentially British musical form in an American show, given a number like “Uncle Sam Rag,” which spoofs British attempts to master American music. At any rate, the point is that the “Overture” shifts into something quite generic and unmemorable, much as the book and score do. The book is convoluted in its plotting, and the score is too reliant on novelty numbers – although Fields’s lyrics are generally a delight. She comes up with some great rhymes, not the last of which is ‘much more gore than they saw at Elsinore!’ And yet, the weakness of the material provides the space for Verdon’s star turn and Fosse’s brilliant staging ideas. What a conundrum!

As the show was created, some of the most prominent elements of Fosse’s style would come into play, including the signature white gloves and neutral black costumes. As was his wont, Fosse developed sequences for the show that were simply for entertainment, for example, “Essie’s Vision,” which – to paraphrase the master – was a dream ballet that did nothing to further the plot. No apologies were made for diverging into musical and movement languages that journey far beyond the boundaries of Victorian London in numbers like “The Pick-Pocket Tango,” which recalled the spirit of Verdon’s Lola in Damn Yankees, or the climatic chase scene that was more reminiscent of the silent film antics of Charlie Chaplin or the Keystone Cops than anything that came before the heyday of the silent film era. Because Fosse guided Verdon and the cast through such sequences with such skill, audiences of the time had no problem suspending their disbelief regarding such inconsistencies. It is difficult to imagine this approach working for today’s audiences.

Redhead winning the Tony Award for Best Musical can be attributed to two things. Firstly, it was a weak season. Its only real competition was Flower Drum Song, which only won one award for Salvatore Dell’Isola as Best Conductor and Musical Director. The offerings of the third nominee, La Plume de Ma Tante, were much more suited to the Special Tony Award it won, while Whoop-Up and Goldilocks were shut out of the Best Musical race altogether. Secondly, what Fosse and Verdon had done was so masterful that it seems there was no choice but to reward the most innovative and virtuosic achievements of the season, even if these made for a show that didn’t hold together as well as it was written. At this time, there were no awards given for the Best Book or Best Score and looking at what’s on paper, one just can’t make a case for presenting these accolades to Redhead over Flower Drum Song.

In its original form, Redhead is an unrevivable show. Part of this is about Verdon and Fosse, but many shows have overcome the memories of an iconic performance or staging. In this case, what’s left once you take Verdon and Fosse out of the equation just doesn’t cut the mustard – which places us in “revisal” territory. And when it comes to Redhead, would a “revisal” really be worth the effort? Could the piece be elevated beyond what it is? My feeling? No, it could not – and it is better left in the musical theatre history books, recognised for what it is rather than shown up for what it can never be.

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