A University of Sheffield scholar has staged the European premiere of a long-forgotten American musical as part of a project combining research, teaching, outreach and postgraduate supervision.
Dominic McHugh, lecturer in musicology, is an expert on the Broadway musical. Following a study of My Fair Lady, he is now working on a book about Jule Styne (1905-94), the composer of dozens of songs featuring in musicals, including classics such as Funny Girl, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Gypsy. His songs include Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, Let It Snow! and Three Coins in the Fountain.
Since Styne was active from the 1940s to the 1990s, Dr McHugh said there are inevitably “a number of forgotten gems”. One was the Tony Award-winning 1953 musical Hazel Flagg, which ran for a “disappointing but not embarrassing” 190 performances, despite a team that included Ben Hecht (screenwriter of Gone With the Wind) and Bob Hilliard (lyricist of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland).
At the time, the score of a show that “didn’t have the legs” for a national tour and a London run was not published; it was just taken out of the orchestra pit and put in a box. Despite being notable for “missing pages, crossings out, scribbles”, it found its way to the US Library of Congress, and was reconstructed as part of a research degree by student Matthew Malone.
This will lead to a full-scale performing edition of the musical (complete with a long essay on its genesis by Dr McHugh and variants in an appendix), which others can revive.
The process of reconstruction has left Dr McHugh “amazed by how lively the show is and how much dramatic pressure there is”. He was also struck by the topicality of its theme of “living with the consequences of celebrity”.
Mr Malone conducted costumed and semi-staged performances of Hazel Flagg in Sheffield’s Firth Hall on 2 and 3 December. The cast of 20 and 34 musicians were all students, many on Dr McHugh’s course.
“We needed to stage it to see what works,” he explained, hoping that they will be able to feed back their findings into their edition of the score. But they are also “interested in recreating the original orchestration, an authentic 1950s sound with 30-40 musicians” (something no longer viable in commercial productions), since “people are not used to hearing such music played like that, with so much more orchestral colour”.
Student participation is voluntary, but Dr McHugh still sees these productions as “embedded into my module on the Broadway musical” and an excellent way of “taking learning beyond the classroom”.