There was a ridiculous attempt to re-stage “Kismet” a few years’ ago in the ENO. It is a shame that it went wrong because the original show and the Howard Keel film is wonderful in all ways. When the day is most dull, I find a few minutes of the old Vincente Minnelli film from the 1950s restores a healthy heart.
Even the wooden performance of the prince in the film is enchanting. “Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise.” There is plenty strange in that setting- a very strange cockerel in a bush, a strange white peacock and alot of strange fake grass. The prince is hardly out of place in the strangeness. Who cares! This is simply a glimpse at a 3d version of a persian minature. I am sure it influenced Richard Williams when he set out to devise “the thief and the cobbler”. After all, Williams also used a score overwhelmed by the crypto-Georgian composer, Alexander Borodin (Бородин).
There was a reworking of the show called Timbuktu! with Eartha Kitt in the late 1970s. It kept many of the big songs, though it lost the song I think is best…
Kismet certainly influenced me in the early 1980s when, in Oxford, there was a production of “Hassan” by James Elroy Flecker. It was the first play I designed for the Oxford Playhouse and the directors (there were two of them) wanted lots of painted backdrops. It was a disaster and the only time I have witnessed the downing of tools by a cast who observed correctly that there were more of them on stage than there were audience in the auditorium.
I remember, though, working day and night in the workshop on a 30 foot painting representing a city slum. In fact, hidden in the slum was a magical golden palace so I sprinked a few peacocks and various fantasy clouds of blue and pink oozing from hookahs. While I was painting, one of my friends came by and I explained this was a picture of a slum. From then on, he assumed that I was so divorced from reality that I believed poverty was a thing of camp glitter. A few terms’ later, in the summer, I think, I designed “the Mikado”. I am still rather pleased with the design actually, and found a few drawings for it the other day. One of the features was a gauze frontdrop that fell half-way through the 1st Act finale separating Katisha from the chorus which was fun to paint and to see.
In the same term, I also designed a garden show of a greek tragedy by Euripides called ION. It was all in Greek with a pastiche of a hatzidakis score by a man called Clive Thomms. He was very talented and I have no idea what happened to him afterwards. I painted the ION sets in the cloisters at my college- it caused a bit of a stir. Later I recreated the look in the dining room of a friend’s house just outside Oxford. It must have been a bit dark- it was a recreation of Red-figure vase painting.
Otherwise, that year in Oxford was dominated by demands from a weary Canadian director for audition after audition of pieces he was proposing to direct in the Oxford Playhouse. I got very good at making cardboard mock-ups of the stage there. I think the list ran something like King Lear, Julius Caesar, Man of La Mancha, Samson Agonistes, Macbeth, the Rivals and Duchess of Malfi. I miss those maquettes a bit. In the end, I had a basic model that I rebuilt again and again as desired. It was not until my second year that I started to get a good run of shows and then I was designing sometimes 3 or 4 plays a term and a good many more posters. By the time I got to designing Peter Pan, I think I had working lights on the model.
My favourite song in KISMET is “Not since Nineveh”. It is sublime. And “the fool sat beneath an olive tree..” is pretty good too. “Why be content with the olive when you could have the tree?” I love the irony of seeing the Caliph’s procession going back in the distance behind the main characters…This is simply Minnelli at his best and it is strange that Kismet is one of those films that is almost impossible to access today. Somehow, time has not favoured this classic.
I remember seeing Delores Gray in the London production of “Follies”. She had quite a run of British action, appearing in The Good Old days and Dr Who but she also did a stint at RADA and the year she made Kismet, she also made “It’s always fair weather” a great Gene Kelly show. It is odd altogether. She makes “Kismet” sizzle. She is spectacular. In the past, I remember dismissing this film as kitch, but now I realise this is kitch with class. It is high camp as well as kitsch. There’s a good yiddish work (קיטש) by the way, so Shava Tova for today!