A QUARTER-CENTURY’S WORTH OF HINDSIGHT places Anthony Newley’s tribute to the English working class, the music-hall musical Stop the World ... I Want to Get Off!, smack in the Angry Young Men tradition. But there’s no post-Osborne bitterness here; Newley was really only a Rather Concerned Young Man when he wrote and first performed in the show.
Every great clown finds a solid character in an Everyman, from belligerent Chaplin (whom Newley has portrayed) through more contemporary Britishers like Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness. And so with Newley, who gives us clown-faced Littlechap and an odyssey that crosses several continents and spans a lifetime without ever leaving a music hall stage.
Stop the World ... has the structure of a revue, its elements strung with music and characterization. The plot is flimsy, an excuse to offer sketches. It culminates with the Clown as Tragic Figure in the T.F.’s favorite device, that of self-sacrifice.
A staple of turn-of-the-century Music Hall comedy and song was the ethnic parody. In this country the favorite targets (from a Broadway perspective) were the Irish, Germans, and Blacks. Anything ethnic is an easy target because a cultural difference inspires fear, which invites hostility. And satire is hostility’s safe release.
From a working-class point of view, the ethnic shot is a binding force, allowing an audience to unite in contempt of an easily-spotted threat. Newley started the show with a witty diatribe against the Japanese that made a lot of friends in the audience.
And Littlechap has a series of affairs with women of different cultures, all played by the actress (Suzie Plaksin) who also plays his wife, Evie, the First Woman for the Everyman. This allows for a double shot of contempt: surely the working man has no more immediate enemy than the woman in his life.
Plaksin is dressed in a Vegas showgirl’s costume of stockings and glitter, an immediate objectification that carries into the quickie caricatures of a Russian, a German, and a Yank. Littlechap is attracted to them because the possibility of a conquest fuels his hostility and sex as a weapon is a fundamental piece of working-class artillery.
Nothing in the show suggests that Newley and Bricusse wrote it with any such examination, but rather an accurate aping of the values they saw in the life and popular theater of the English proletariat. And the timing was right for this show to gain success in the early 1960s, as depictions of working-class life were spread across the screen and the stage and the page. There also is a blind acceptance of the socio-religious values inculcated into a working-class Everyman. Pursuit of the boss’s daughter results in a child and a forced marriage. This is unassailable Destiny, a conspiracy of fecund women. Reinforced by a family of two daughters.
Littlechap’s first extramarital affair, while a triumph of conquest, is a punishable offense to the Family Ethic. She’s a woman he desires more than any other – or so he convinces himself – and Fate’s response has her die in childbirth.
Another enemy, the upper-class, is exemplified by the Boss, who moves his employee into a succession of jobs and eventually into politics. Thus Littlechap himself becomes one of the enemy.
As a tragic figure, he requires a tragic flaw. It’s logical within this context: self-love, the sin of Secular Humanism. From that point of view, the gesture of self-sacrifice required to ensure a male heir is seen as a Mephistophelean swap. Once successfully performed, however, it returns Littlechap to the bosom of his culture. The son is born, the cycle is renewed.
At the heart of this show is an aversion to self-examination. At critical points, Littlechap hollers the titular catch phrase and does a stand-up bit, relieving tension with a joke. So the struggle celebrated in this show is nothing more than the need to stay in your own station. From a working-class perspective, one that Newley himself champions, it’s a reassuring message, reinforcing the blind faith that keeps antique notions like Creationism alive. Viewed from any other perspective, it is disturbing and offensive.
The dynamo that is Anthony Newley played to a small house with a wholehearted energy that was infectious, and he was matched by co-star Plaksin, whose succession of ethnic-joke songs were put across nicely.
The set is a pile of whitewashed junk, sheathed in newspaper headlines. A chorus of punk-costumed girls sang and danced with a style that didn’t complemented the costuming, an unnecessary attempt to update the look of the show.
Tom Fay led an orchestra that included many local musicians in a splendid job of accompanying the well-known score. Altogether, the production, which originated at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, had a clean polish and turned Proctor’s back into the music hail it was built to be 60 years ago.
And if your ethic is as simple as Newley’s, this is a show for you. The story is that he got the title off a bathroom wall, but it’s the unhappy wail of a man doomed to repeat the mistakes of his elders.
Stop the World ... I Want to Get Off!
Book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley
Directed by Anthony Newley, Proctor's Theatre, Nov. 12
– 17 November 1986