Monday, January 25, 2010

The Barn Dance

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a rather small-scale film that came out of nowhere in 1954 to become one of the biggest hits of the year. Produced by MGM, the musical found its budget cut and studio bound as the musical unit decided to put its money into lavish film versions of Brigadoon and Rose Marie. Filmed on the soundstage with painted backdrops and a shoestring budget, filming wrapped in 48 days, the suits convinced they had a solid B picture on their hands. What they really had was an unstoppable blockbuster.

Based on Stephen Vincent Benét's short story "The Sobbin Women," itself an update of Plutarch's story of the Sabine (Sabine, Sobbin', get it?) women in Lives of Romulus, the story deals with seven backwoods brothers in Oregon who take an interest in getting a wife. When eldest Adam hurriedly marries feisty but warm Milly, he inspires the others to get their own wives - by kidnapping their lady friends and holding them at their remote cabin until the winter thaw.

Howard Keel and Jane Powell were signed on for the leads. Gene De Paul supplied the music, Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. The film was directed by Stanley Donen, who'd gained clout for his co-direction of On the Town and Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly. Michael Kidd, who won Tony Awards for his choreography of Guys and Dolls and Can-Can, and also supplied dancing for the MGM hit The Band Wagon, was signed on to provide musical staging. Kidd's choreography on this picture would prove to be some of the most noted of his film career, particularly the Barn Dance during the first half of the picture.

After Milly has cleaned up the men, and taught them how to politely and properly court a girl, they show up at a Barn Raising and there is a dance off between the six remaining brothers and the suitors of their prospective lady friends. (The other six brothers were played by Jeff Richards (professional baseball player), Russ Tamblyn (acrobat), Matt Mattox, Jacques d'Amboise, Marc Platt and Tommy Rall (all dancers). The brides were all professional dancers, the notable standout being young Julie Newmeyer, who change her last name to Newmar and find great success as Catwoman on the 60s Batman series. Kidd's dancing is legendary. Here is the result:

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-Barn Dance -

The film became a sleeper hit of the year, outgrossing both Rose Marie and Brigadoon. It ended up a leading contender at the Academy Awards, surprising the studio when it was nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay and, of all things, Best Picture. It won for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.

The property has maintained its popularity over the years - a stage version was commissioned in the late 70s with Lawrence Kashka and David Landay supplemented the score with some new numbers. Powell and Keel reprised their roles for this initial tour, but when the show moved to Broadway Debby Boone and David-James Carroll were in the leads. The musical was a noted flop on Broadway, lasting a mere 5 performances at the Alvin Theatre in 1982. A London company in 1985 was met with considerably more success, and even produced a cast album of the stage score. The stage version was overhauled in 2005 and is currently licensed. The film also inspired a TV series that ran on CBS from 1982-83.

London audiences were quite taken with the stage adaptation, and it has already received a West End revival. This past August, during the broadcast of the famed Proms, conductor Jon Wilson wanted to present some lighter music for audiences from American film musicals. In performing "The Barn Dance," he find himself at an arduous task for MGM threw out orchestrations for their films once recording was completed. Wilson reconstructed Conrad Salinger's original orchestrations by piecing together short scores and parts, and even drawing aurally from the film soundtrack. Here is their performance from August 3, 2009:

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