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'I Married an Angel' exudes lightness
The Ann Arbor News- 8/ 15/ 2004
When an angel descends to earth, heavenly conditions don't necessarily follow.

So learns Willy Palaffi, the central character of Rodgers and Hart's musical "I Married an Angel," which the Comic Opera Guild will revive next weekend as a semi-staged concert. Palaffi, a wealthy playboy who's tired of the worldly women in Budapest, vows never to marry unless he meets a bona-fide angel. One just happens to overhear this declaration, of course, and Willy soon finds he has more, and greater, problems than before.

Rodgers and Hart wrote the musical as a film for MGM in 1933, but when the project seemed to die on the vine, they bought the rights and staged the show on Broadway (to rave reviews) in 1938, near the end of the Depression.
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"There is definitely an economic element to it," said Tom Petiet, the Comic Opera Guild's artistic director. "The male hero is a banker who marries an angel who always tells the truth, and this gets him into trouble. Naturally, there was a lot of resentment toward banks at the time. People had been hurt by them."

Another tie to the show's original era is its archetypal storyline of an innocent struggling to adapt to living in a fallen world. "This was a theme in a lot of shows of that time," said Petiet, who finds a contemporary equivalent in the character of Data, from "Star Trek: Next Generation." "We have a good time laughing at (Data), watching him tell the truth and trying to be human. But he also shows us how the Earth is full of lies and double-dealing."

Musical director Adam Aceto appreciates the lightheartedness of "Angel." "Theater now tries to be all things to all people, I think," he said. "People then just wanted to see something fun, light, tongue-in-cheek - an escape. They didn't want something with a message. They wanted something uplifting."

Getting Depression era audiences to forget their troubles was achieved, in part, through witty, clever lyrics, a stylistic bent of not only Lorenz Hart but also of his contemporary peer, Cole Porter.

"There was a lot of emphasis on language and wordplay then - much more so than now," said Petiet. "But you watch a movie like 'His Girl Friday' with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, and the wordplay, the banter in those movies was the whole fun of it. It was all part of the tradition of the time."

Despite the artistic similarities between Hart and Porter, Aceto sees a clear distinction between the lyricists: "Rodgers and Hart cut and pasted more," he said. "What I mean by that is if there was a good song in a show that flopped, they just stuck it into a different show.

"Cole Porter tailored each song more to a character or a situation, so they're not as extractable. Rodgers and Hart songs, you could sing on the radio. They were more generic in general."

Getting back to the pure, original versions of the songs in "Angel" was one of the Comic Opera Guild's goals, since a 1950s recording, by various artists, had altered their tone (giving one number a Latin flavor, doing another in a Dixieland style, etc.). This recording, though, planted the seed for the current revival when Aceto picked it up last winter in New York.

"There were hits I knew on it, but also some great songs I didn't know," said Aceto. "I just thought, if the script is even halfway as good as the songs, we've really got something."

Aceto and Petiet revised the script with an eye to capturing the spirit of the original show, removing its 1950s pop culture references and making it less jazzy in tone; these alterations proved challenging, since Aceto and Petiet had no access to original source materials. The music, however, was another matter. Through scholarship and listening to early recordings, Aceto was able to modify the score.

"We collected as much material as we could, and there was tons of it," said Aceto. "We wanted to know how the songs were supposed to go. The music had been rewritten, so we had to make it a little more square again."

Square or not, Rodgers and Hart, like their peer Cole Porter, had one common goal.

"Their shows are all after the same thing," said Aceto. "Though they were done in socially bad times, they were fanciful and fun. They just wanted people to have a good time."

Jenn McKee can be reached at (734) 994-6841 or jmckee@annarbornews.com.
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