The Boy Friend
PRODUCED / DIRECTED by Ken Russell
SCREENPLAY by Ken Russell
BASED ON A MUSICAL by Sandy Wilson
BOOK / MUSIC / LYRICS by Sandy Wilson
MUSIC DIRECTION by Peter Maxwell Davies
CHOREOGRAPHY by Christopher Gable
CINEMATOGRAPHY by David Watkin
PRODUCTION DESIGN by Tony Walton
COSTUME DESIGN by Shirley Russell
That Ken Russell is a maniac is a given. Just look at Lisztomania, The Music Lovers, or Mahler. Most everybody would agree that with an over-the-top story like Tommy, he was the perfect choice. Critics loved The Devils and Women in Love, were less enchanted with many of his other grotesqueries.
Many purist critics hated The Boy Friend. Russell took a simple little musical or a jazzy spoof, depending on who you listen to (and which I’ve never seen on stage) and turned it into a huge, inflated, jokey mega-production. These critics said the charm of the original was that it was small.
I’m a purist only when I choose to be. Screw purity. What the madman Ken Russell has made out of this simple little story is Busby Berkeley on steroids and LSD.
“All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing!”
Premise: A third-rate theater company in England is staging a little trifle called “The Boy Friend.” It’s a matinee, the theater is pretty big, there are maybe 14 people in the audience. Backstage, we learn that the Big Star has broken her ankle. Twiggy, the little mouse of an Assistant Stage Manager, responsible for understudying all the female parts, suddenly is thrust on stage by the frantic director. Meanwhile, one De Thrill, famous Hollywood producer/director, has dropped in to while away a dull afternoon. Soon the whole cast knows he’s out there, and not only do they sing and dance their hearts out, they never miss an opportunity to shamelessly upstage everybody else.
Thus is born the multiple points of view that make this work so well for me. First, we have the actual production, which actually ain’t half bad, with bright and original sets and costumes, and damn good dancing. Second, we see the anguished director fantasizing how he’d stage the show with full orchestra and a Flo Ziegfeld-type budget. Third, we see the even vaster imaginings as De Thrill imagines how he’d mount the number on a giant Hollywood sound stage.
So what do you get? You get Tommy Tune, who is tall, like me, is from Texas, like me, and who can dance! (Not like me at all.) You get Twiggy, who was a total surprise as the waif Polly Brown, suddenly thrust in over her head, awkward but determined, getting better as she goes along. Not unlike Twiggy herself.
On stage, you get “Sur la Plage” with cardboard ocean and dancing girls in jellyfish hats and people arriving in cardboard cars. You get some of the wildest dancing I’ve ever seen in “Won’t You Charleston With Me?” as cast members try to outdo one another to impress De Thrill, with hand-held cameras, stomping atop the piano, climbing the scenery, all lit with merciless spotlights at stage front.
In the stage director’s mind you get “The Boy Friend,” with an orchestra pit the size of the superbowl, Twiggy as a Rolls-Royce hood ornament, dozens of girls in spangles climbing ladders, three chorines holding a giant golf ball.
In De Thrill’s mind you get “A Room in Bloomsbury,” with Twiggy and Christopher Gable in a room full of furniture that makes them seem two feet tall, then a madcap descent into an insane fairyland that makes Munchkinland seem like a slum. You get contrabassoons and bass saxophones. Then you get “Safety in Numbers,” with dancing dice and playing cards, with two (count ‘em, 2!) giant turntables on a split screen, seen from overhead, a kaleidoscope of twisting legs and arms and dancin’ feet, a house of mirrors.
And at the end, “The Riviera” with dozens of girls dancing on the wings of a biplane in a hilarious sendup of that craziness from Flying Down To Rio, as stagehands shovel “snow” into the blades of giant fans.
I’m not even covering half of it, and of course words can never convey the sheer lunacy of it all, nor the sheer beauty. The Boy Friend is the apotheosis of all musicals, spoofing them and celebrating them at the same time.
And be sure you get the director’s cut, released later, which includes a priceless number with synchronized old-timey wicker wheelchairs on the boardwalk at Brighton.