Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday Dance Party: The Country's In The Very Worst Of Hands

When I appeared in this show in college, I was required to smear my torso, arms, hands, and face with something they called Texas Dirt. I even had it on my ankles. I rubbed myself raw every night, trying to wash the stuff off, so I wouldn't have to go to class the next day looking as if my tanning lotion had gone bad.
Believe it or not, the government shutdown and debt ceiling showdown were not the only news items which concerned DC residents this week.  There has been, for many years, an ongoing discussion regarding the Washington Redskins, an argument which is resurrected, like clockwork, as soon as the first kickoff happens in the new NFL season. 

Using the image of the Native American isn't quite as bad as
calling them "redskins." The rebranding of the team is as
controversial as ever; the Washington Warriors has been
suggested as a more suitable moniker.
Why in the world the team doesn't just change its name is a mystery to me;  "redskins" is racist and antiquated, and if major sports teams can actually change CITIES and often their name along with that change (such as when the Montreal Expos moved to DC and became the Nationals), why not change an offensive name to one which isn't?

I don't follow football, and never played it, but still, as usual, I've found a way to make this discussion about me.  Back in my undergraduate days at Cal State Northridge, I played a Native American character, back when we called them Indians.  To my shame, I used every stereotype Hollywood had offered us for playing such roles. 
Ugh. I even said, "Ugg."
I cringe at the

Back then (around 1975), nobody even considered that the Hollywood image of Indians might be offensive to an entire race, so I will cut myself some slack on that one.  The role was Lonesome Polecat, and the show was a large-scale production of a brassy old musical from the 1950s, Li'l Abner.  It is from that musical that this week's Dance Party is plucked.
I actually like this film version, though must admit, the libretto is pretty hackneyed.
There had been several attempts to bring Al Capp's popular comic strip to the musical stage over the years, back when comic strips were actual forms of entertainment.  Rodgers and Hammerstein once wanted to produce a version, and Lerner and Lowe were supposed to be working on one when their musicalization of Pygmalion took over and became My Fair Lady
The Tony wasn't enough for Edie Adams
to keep her role in the film. She appears
in a very sweet, moving Dance Party

The task finally fell to pop songster Johnny Mercer, who provided a zippy score to what most people today find to be a lackluster book.  With Michael Kidd at the helm, though, the show was a success in 1956, winning a Tony for Kidd and for his leading lady, Edie Adams.
One of the few numbers cut for the movie, "Oh Happy Day" celebrates the triumph of science over humanity. It's really a throwaway song, but the version at CSUN was a showstopper.

In their infinite wisdom, Paramount Studios discarded their Tony-winning star for their movie version, replacing her with one of the reigning sexpots of the period, Leslie Parrish.  Original Mammy Yokum Charlotte Rae lost her role in the film to one of her replacements in the Broadway cast, Billie Hayes. 
"I Has Spoken!" And indeed, she had.  Billie Hayes snagged Mammy Yokum for the film, besting original star Charlotte Rae.  The latter went on to a surprising TV career, becoming a much bigger name, while Hayes is largely remembered for her kids show performances on Saturday mornings. You can catch her own Dance Party from several years ago here.
Otherwise, the stage cast remained substantially in tact for the movie version, which was filmed in front of presentational sets to attempt to recreate the feel of a comic strip.
Parrish (right) was one of only two major players who replaced their original creators (Stella Stevens was the other; she replaced a pre-Gilligan Tina Louise as Appassionata von Climax).  That's Julie Newmar at center, making the most of her bombshell physique as Stupifyin' Jones, and on the left, character actor William Lanteau, who had a lengthy career in support (remember him as the mailman in On Golden Pond?)
I have a soft spot for Li'l Abner, as it was the first musical in which I sang anything solo.  It was only a verse of the opening number, but the experience gave me the confidence to pursue other musical theatre roles. 
Lonesome Polecat lived in a cave with his partner, Hairless Joe, where they mixed up vats of moonshine called Kickapoo Joy Juice ("it's heep Grade A!").  It has since occurred to me that these dudes must have been the first same-sex couple to appear in an American musical.
Our version was directed by a faculty member at CSUN, Maryellen Clemons, about whom I wrote a long while back, when she died.  (I had an awkward relationship with her, which you can read about here.)  I give Maryellen credit, though, for recreating a huge amount of the original Michael Kidd choreography. 
In her younger days, Maryellen had been in the dancing chorus of one of Li'l Abner's National Tours, so she was intimately acquainted with the style, and all the steps, of the show.  Here she brings her signature intensity to a discussion with our leading man.
The clip below brings back lots of memories for me;  our version of this number at CSUN was an almost step-by-step copy of Kidd's moves.  I watch it and wonder how the hell I ever moved like that;  it's the most athletically challenging choreography I have ever accomplished.

And I am always a fan of any screen adaptation of a stage show which preserves the original's performances, as happens here.