Friday, April 29, 2011

Album Review - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

By Sherry Shaffer

The musical theatre adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with music by Leon Carr, lyrics by Earl Shuman, and book by Joe Manchester, opened at the Player’s Theater in October, 1964. The show ran for 96 performances but nevertheless got good reviews for its short run. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is set on the 40th birthday of the title character, a constant daydreamer who is unhappy with his lot in life. Those who are familiar with the original short story and the 1947 film with Danny Kaye will see similarities with the theme and the wild fantasies he cooks up, but the storyline differs considerably. In fact, I’d consider it “inspired by” as opposed to adapted. In this version, Mitty decides to give up his boring, harried life and pursue excitement with a faded lounge singer. Like most of his ideas, it never gets past the fantasy stage and in the end he chooses to stay with his family – mainly for love of his daughter, Penninah.

Not having seen this musical, I needed a full synopsis to follow the songs on the album – and I highly recommend any first-time listener do the same. I do not consider this a flaw, however, as Mitty’s fantasies are just that, fantasies. It stands to reason that they would not follow a linear storyline. They disrupt Mitty’s life, and that comes through on the album. Songs like “Drip, Drop, Tapoketa” – tapoketa being a sound effect from the original story – and “Fan the Flame” would throw you for a complete loop if you didn’t know they were daydreams about performing life-saving surgery and watching the lounge singer, Willa de Wisp, perform in the “Folies de Mitty” as a comic French chanteuse.

The music is light and fun, as fits the general theme of the show. All the featured singers handle the material well – it’s not demanding, but they do need to be both funny and feeling in turns. Most of the songs are enjoyable but fairly standard for the time; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but you can tell it was written in 1964. It has that early mod era feeling that straddles the square fifties and the loose sixties. I won’t call it dated, as I think one can still relate to wanting to escape a hum-drum life, but it isn’t evergreen material either.

However, two songs – “Don’t Forget” and “Two Little Pussycats” – were real standouts that I went back and listed to a couple of times. “Don’t Forget” is a great comic number that showcases the constant nagging and boredom Mitty endures. Marc London as Mitty, Lorraine Serabian, as Agnes, his wife, and Susan Lehman as Mitty’s mother-in-law do a great job of weaving the nagging of the ladies through Mitty’s distraction and sorrow at growing older. Rue McClanahan and Lette Rehnolds are the “little pussycats” – women seduced by a scoundrel friend of Mitty then dropped – whose song is a jazzy lament of broken promises.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a fun album that is great for a retro evening with martinis and hors d’oeuvres. Top it off with a skinny tie or chandelier earrings and enjoy the rich fantasy life of a very average man.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Original Release Date: February 15, 2011
Label: Masterworks Broadway
Copyright: Originally Released 1964 Sony Music Entertainment

Walter Mitty: Marc London
Mother-in-law: Susan Lehman
Agnes: Lorraine Serabian
Peninnah: Christopher Norris
Willa de Wisp: Cathryn Damon
Irving Kornfeld: Charles Rydell
Fred Gorman: Eugene Roche
Harry: Rudy Tronto
Hazel: Rue McClanahan
Ruthie: Lette Rehnolds
Music by Leon Carr
Lyrics by Earl Shuman
Book by Joe Manchester
Musical Direction: Joe Stecko

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I too never saw the Broadway show, but my Mom had the Original Cast album, so I grew up hearing it. For the me real standout of the score is the song "Confidence". It's a fun, rollicking song in which bar owner Harry and Willa de Wisp buck up Walter and convince him to change his life and run off with Willa. The tune should be familiar to anyone who watched NFL football during the 1960's/early 70's, because CBS intro'd every game with an instrumental version of "Confidence".