Originally published in AOB News (the newsletter of the Association of Objectivist Businessmen) VIII:5 (Sept./Oct. 1998), pp. 10-11.
You will never see your wife's name on the warrant sending a friend to the guillotine, or avenge his death by using disguises and diversions to rescue other aristocrats, while being relentlessly pursued by a fanatical killer who happens to be your wife's former lover. So why pay $75 (or even $20) for a seat to watch the Scarlet Pimpernel sing his way through such escapades on Broadway? Not for the sake of the story's concrete details, but for its sense of life: a work of art such as The Scarlet Pimpernel shows a world that is a challenge and an adventure, where one can achieve one's values, defend them against evil, and laugh while doing it.
I fell in love with The Scarlet Pimpernel long before it came to Broadway - more precisely, I fell in love with the lush melodies and imaginative, evocative lyrics on the concept CD. Incredibly, the cast recording from the Broadway show is even better. "Into the Fire" is a rousing battle song - an intelligent man stating his determination to fight for his ideals in spite of his fears. "When I Look at You," sung by a bewildered woman when the man she fell in love with seems to have vanished - even though he's right in front of her - could just as well be sung by Dagny Taggart watching Francisco d'Anconia playing marbles. "She Was There" tells of love lost, desperately missed and unexpectedly, joyously rediscovered. In "You Are My Home," a brother and sister facing imminent, brutal death at the hands of their worst enemy assert their love for each other with dignity and courage. (Sung as a choral piece, rather than a duet as on the concept CD, this song brought tears to my eyes.) And then there is the hilarious "Creation of Man" . . . I could go on, but I'll leave some delights for you to discover. Frank Wildhorn's aim is to write songs that tell a story within the show, but can also stand alone as popular music, and many songs in The Scarlet Pimpernel have the melody, lyrics and scope to do so.
When the curtain rises at the Minskoff Theatre, Percy is not yet a daring rescuer of aristocrats, and while one would like to see him being intelligent and heroic more often, it's clear that behind the foppish façade, Percy is passionately and cleverly fighting for his values. Douglas Sills plays him with humor, courage and gusto; I've never seen him turn in a half-hearted performance. Chauvelin is unforgettable as a man who transforms himself from an intelligent, exasperated bureaucrat without ideals ("There was a dream, a dying ember / There was a dream I don't remember") into the embodiment of the Reign of Terror, obsessed with blood and power ("Days of glory! Days of rage! / And the dream of Paris preys on my bones / Gnawing night and day and clawing through my brain . . . "). And yet, Terence Mann manages to imbue a character working on all the wrong principles with such ferocious integrity and dark fascination that when he sings "Where's the Girl?," most women in the audience want to shout "Here! Here!" Christine Andreas is absolutely convincing as Marguerite, who had the strength to survive the Reign of Terror with her love of life intact ("Darlings, life is such romance! / Give this world a sweeping glance / Let it set your soul a-dancing / Night and day!"), and who, when she suddenly and inexplicably loses her husband's love, refuses to let it go without a struggle.
All three of these actors have superb voices and play their roles straight, never mocking themselves, their values, or the story. Since the contracts of the original cast expire this fall, and it's possible some of them will move on, I'd highly recommend seeing The Scarlet Pimpernel soon.
More often than not, the creation of a work of art is described by artists and critics in terms of flashes of inspiration and haphazard, nearly subconscious execution. Hence it was a particular pleasure to read Nan Knighton's comments in the booklet that comes with the cast recording of The Scarlet Pimpernel. She makes it clear that she and Frank Wildhorn put a great deal of thought and effort into the lyrics and music, as one would expect of a project in which millions were invested, and which was brought to Broadway with the expectation of making a profit for its producers. I hope it does - I'd like to be able to enjoy it for many years.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Starring: Douglas Sills, Christine Andreas, Terrence Mann
Music by Frank Wildhorn, Book & Lyrics by Nan Knighton
Directed by Peter Hunt
Based on the novel by Baroness Orczy
Original Broadway cast recording available on Atlantic Theatre - don't read the plot summary before you see the play.
Original Broadway cast CD (1998): The Scarlet Pimpernel: The New Musical
Follow-up Broadway CD (1999): The Scarlet Pimpernel: Encore!
A concept recording was issued in 1991 with Linda Eder (what a marvelous voice!), Chuck Wagner and Dave Clemmons; it includes a few wonderful songs not used in the Broadway production. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1991 Concept Cast)