Stage Musicals vs. History: L to P
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)
(All photos below are thumbnails click on them to see larger versions.)
The plot of Peter Allen's musical has practically nothing to do with the real Jack Diamond, who was a ruthless mob gunman, not an entertainer. He worked his way up to operating several speakeasies, including New York's legendary Hotsy Totsy Club. No one is sure how many deaths Legs was responsible for, but it was not a small number. He developed a reputation for survival by escaping several attempts on his life. His luck ran out in 1931 when the Dutch Schultz gang gunned him down in Albany.
This show is closer to the facts than most of its critics might like to admit. Mabel Normand was a waitress in Flatbush before her years in silent film, and she did have a long-term affair with the tempestuous Mack Sennett. Normand was one of several stars ruined by the mysterious murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Normand's death in 1930 was probably drug related. There have been several attempts to revise the book, either ending the show before Mabel's death or ignoring it altogether which doesn't wash, since the plot is seen as a flashback from 1938. Jerry Herman's beloved score may never overcome these seemingly irreparable book issues.
Patrick Dennis (whose real name was Everett Tanner) had an aunt Marion Tanner who claimed that she was the inspiration for Auntie Mame. She was an eccentric who turned her Greenwich Village townhouse into a haven for actors and artists (including young Billie Holliday), but her life bore minimal resemblance to the glamorous character seen in the novel, the play or the musical. In truth, Patrick was no orphan, and was raised by his own parents. After the fictional Auntie Mame became an institution, Patrick was plagued by Marion's often embarrassing attempts to publicize herself at his expense. He tried paying for her silence, but it proved useless. She outlived Patrick, and kept grabbing for tabloid publicity right through her final impoverished years in a nursing home.
The characters are fictional, but this musical does capture the excitement felt in the Oklahoma territory as it prepared for full statehood in the early 1900s. However, that territory was home to many Native Americans something you would never guess from seeing the all-Caucasian line-up in this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The play it was based on (Lynn Riggs' drama Green Grow the Lilacs) depicts some characters as being at least partly of Native American ancestry.
The high-level history covered here (Japan's feudal system, the West forcing its way into Japan) is based on historical fact. Although most of the main characters are figments of librettist John Weidman's imagination, the show brilliantly captures the culture clash that would reshape the world in the 20th century.
Acclaimed playwright Alfred Uhry's libretto sticks closely to the known facts in the Leo Frank case not surprising, since members of Uhry's family knew the Franks personally. Some of the peripheral characters and discussions are fictional, but all serve to support or illuminate the central story line. While most experts agree that Frank was an innocent man, his lynching is still a sensitive issue in Atlanta.