Downton on Broadway - Me and My Girl
When I think back on all of the Broadway musicals and national tours that I have seen over the years, trying the remember how I felt before, during, and after each performance, I try to relive the emotions and exhilaration I felt watching most of them. There were a few musicals over the decades that left me cold, but most of them left me inspired, invigorated, and sometime even breathless. However, one musical has always stood out for having provided me with sheer joy. Everything including its hilarious characters, intoxicating melodies, clever direction, evocative design elements, and its memorable choreography (which was both graceful and full of humor) added up to an evening of perfection. This musical was Me and My Girl.
Me and My Girl opened on Broadway in 1986. In fact, it was the musical that christened the then recently-opened Marquis Theatre, running for a successful 1,420 performances, only to be evicted to make way for the eagerly anticipated (and never to open) Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge. What is more interesting about Me and My Girl is that the musical was written by Noel Gay (music), L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber (book and lyrics) in 1937 where it was an enormous hit. The story was fashioned around a character named “Bill Snibson” that had been originated by British stage actor Lupino Lane in the 1935 non-musical comedy Twenty to One. Me and My Girl took this low brow swell from Lambeth and imagined what would happen if this cockney street sweeper found out he was the long-lost heir to an earldom in upper crust Mayfair. His Aunt Maria, the Duchess and an uptight blue-blood takes charge of training him for the family motto “noblesse oblige.” The original London production ran 1,646 performances, a triumph by standards of the 1930s. It was also performed live on BBC radio and was one of the first musicals to air live on television.
In 1984, the musical was revived in London, with revisions to the material by Stephen Fry. The production was helmed by Mike Ockrent, a clever director with a penchant for high energy comedies, who sadly passed away just after beginning work on the musical The Producers (his wife Susan Stroman took over in the wake of his death). Robert Lindsay as Bill Snibson and Emma Thompson as his gal pal Sally. Once again, Me and My Girl was an enormous success, that production running for 3,303 performances. That is the production that transferred to Broadway, with Lindsay repeating his role (to the tune of a Tony Award for Best Actor) and Maryann Plunkett stepping in for Thompson (she, too, getting a Tony for Best Actress). Gillian Gregory provided the Tony-winning choreography. The supporting cast was made up of top-notch character actors including Jane Connell, George S. Irving, Timothy Jerome, Jane Summerhays, Tom Toner, and Nick Ullett. It lost the Best Musical Tony to a little dark horse of the day known as Les Miserables.
The most popular song to come from Me and My Girl was “Leaning on a Lamp-post”, which actually received a chart-climbing version courtesy of the band Herman’s Hermits in 1966. The song “The Sun Has Got His Hat On” received some radio play, though it did incite some backlash due to racist lyrics that were altered for the revival. “The Lambeth Walk” actually became a popular dance style of the day. It featured a jaunty, stylized strut that ended with a jerking action on the signature moment when everyone yells “Oi”. Duke Ellington had a popular recording of the song with his orchestra. The whole score, however, is just full of melody and humor, with numbers like “Thinking of No One But Me,” “Take It On the Chin,” “The Song of Hareford”, “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” and the title tune all standouts.
I think it is time for a revival of Me and My Girl, and frankly, I am surprised it hasn’t been done already. It has been thirty-years since it was a big hit on Broadway. With all of the affection for and the rabid following of the TV series Downton Abbey, it seems to me that producers would be falling all over themselves to revive this piece. With a plot which would be the equivalent of having The Dowager Countess trying to train Pee-Wee Herman to take over the Lordship of the manse, I think there would definitely be an audience for this lively, feel-good musical about propriety, family, and obligations of nobility.