By Heidi Madsen
Who can define music’s power to persuade us into a mood; to generate any type of ambiance; or to transform a heart, a mind—or a script? To lyricist Peter Sham and composer Brad Carroll the original play Lend Me a Tenor, a consummate farce set in the 1930s against an operatic backdrop, simply “cried out to be musicalized.” Responding to this irresistible overture and giving this play the gift of song and dance, Sham and Carroll have managed to summon hidden sentiment from a fast-paced plot of swinging doors and mistaken identities, transforming Ken Ludwig’s farce into an emotionally resonant musical reminiscent of the golden age.
Perhaps going even a step beyond Cole Porter’s play-within-a-musical Kiss Me Kate, Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical is essentially an opera-within-a musical comedy. The curtain rises on a stage set for the opening of Verdi’s Grand Opera Otello. Thunder sounds from the illusory sky above an imposing sculpted lion, logo of the Venetian Republic, as the ensemble begins to sing Dio, Fulgor Della Buffera. Suddenly, the director yells “Stop!” We find ourselves inside the Cleveland Grand Opera House in the middle of a rehearsal; it is 1934 on a Saturday afternoon, and the true characters of Sham and Carroll’s play are preparing for an upcoming performance. It is only a rehearsal, but these anxious opening moments of Otello mirror and set the tone for the master play, wherein another kind of storm is brewing. The dire situation is this, “Il Stupendo” (otherwise known as Tito Merelli), celebrated tenor and principal soloist, has yet to arrive and the gala premiere is only hours away.
Henry Saunders, executive director of the Cleveland Grand Opera House, is distraught to the point of eating wax fruit and insulting President Roosevelt, who calls to reserve two aisle seats. His earnest, almost self-effacing, assistant Max, who happens to be in love with Saunders’s daughter Maggie, tries to succor him as best he can. “Sir,” he sings, “you have to stop blowin’ a gasket or you’re gonna wind up in a casket.” However, Saunders, Max, and members of the Opera Guild all share the same dread: “If he doesn’t show there will be trouble. And they’ll find our bodies in the rubble!”
Merelli is a virtuoso in the world of grand opera. Not unlike his dramatic counterpart Otello, who won Desdemona by the sorcery of his voice, “Il Stupendo” has charmed the world with his arousing serenades. The city of Cleveland is bursting with the anticipation of hearing him sing. Socialites and bellhops alike are clamoring to catch a glimpse of him—there are even a few hopefuls who look to him as a sort of catalyst for their own dreams, including Saunders’s daughter, Maggie.
Maggie is one who hopes Merellli’s visit to Cleveland will somehow change her life. She has met him once before, backstage at La Scala. Still in costume (all three yards or so of it) and damp from the rigors of his performance, he kissed the inside of Maggie’s hand, rendering her unconscious. However, she does not swoon with ecstasy or hear wild bells and whistles when Max kisses her. In fact, their love affair seems only too placid in comparison with her brief, but memorable encounter with “Il Stupendo.” And now, at the prospect of seeing him again, all Maggie can think about is having a fling with the man behind the loincloth.
Unlike other characters in the play, Max has no thought of using Merelli for some personal benefit; and, yet, this does not imply that he is content with mediocrity. Max has secret ambitions and latent talents, discerned and expounded upon by Carroll and Sham. He dreams of filling a concert hall with the music of his own voice, and of inspiring the kind of passion in Maggie that she feels when she hears Tito sing. All that he lacks is a good opportunity and proper encouragement, which he receives, ironically enough, from Tito Merelli.
After Signore and Signora Merelli finally arrive at the Cleveland Hotel, Saunders happily escorts them up to their penthouse suite, only to discover that “Il Stupendo,” who stuffed himself sick on the train, is too ill to make the final rehearsal: No. I’m-a gonna sing right now, I’m-a gonna throw up on-a the soprano,” he informs an incredulous Max and Saunders. Tito needs to sleep it off for a few hours, and Max is told to stay with the ailing Tenor in his suite and do whatever he can to promote this. He mixes several sleeping pills into Merelli’s Chianti, unaware that Tito has already taken four in an effort to half appease, half provoke his fiery wife Maria. Before passing out, however, Merelli gives Max some useful hints on how to free his voice and let love inspire and guide him to his destiny. It proves to be very timely advice when Merelli does not wake up from his drugged sleep and Max must pose as “Il Stupendo” to sing the part of Otello—and become, in the inspired words of Tito, “The Lion!”
In spite of several twists and subplots, Brad Carroll identifies the dual-core of this play as the relationship between Max and Maggie, and “the bond (both musical and personal) between Max and Tito.” Within these two sagas there are similar motifs, such as learning to hear the music of one’s own heart and finding the courage to follow one’s own bliss. Through these important associations, it becomes clear that Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical is not a play of implausibilities, but a play about the infinite possibilities within each of us—for, the more outrageous and impractical the dream, the worthier the pursuit.