Remembering The Happy Time
The composing team of Kander and Ebb are typically first remembered as the creators of the edgy, flashy, razzle-dazzle music of such shows as Cabaret and Chicago. It would be wrong, however, to think that this was all that they were capable of. In fact, the team’s work often tended towards a reflective, gentler style of musical comedy found in such shows as Zorba and The Rink. One show that really seemed to embrace this subtler, character-driven approach to storytelling was 1968’s The Happy Time.
Adapted from Samuel A. Taylor’s play of the same name, itself an adaptation of a series of stories by Robert Fontaine, The Happy Time only had the barest resemblance to either of its predecessors. It would be more accurate to say that The Happy Time was inspired by a handful of characters from the Fontaine stories who were interpolated into the musical by book writer N. Richard Nash. The reason for this? Producer extraordinaire David Merrick (known as the “Abominable Showman”) had already purchased the rights to the play, insisted on using the title, but was agreeable to Nash wanting to write and original story as long as it was set in Canada. `
Kander and Ebb were not Merrick’s first choice for penning the score of The Happy Time. In fact, the musical may have very easily been the work of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields if Merrick had had his way, but that team was already invested in another project. It was Nash who introduced Kander and Ebb to his story outline for The Happy Time. The duo had just come off of the critical and financial success of Cabaret. It would seem that any project could be theirs, and Cabarethad been a daring landmark in the evolution of American musical theatre. What exactly about The Happy Time drew them in makes one wonder if this was the best logical next step for the duo, but it did signify what would become an ongoing attraction to more intimate, character-driven storytelling. In many ways, The Happy Time is the obvious precursor to the similarly themed The Rink (1984), which Kander and Ebb would write with playwright Terrence McNally.
Set in the 1920s, The Happy Time tells the story of a French-Canadian photographer names Jacques Bonnard who has been traveling the world, but decides to return to the small home town of his childhood. There, he is welcomed home by friends and family, particularly his opinionated but loving father (Grandpere), and his impressionable pubescent nephew Bebe. Jacques is discontent, the wandering of his career taking its toll. He has come back home to reclaim his childhood, only to find that both he and the world he remembers has changed. Bebe looks up to Jacques and even offers to leave town with his Uncle, himself frustrated with small-town life. The musical is basically an intimate portrait of a family, and examines the cycle of life, our need to adventure and our need to return home.
Merrick secured director-choreographer Gower Champion to helm The Happy Time. Champion had proven himself the go-to person in the 1960s, having ushered musicals such as Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival! and particularly Hello, Dolly! to success. Champion would have seemed to be the right fit for The Happy Time, having found a wonderful moments of affecting, intimate musical theatre in all three of these prior successes, moments perfectly juxtaposed against the splashier background of the big Broadway musicals in which they resided. The Happy Time, however, never had the bones to be a big, splashy musical, and yet Champion seemed to want to find a way to make it one. One of the bigger mistakes made along the way was in the use of large projections that demonstrated Jacque’s photography, creating a tone and mood for the action. They filled the stage, yet dwarfed the performers, losing the gentle little story with this (at the time) revolutionary use of projection technology in a Broadway musical. Champion also was a choreographer at heart and liked to find opportunities to open up the story for reasons to dance, again swelling the show to a size that didn’t serve the material.
The Happy Time opened at the Broadway Theatre (not exactly an intimate space for a musical like this) with Robert Goulet playing Jacques, David Wayne as Grandpere and a young Michael Rupert as Bebe. It faired reasonably well at the Tony Awards, Goulet taking home a Tony Award for Best Musical, and Champion, despite critical detractors of his work on The Happy Time, went home with Tony’s for Best Director and Best Choreographer. In the end, the equally unique and equally problematic Hallelujah, Baby! took home the Tony for Best Musical. The Happy Timelasted for 286 performances while Hallelujah, Baby! didn’t fare much better at 293 performances, and despite its win for Best Musical, had closed before the Tony Awards. It was just that kind of year.
Take a listen to the score of The Happy Time and see if songs like “A Certain Girl”, “Life of the Party” and the title song don’t have a charm that delights. It is unlikely the show would ever be revived, but it is definitely an example of a Kander and Ebb writing style that we sometimes forget they were capable of.