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Home > Blog > November 2014 > Stephin Merritt on ARCHY AND MEHITABEL
Performing Arts Blog

Stephin Merritt on ARCHY AND MEHITABEL

November 6, 2014 by New York City Center
Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt, photographed by Gail O’Hara.

In our series My Dream Encores! Show, actors, writers, and directors discuss little-seen Broadway musicals that they’d like to see revived by our Tony-honored Encores! series. Stephin Merritt is the songwriter and lead singer behind The Magnetic Fields, as well as the author of 101 Two-Letter Words, a remarkable little book of mnemonic poems designed to help one win at Scrabble. For his dream Encores! show, Merritt selected archy and mehitabel, a 1954 musical about Archy, a high-minded cockroach who writes poetry and pines for a bohemian alleycat named Mehitabel.

CITY CENTER: How did you discover archy and mehitabel
STEPHIN MERRITT: I’ve been an admirer of Don Marquis’s cockroach poetry for decades, so when I was out record shopping and saw an album with Carol Channing as his Mehitabel the cat, I snapped it up. Gradually I learned the twisting history of these characters and their musical life: the Kleinsinger-Darion concept albums archy and mehitabel and echoes of archy, followed by a short-lived Broadway musical called Shinbone Alley with book by Mel Brooks, an animated version of that, a teleplay, and then assorted attempts by others. The especially juicy role of Mehitabel has gone to Carol Channing (on the albums and cartoon) and Eartha Kitt (on Broadway and the resulting cast album); I want to see who would do it now. Actually, I want it to be David Greenspan.

Eartha Kitt in Shinbone Alley

Eartha Kitt as the kept housecat Mehitabel in Shinbone Alley, which lasted 49 performances on Broadway in 1957. Photo by Sy Friedman and Joseph Abeles. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is a similarly dance-heavy cat musical, also inspired by early 20th century verse. Why do you think it was so much more successful than Shinbone Alley?
As for Cats, I could never get through the cloying little T. S. Eliot book, let alone the megamusical. I just don’t like watching other people dance. Dream ballets put me right to sleep. If I see dance it needs to be Pina Bausch, Mark Morris, or my friend Rashaun Mitchell. I hold no truck with dancing cats. Mehitabel should move like The Woman with No Name in the David Lynch TV series “On the Air”: a kabuki caricature of a slinky beatnik hipstress. And Archy should scurry. He does not own a top hat. Though David Greenspan is my personal imaginary Mehitabel, another sure-fire choice would be Rita Moreno. Mehitabel being on her ninth life, she can be portrayed by a performer of any age, and Moreno is just right. I’m imagining Mel Brooks himself as Archy. Why not?

Moreno and Brooks seem like ideal casting! They could be manipulated from above, using strings. Near the end of the concept album, when an unhinged Mehitabel beckons the winds, I was reminded of Lear—and maybe Mehitabel is a role like Lear, in the sense that by the time you’re old enough to understand it, you can no longer handle the dance breaks. I wonder if the show could ever truly work onstage. How would you stage it? How do you think Orson Welles (who considered directing the Broadway musical) might have staged it?
I saw Lithgow’s Lear at the Delacorte two months ago in torrential rain, which was memorably unique; and now that you mention it an unrelenting, increasingly dramatic rain might be just the Wellesian touch for the Alley. So maybe what is shown is not actors dressed as a bug and a cat; maybe the right director is Basil Twist, who makes everyone but Archy gigantic. Has it ever been staged for puppets, I wonder? It seems like the perfect way to introduce the first all-puppet season of Encores! And then Julian Crouch does a puppet version of The Hot Mikado; and the Bread and Puppet Theater does The Cradle Will Rock. And Mummenschanz does Oh! Calcutta!...or would that be going too far?

Eartha Kitt and Cast on Stage

Shinbone Alley had one of the first integrated casts on Broadway; dancers dangled from fire escapes and Archy wrote his “immortal poetry” by dancing on a fifteen-foot-high typewriter. Photo by Sy Friedman and Joseph Abeles. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

In her memoir, Carol Channing says she recorded the concept album when she was nine months pregnant; she went into labor the next day while at a Harry Belafonte concert. I wonder if that informed her reading of the “Mother Love” lullaby, in which Mehitabel contemplates letting her kittens drown in an ashcan. Can you talk about that moment?
“i will make a home for the little innocents / unless of course providence should remove them” seems to have expressed the parental attitudes of a whole generation. When I made the cast album of my Chinese revenge opera The Orphan of Zhao, the heroine announces her killing spree with a particularly gory song, “The World Is Not Made of Flowers.” The singer, Jenny Bacon, was practically in labor, and her ferocity was terrifying. Channing, in contrast, sounds almost human.

A few critics thought that Kleinsinger and Darion’s musical made the characters too human—especially in their choice to have Archy fall in love with Mehitabel.
Agreeing with the critical consensus, I don’t think the romantic angle adds anything to the story. And what monstrous thing would be their progeny? 

So many musicals—Shinbone, The King and I, My Fair Lady—have bent their source material to fit a traditional romantic structure. Do you think a musical about platonic friendship could ever work?
Off the top of my head, Once is a musical about a platonic friendship, where the playgoer doesn’t feel cheated. So not every musical needs to end in a fertility ritual.

Aside from the romantic angle, does the score of archy and mehitabel do a good job capturing Don Marquis’s free verse style?
Eschewing rhyme and meter is one thing in a newspaper column, and quite another in a theater song; Joe Darion’s lyrics quote Marquis directly, and a minute can go by without a single rhyme. Because of this choice, the songs can initially seem amateurishly formless and terrible. The one that gets stuck in my head, “Flotsam and Jetsam,” is totally traditional and could be transplanted into another show.

Along with “Flotsam and Jetsam,” there’s “Toujours Gai,” which was traditional enough to get a pop recording from Eartha Kitt. What do you make of this song? Is it painful to you that pre-1960s lyrics with the word “gay” in them have taken on a meaning they didn’t want, and can’t overcome?
The old slang meaning of “gay” to indicate a person of loose sexual mores has disappeared except for arguably Mehitabel’s endless refrain, “toujours gai toujours gai.” Nowadays no one in the public eye says “gay,” they say “LGBT” or some such, which is a mealy-mouthed euphemism if you ask me.

Is there a term you prefer?
I like “gay, etc.” It doesn’t marginalize anyone, because Lesbians are gay, Bisexuals are partly gay and that’s the part we’re talking about, and the Transgendered are gay either one way or the other. As for Q: If you’re Questioning, we can help you resolve that in minutes, and if not you’re B, see above. 

Besides your curiosity to see who’d play Mehitabel, why does archy and mehitabel deserve another look?
Theater without casting is like astronomy without stars! Give me Patti LuPone and I’ll give you a smash hit production of archy and mehitabel which will tour forever. And let Mel Brooks be Archy. Ah has spoken!

Eddie Bracken Cockroach

An impossible love: Eartha Kitt and Eddie Bracken as a cat and cockroach in Shinbone Alley. Photos by Sy Friedman and Joseph Abeles. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

I’d like to talk a little about your life in the theater. I read that you took dance in high school. Did you ever dance or act in school musicals?
I never danced onstage; nobody did, our theater was too small. I was very involved in the plays at school, but they were mostly straight plays. I wrote music for The Good Woman of Setzuan (which is probably illegal, but I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired), but I suddenly had a lifesaving kidney operation a week or so before the show, so I don’t remember seeing it. But I do remember what everyone said happened: Due to chaos backstage an actor doing a quick change entered with a coat hanger sticking out of his shirt, which caught on a flat, which brought the entire set crashing down on everyone. Since I was also supposed to have been in the show (I played Blank, or was that in Pantagleize?), I would have been onstage; I like to imagine that I would have been killed. (Though no one else was.)

In the documentary Strange Powers, you’re seen flipping through your notebooks, and one page reads, “the idea of me writing a musical: The Man. (A) Musical. 100 1-minute songs. A Hundred Love Songs. 100 Love Songs. Piece of cake. It’ll take a few weeks.” Were you writing about your album 69 Love Songs there?
As for [the idea of an 100-song evening], I wanted to do that with Tales of the City (which is based on 100 one-page installments), but it ended up with Scissor Sisters.

How would you have made Mary Ann Singleton interesting?
I would have let Mary Ann be the passive observer she is in the book, like so many musical heroines who start pretty blank and grow into an identity.

Speaking of your unrealized musicals, can you tell me about The Song from Venus?
The Song from Venus is about a record from Venus that makes people fall in love, and its repercussions among the youth of today as they fall in and out of love even faster than in real life, though that process has sped up since we wrote the screenplay a decade ago. Unfortunately there turns out to be an odd number of people in the world…

Is there still hope for it?
Never say die! If someone tosses us a billfold, we’ll shop it around. Maybe I’ll pitch it to my gay dentist.

I remember reading that you and Neil Gaiman were working on a musical about Grand Guignol theater. Is that still happening?
The Grand Guignol show is currently on hold, and we’re working on something else I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about yet, for the Public Theater.

Could you share something cryptic about it? A one-word clue? An emoticon?
The big thing we’ve agreed upon so far is: No wings! 

When your musical Coraline played Off-Broadway in 2009, you said, “This is part of my plan to make 50 successful Hollywood musicals.” Does that remain an ambition?
Do I want to make 50 successful Hollywood musicals? Sure! Ambition is free. But I also want to make a lot more Obie-winning Off-Broadway shows where the audience genuinely never knows what to expect. Musicals are necessarily strings of clichés; but they mustn’t always be the same clichés over and over again.

Matt Weinstock writes for the publications at New York City Center.