Discovering ‘Evening Primrose,’ Sondheim’s Horror/Comedy/Musical Hybrid

164 - eveningprimroseIt’s the day before Halloween, so it’s time for an extra spooky trip to the archives! Specifically a musical/comedic/horrifying spooky trip! Or, to go to the maximum level of specificity, you aren’t actually taking a trip to any kind of archives: you’re reading an article.

Today’s entry is an unusual one because I don’t exactly know what genre it fits into. It’s definitely a musical, and it’s definitely a bizarre story with horror elements. However I don’t know that it’s a horror comedy in the traditional sense, but it has a premise that is so incredibly offbeat that it’s hard not to want to put it in that category. What it is, though, is a TV special that aired only once in 1966 that starred Psycho’s Anthony Perkins, The Sound of Music’s Charmian Carr (the oldest daughter, Liesl) with original music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. I don’t know exactly what Evening Primrose is, but it’s certainly a fun, strange ride.

To give you an idea of what Evening Primrose is all about, I’m going to give you a barebones summary of the plot. A poet decides that the real world has no place for him and so he decides to live rent-free in a massive metropolitan department store. He’ll hide during the day and do his writing at night. One night in and he realizes that he’s not the first to do this. In fact there’s a whole society of people who are pretending to be mannequins. Our hero is accepted into their ranks, falls in love with a woman but is kept apart because she is said to be lower-class and has been forced to live in the bargain section of the basement. Their forbidden love blooms in the outdoor section, where the others never tread, but they are discovered, murdered, and turned into actual mannequins where they stand, posed indefinitely in the front window of the department store as husband and wife.

So, no matter how deftly one handled the material, the premise is so strange that there’s no way it could be presented as a serious horror story. Here’s the thing that might also surprise you if you’re basing this solely on the description: it’s pretty good! Let’s dig a little deeper.

Based on a John Collier short story, Evening Primrose was made for a show called ABC Stage 67, which was a one-season program that aired variety shows, plays, musicals, and documentaries. At this point, Sondheim was 36 and had written the lyrics for West Side Story, Gypsy, and the music and lyrics for the hit play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, among a handful of others. He was collaborating with writer James Goldman on what would become the classic Follies, but Goldman’s wife was pregnant, so they needed a bigger apartment. And lo, Evening Primrose was born.

Due to the fact that this was being filmed in a real department store, after closing, the production was forced to squeeze their work into a very narrow window which meant for the book scenes (“not singing parts” for the non-musical fans) were all shot in one take. The downside is that this makes these scenes feel a little bit like a soap opera. The upside is that this makes the musical numbers really stand out, both in staging and in content.

Full disclosure, I like musicals. And I’m a recent convert, but I like Sondheim a lot. And the songs in Evening Primrose were written at the peak of his powers. Check out this patter song in which Charles, the poet, first explores his new home. (The original version isn’t online anywhere, so instead, here’s Neil Patrick Harris singing it.)

Or this beautiful duet entitled “Take Me to the World,” in which Ella attempts to convince Charles to help her escape:

While I may be unclear as to what genre to put this thing, it’s in Sondheim’s lyrics that the true charm and wit of this production really sparkles. I leave you with this batch of lyrics from a song in which our poet first falls for Ella. In the Office Supplies department of the store, we see him struggling to write a poem for her, but ends up crossing out each attempt: “Ella gay as a tarantella…” / “Pure as larks singing acapella…” / “Let my poem be your umbrella…” / Ella, poets who suffer pain / She fall in love with girls named Jane.”

Happy Halloween, everyone! Don’t get turned into mannequins!

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, cartoonistpodcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

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