2015 sees not only the centenary of Billy Strayhorn, but also of Orson Welles.
In the course of researching Strayhorn's involvement with musical theatre (surely the new frontier of research into the musician's work), I discovered, courtesy of Google Books the following extract from America’s Mistress: EarthaKitt, Her Life and Times by John L. Williams:
Othello had been a huge strain to make – at one point Welles had resorted literally to throwing himself at the feet of the movie producer Darryl Zanuck to beg for funding – and most of the actors had yet to be paid. So, as something of a relaxation (and a way of generating some quick cash), he had decided to debut two short plays at a theatre in Paris and then tour them around Europe. The project would be relatively low-key and a chance to focus on acting for a change. At least that was the idea.
The two plays were an anti-Hollywood satirical squib called The Unthinking Lobster with Suzanne Cloutier starring opposite Welles, and an extremely loos e adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus entitled Time Runs. This would feature Orson again, plus Hilton Edwards (Micháel MacLiammóir’s partner in both life and work) in the role of Mephistopheles. Duke Ellington had agreed to provide the music. The play also required an actress to play the part of Helen of Troy, a timeless embodiment of feminine beauty. Welles had trouble deciding whom to cast for this part. He’d tentatively offered it to several different actresses before he had the notion of asking the young woman he’d seen dance with Katherine Dunham and perform in cabaret at Carroll’s club: Eartha Kitt. He’d done his best to get hold of Eartha, but had been told she was still in New York. So he’d found another potential Helen instead, the Anglo-American singer and actress Annie Ross.
But Orson was a capricious employer and when Eartha showed up at the theatre he decided that she was after all his perfect Helen of Troy. She was in and Annie Ross was out. Annie duly received the bad news:
“I realised I hadn’t been given a rehearsal call, so I rang the theatre a couple of days later. This voice said, ‘I’m his secretary’. I said, ‘Can you tell me when my call is?’ and he said, ‘Mr Welles last night rewrote the whole play and he’s cast somebody else,’ so I said, ‘Oh what a drag.’ I was really disappointed. And that person turned out to be Eartha.”
Not only did Eartha have the part, but it was now a rather bigger one than originally planned. Orson rewrote the play overnight, prompted by his enthusiasm for his new Helen. As he told his biographer: “Eartha Kitt was obviously a star. You could tell that.”
Rehearsals were to start the following day, a Tuesday. According to Eartha, the show was due to open the following Saturday. However, an examination of Micheál Mac Liammóir’s published diary suggests this to be an exaggeration. His entry of 28 may reveals that Eartha had already been cast and the opening night was not until 19 June. So there was probably something closer to a month’s preparation. Meanwhile there was scenery to be painted and costumes to be sewn. Some of this, Eartha was used to, thanks to her time with the Dunhams, but the acting was a whole new challenge for her. Orson Welles recognised this and would stay late at the theatre with her helping her with her lines.
Mac Liammóir’s diary offers a vivid picture of Time Runs’ genesis:
[Time Runs] is based on the legend of Dr Faustus … it is as strangely moving in its way as one expects from Orson; it also has a dark malevolent glitter that causes the flesh to creep. The stage is populated by actors in the role of students of the Jean-Paul Sartre order conducting brisk debate on damnation with a young coloured girl (her name is Eartha Kitt, discovered by Hilton and orson in some nightclub in the rue du Colisée, a tiny, curious, bitterly-smiling fascinating creature), who at given moments flashes an electric torch on the audience as she sings in a husky amber voice about Satan, Hell and eternal Damnation (swing). Music, however, not yet written, so at present eartha K strings notes together herself, often with lovely haphazard effect. Who’s going to write it?
The answer to this last question was meant to be Duke Ellington, who had met Welles in 1941 and was currently touring Europe. Unfortunatley the demands of touring meant that Ellington himself was unable to devote much time to the project. However he was able to send his regular co-writer, the wonderfully talented Billy Strayhorn, to Paris. Strayhorn was happy about this as his long-term lover Aaron Bridgers had recently moved to the city and just been hired as the pianist at eartha’s favourite hangout, the Mars Club. Strayhorn was given four Orson Welles song titles (though no actual lyrics)to work with: Me is the Trouble, Zing, Zing, In the Dungeon of Guilt and Song of the Fool.
Close to show-time Welles still hadn’t written any lyrics and was considering cutting the songs altogether. At one point he sent Hilton Edwards to Stockholm to meet Ellington and ask for a number of pieces of incidental music. Nothing appears to have come of that mission, however, at elast for the show. Instead Welles went out with Strayhorn to the Café de la Paix and over several drinks came up with the odd, haunting words for Me is the Trouble (words surely inspired by his enigmatic new star): Hungry little trouble, bound in a bubble, yearning to be, be or be free/ All that you see, is all about me/ Hungry me.
Strayhorn gave them a mournful blues setting and hoped for the best.
Here are a couple of pictures of the Ellington band (with vocalist Betty Roché) on that tour, performing at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris, 1950.