Category: Archive

Theater Review Eugene O’Neill and the music of his day

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE EUGENE O’NEILL RAGTIME REVUE, The Playwrights Theater Festival of O’Neill Chronological Stagings of O’Neill’s 49 plays Year II: The Birth of an Artist at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse, 133 Macdougal St. Recently completed run.

"The Personal Equation," an early full-length drama by Eugene O’Neill, will remain unfamiliar, at least for the time being. Scheduled as the centerpiece of the fourth and final summer bill assembled for the Playwrights Theater Festival of O’Neill at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse, the play was replaced by what the company calls "The Eugene O’Neill Ragtime Revue."

The event was a fully-staged, full-length version, complete with two simple sets, of the charming musical preludes that have been a part of each of the three programs already presented in the series.

According to Stephen Kennedy Murphy, artistic director and founder of the Playwrights Theater, and, in the case of the present show, "writer, narrator and pianoman," O’Neill specified songs and musical numbers he wanted used in 38 of his 49 plays. Often, the plays’ producers and directors ignored the playwright’s wishes, just as they disregarded the perhaps overly explicit stage directions in which he sometimes went so far as to describe the precise expressions he wished to see on the actors’ faces.

O’Neill has been quoted as saying he neither liked nor understood "serious" music, reserving particular contempt for Richard Wagner. But he clearly loved and enjoyed the popular music of his day, from ragtime ditties and romantic ballads to barroom songs and the sea chanteys he learned in the time he spent as a seagoing voyager.

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Murphy and his colleagues assembled "The Eugene O’Neill Ragtime Revue" mainly from the numbers and playwright mentioned in his manuscripts, or employed songs or song parodies he wrote for use in the plays.

For "All God’s Chillun Got Wings," for example, he wrote a verse he called "Sometimes I Feel Like a Mourning Dove," to be sung to the tune of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

"The Eugene O’Neill Ragtime Revue" incorporates folk songs such as "Shenandoah" and sea songs like "Blow the Man Down" drinking songs, "Beer, Glorious Beer" and "Whiskey for My Johnny" alongside what might be termed parlor songs, items such as "Bedelia" and "Waltz Me Around, Again, Willie," to cite just two songs the average 1912 family might have learned from readily available sheet music of the period.

The show, which played at the Provincetown Playhouse, featured the apprentice company of the Playwrights Theater, including NYU students Vanessa Daniels, Bree Aitoro and Jackie Aitoro, along with Erin Bosse, Chris Brady, Lawrence Levy, J.H. Miller and, of course, Murphy himself, playing a good, solid ragtime piano and singing in a high, slightly reedy Irish tenor.

The production design by Matthew E. Adelson created a minimalist barroom setting for the first act, slightly reminiscent of a set for a community production of "The Iceman Cometh," and then broadened out to a simulated New London, Conn., parlor following a single 10-minute intermission.

The Eugene O’Neill "Ragtime Revue" was loaded with a casual, nostalgic charm that’s both richly evocative of the period in which the young O’Neill lived and wrote, as well as the lighter moments in many of his plays.

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