5 Questions: Ben West Raises His Falling “Fig Leaves”

Antuan Raimone, Morgan Weed, Karen Hyland and Morgan Rose show their Fig Leaves. Photo credit: Dixie Sheridan.
Antuan Raimone, Morgan Weed, Karen Hyland, Morgan Rose, Jonathan Rayson and Nathan Keen in The Fig Leaves Are Falling
Photos by: Dixie Sheridan

The 1969 musical The Fig Leaves Are Falling is a 2013 dramaturge’s nightmare. With unlimited time and a bottomless capacity for self-flaggellation, one could pull most or all the original reviews of the show from the Intertubes, but it’s not as if the tuner crops up often in musical theatre study text or any of those glossy best-of-Broadway tomes currently awaiting homes at the Drama Book Shop. We like to think we have a swell library of such books at home, including a complete run of the Best Plays annuals back to 1919-20, but, as if to drive home the point, The Best Plays of 1968-1969 hardly dwells on the show. In that Broadway season of four or five other memorable musical massacres, it seems clear that the editor (the late Otis L. Guernsey, Jr.) preferred to bury the corpse, not prop it up.

Then, like 1850 California, there’s gold. The timeless and terrific Walter Kerr, then of The New York Times but earlier of The New York Herald Tribune as well as the author of several vivacious volumes of anthologized essays, reveals a faux Fig Leaves fetish. In God on the Gymnasium Floor and Other Theatrical Adventures, published in 1971, Kerr writes long, hard and not thickly about on-stage nudity; he mentions The Fig Leaves Are Falling not once, but twice. He begins by referencing Robert Anderson’s comedy You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running and then there’s this:

Story continues below.

Correct as he was in sensing the wave of the future and in giving it the one gentle push it apparently needed, Mr. Anderson was slightly wrong about one thing. He overestimated the ardor of actors. Some actors are perfectly willing to let the fig leaves fall, but not all, and in a short-lived musical called The Fig Leaves Are Falling everyone was satisfied to sing a good game (“People dressed in fig leaves can’t raise Cain or Abel”) while keeping their own neckties straight and their miniskirts at full mast.

Four pages later, Kerr shamelessly baits us again:

Most evenings that go in for nudity and/or sex also tend to place a stress on body functions in general — in The Fig Leaves Are Falling there were not only songs about the delights of infidelity, there were also lively lyrics about the children’s toilet training….

Oh, ye dramatic gods! What is this show – this Scandal del Scatological? Now you can completely understand why we came thisclose to snail mailing the following letter to an enterprising musical theatre devotee and visionary named Ben West. The letter read:

Dear Ben West — esteemed director, reviser-of-text, and artistic director of Unsung Musicals:

The Fig Leaves Are Falling? Four performances in 1969? A very of-its-time musical about a married man caught between his ambivalent wife and his hot secretary, complete with umpteen social messages and lots of late-60s keys-in-the-bowl sex attitudes and the lookie-lookie kooky-cookie secretary’s name is wooky-wooky Pookie? What on earth are you doing reviving this show? Must we call dragoons of dramaturges to rescue you from you and your company’s mission to preserve “musical theatre through the restoration and presentation of obscure but artistically sound works”? There is help out there for you — help, we tell you! help! help! help! — if only you’ll avail yourself. Save yourself, we beg of you, before it’s too late. We know of a very good (and Juilliard-accredited) 12-step musical theatre help group right off Little West 12th Street in the West Village. Above all, Ben, we’re here for you. Don’t let an unsalvageable musical flop ruin your life! After all, the likes of Carrie: The Musical only comes along once a century. And even then, well, you know.

The Rest of Us

But we digress. You see, Unsung Musicals (led by the aforementioned Ben West) approaches “obscure but artistically sound works” not so much to dig up the corpse and gawk at it (“what great embalming, Henry!”) but to resurrect the soul of the departed. UMC, its website says, “treats each property as a new musical…providing a unique collaboration between the artists of today and those of the past.”

Story continues below.

For the Fig Leaves past, we mean the authors — composer Albert Hague (whose Redhead won five 1959 Tonys) and book writer-lyricist Allan Sherman (of “Hello Muddah Hello Fadduh” fame and other song parodies), whose marriage breakup directly inspired Fig Leaves and arguably hastened his early death. For the Fig Leaves past, we also mean the original director — George Abbott, then 82 and while indisputably the high priest of American musical comedy, an unusual and last-minute choice for a sex tuner.

For the Fig Leaves present, we mean the Unsung Musicals revival, which runs through Jan. 26 at the Connelly Theatre (220 E. 4th St.) and features Natalie Venetia Belcon, Karen Hyland, Nathan Keen, Antuan Raimone, Jonathan Rayson, Morgan Rose, Matt Walton and Morgan Weed with West’s revised script and direction, choreography by Richard J. Hinds, musical supervision by Andrew Graham, musical direction Benet Braun and the admiration of The Rest of Us.

And now, 5 questions Ben West has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
One of the most interesting questions I’ve been asked was from Peter Filichia, just a few weeks ago, in fact. He asked me what I would say to the musical theatre “purists” out there who will not come to see our Fig Leaves production because they only want to see a show revived with the exact same text that was utilized in the original production: no changes, no edits, no revisions. Great question on several levels!

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Hm. I’m not sure there has been one yet. I will report back if one comes along!

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I’m not sure it can be classified as weird, but I do find the following question somewhat challenging to answer: what is your favorite project to date? I’m proud of all of our UMC projects and each one has special meaning to me. Thus, I’m not certain I can single out a favorite, especially since each project has really fed off the previous one.

Natalie Venetia Belcon and Jonathan Rayson dig their Fig Leaves.

4) Which elements of your revision to Fig Leaves do you think Hague and Sherman would like best and least? Why?
I suspect that they would like my creation of the variety show conceit. The original production was sprinkled with elements that hinted as this type of stylized structure (e.g., actors addressing the audience directly, production numbers built as show pieces), but without the clear definition of being an actual variety show. Additionally, I suspect Mr. Hague would enjoy our new rendition of his song “Man,” which recalls a Sinatra routine straight out of Vegas.

As to what they would like least, I am almost certain Mr. Sherman would not be happy that I removed several of his 1960s socio-political commentaries, such as a protest march, a “love-in” in Central Park and the sexual awakening of the younger set as seen through the central couple’s teenage children (one of which was originally played by David Cassidy). In researching Mr. Sherman, I found these were areas for which he had a great passion. As such, I suspect he would not like my having eliminated them from the show. However, I would hope he would understand that my doing so was primarily a function of storytelling, as my goal with this new production is to focus the story on the musical’s central married couple. I did not find that the socio-political commentaries fed into the core narrative in any type of robust way, so I chose to remove them and build up other elements of the story which directly related to the central marriage. If, in fact, he is upset, I hope Mr. Sherman will forgive me, as I made these edits only with good intentions.

5) Given that Fig Leaves is based on Allan Sherman’s divorce, and given that Sherman died young, what would you ask him if he magically appeared before you and said that you could ask him anything-but only one question.
I find the original production of Fig Leaves to be quite eclectic — or rather, varied — in its subject matter and style. As such, I would probably ask Mr. Sherman what his favorite element of the original production was and why.

Bonus question:

6) What would you ask George Abbott about his original direction of Fig Leaves if he, too, magically appeared before you and allowed you to ask him only one question?
Knowing that Mr. Abbott signed on to the project when there was already a production timeline in place, I would ask him what additional changes he would have made to the piece if the Broadway opening had been pushed back and he had more time to work.