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The new musical comedy Rumple is not really so absurd as its title would suggest. That title, it might be well to explain at the outset, is also the name of a newspaper comic strip character who, for some unclear reason, comes to life to haunt his creator. The fact that Rumple is invisible to everybody else in the cast provides Irving Phillips' book with its main source of humor. Though scarcely original, the joke is still intermittently funny.
Lack of originality, however, is the real bane of this musical. The lyrics of Frank Reardon are a little more inane than most; but Earnest G. Schweikert's music is acceptable commercial fare and the dances staged by Bob Hamilton are at least as lively as those on any television show. Thus Eddie Foy, who plays Rumple, Stephen Douglass, the cartoonist, and Gretchen Wyler, as a sex-smitten gag writer, have at least acceptable material with which to work. For Miss Wyler, a fine comedienne and dancer, it is nearly good enough, but the show as a whole can scarcely be called a success.
Nearly everything that goes on on the stage seems just a bit old and tired. American musical comedy turned into a ritual celebration of romantic love a good many years ago, and it takes much imagination and effort to break out of a mold which has been a success as often as this one. The pattern of musical comedies is nearly always the same. After a fast opening chorus, the romantic male lead meets and wins the romantic female lead, all to the tune of a ballad. Then comes the comic subplot, generally introduced by means of a specialty number. After that, the plot takes over for a while, and by the time the first-act curtain falls, the lovers are parted. The second act, which also opens with a chorus number, is shorter and more sketchy than the first. All that is necessary now is to get the lovers back together again.
Perhaps the real trouble with the American musical theater, of which Rumple is a fair sample, is a glut of achievement. In Porgy and Bess it can boast at least one genuine masterpiece, and in the work of Richard Rogers and Cole Porter it generally displays a very high level of taste and integrity. Furthermore, any cultural phenomenon which shows so much tenacity as the musical theater must fill a real need or it could not exist for thirty or forty years without alteration. Musicals are not only the very distillation of glamor and sophistication, but also hold out the promise that everything is, after all, for the best, and that love will triumph.
Yet the wrinkles and cracks are beginning to show. Shows like Rumple, the product of lesser talents, look more tired and warmed-over than anything else. On the positive side of the ledger, Leonard Bernstein, with West Side Story, is exploring the musical theater as a vehicle for something like tragedy. And it may be indicative of some change in the pattern of the American musical that the most hailed show now in New York, My Fair Lady, owes much to the British genius, Bernard Shaw; and that The Three Penny Opera has enjoyed a two-year run even though it is a daring experiment which was written thirty years ago in Germany.
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