"Repent" from On the Twentieth Century - When a character song captures more than just a character
With the forthcoming Roundabout Theatre revival of the Cy Coleman (music), Betty Comden & Adolph Green (lyrics) musical On the Twentieth Century on the horizon for 2015, I decided to pull out the original cast recording and revel in the zaniness of this mock operetta set on board a luxury train. This musical should be produced more often than it is, but it's unique setting makes it a hard show to design scenery-wise. Indeed, the original production was so tied to the cleverness and complexity of Robin Wagner's multifunctional set, that it made it hard for the show to tour. It never gained the wide popularity that it deserved.
On the Twentieth Century features a plethora of delicious character songs that highlight the personalities of the parade of lunatics riding the vessel. Among them is "Repent" sung by the religious zealot Letitia Primrose, an uptight, puritanical type who reminds the passengers of their bigger journey either to heaven or hell. The song is a list of all the day-to-day, carnal sins one must ask forgiveness for. Allusions are made to sex, masturbation, all forms of earthly pleasure really. What makes the song more than just its ribald lyrics is that, musically, it starts out jaunty and absurdly uncomfortable, like getting the "birds and the bees" talk from your grandmother. Then it drifts into a saucy seductivness that reveals Primrose's underlying desires and dormant but stirring libido. Suddenly, as if spirited back to conservative repression by Gabriel's trumpet, the music takes on the march rhythm of a Salvation Army Band. Strident and blaring, the brass puts Letitia back in step with her moral code. It's amazing how instrumentation and time signature can be as effective at telling story as words.