The first reason I love the Irish Repertory Theater’s “performance on screen” of “Meet Me in St. Louis” will sound like a backhanded compliment: It got me to watch the original 1944 Judy Garland movie, which is readily available online, and which I had never seen. I can’t account for this lapse; I didn’t know what I was missing. The script about the rambunctious Smith family of St. Louis in the early 1900s is often wry and witty, and the acting first-rate, but what’s most astonishing is Judy Garland, whose beauty positively glistens on the screen, as she sings the three songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane introduced in the movie that have become beloved American standards — “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” , and especially “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
Most Americans probably knew this already, having seen the movie, which of course begs the indelicate question: Why stream a new screen version of “Meet Me in St. Louis” when people can see the old screen version starring Judy Garland just as easily?
The answer involves a little history. In 1989, two South African producers, the married couple Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke, adapted the movie as a Broadway musical, adding more songs and incorporating more of the original semi-autobiographical short stories by Sally Benson on which the movie was based. The Times critic eviscerated the production, but it was nominated for four Tony Awards and lasted 252 performances. The cast featured several illustrious Broadway veterans, including Charlotte Moore as the mother. A year earlier, Moore had co-founded the Irish Repertory Theater with Ciarán O’Reilly, both of whom remain with the theater to this day. The stage musical clearly stayed with Moore, because in 2006, she adapted and directed it for the Irish Rep stage.
That version, cut to about 90 minutes (plus a ten minute intermission) has now been translated into the online offering, available through January 2, with Moore performing the voiceover narration. At the beginning of the video, Moore explains that she is currently stuck in quarantine in her house in St. Louis, which is her hometown (!)
So we can understand why Moore has a sentimental attachment to the stage musical. But why should we?
2. Shereen Ahmed, who takes on the Judy Garland role of Esther Smith, isa revelation. She has the exquisite voice and luminous beauty of a star, as she portrays the second eldest of the four quirky Smith sisters, conniving to win the love of the boy next door, John Truitt. Her only Broadway credit so far was as the understudy for Eliza Doolittle in the Lincoln Center production of My Fair Lady, followed by the lead role on tour. It seems an easy prediction that she’ll be returning to the stage when Broadway returns, unless Hollywood snatches her up, and having seen her in this Irish Repertory production will give her future fans some boasting rights.
3. The mother in the movie doesn’t get a song to sing; she does in the adapted musical, and thank goodness for that, because the character is played by Melissa Errico, a Tony-nominated Broadway veteran who’s knocked me out since she played a goddess in A Touch of Venus at Encores! a quarter of a century ago, and has been a major draw to the Irish Rep almost as long. In the lovely “You’ll Hear A Bell,” written by the movie’s songwriting team, Mrs. Smith sings to her daughter about how she’ll know that she’ll fall in love: “A bird will sing/ a bee will sting, a bell will ring.”
It’s also a plus for this production that it has omitted a song that was in both the movie and the Broadway version – “Under the Bamboo Tree,” which supplied the beat for Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien’s top hat and cane cakewalk, but whose lyrics have unacceptable racist undertones
4. The 13 performers are pros. If theydon’t all shine equally, the cast as a whole reflects a commitment to inclusion that suggests a modern definition of family. The Smith family features Irish-Americans, sure, but also African-Americans, an Egyptian-American, a Filipino-American, a Japanese-American.
That commitment to inclusiveness extends to making the show accessible — it’s pay what you can (including zero, if you can’t pay), and there are specific performances that are captioned.
5. Irish Rep continues its technical inventiveness in the online medium, improving on what was already an impressive achievement in its recent online production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet. As in that production, the actors appear to be acting on stage together, even though they are actually performing separately in homes from Brooklyn to Baltimore. The technical team have eliminated much of the weirdness that occurred in the earlier production when two or more of the characters appeared on the screen together. Now, in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” characters hug. They dance. Esther and John even kiss – which Melissa Errico describes as “the primal act of musical theater, the ingénue kissing the juvenile…only with the actors hundreds of miles apart, locked down in their apartments, acting into their iPhones, while the rest of us in the cast watch from our own muted Zoom squares.”
Errico describes this in a terrific article she wrote in the New York Times that details the complicated process by which 13 actors who don’t actually meet in this Meet Me in St. Louis, appear as an ensemble — through their use in isolation of props and lighting equipment and green cloth mailed to their homes. It’s fun to see this new generation of socially distanced online theater being refined before our eyes.
6. There are limitations with which the cast and crew of the Irish Rep had to grapple that didn’t exist for the cast and crew of the Hollywood movie, and it shows – there is little dancing, for example. But their limitations are the same with which we are all grappling these days. It helps make more current a story in which the greatest threat to the Smith family is that Mr. Smith, offered a better-paying job in New York City, wants them all to move here. Having just been informed of the impending move, the (delightfully) morbid youngest daughter is so despondent that Esther sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The original lyrics includedHave yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
But Judy Garland reportedly thought that was too dark to sing to a little girl, so she had Martin make the lyrics lighter. Still, when Shereen Ahmed’s Esther sings the song with the “new” lyrics, it feels plenty dark, and hopeful, and something we all in 2020 share with her:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Meet Me in St. Louis
A Holiday Special inSong and on Screen
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Songs by Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane
Based on The Kensington Stories by Sally Benson
and the MGM Motion Picture Meet Me in St. Louis
Adapted & Directed by Charlotte Moore
Music Direction by John Bell
Orchestrations by Josh Clayton
Produced by Ciarán O’Reilly
Cast: Shereen Ahmed (as Esther Smith), William Bellamy (as Lon Smith), Rufus Collins (as Alonzo Smith), Kerry Conte (as Lucille Ballard), Melissa Errico (as Anna Smith), Ali Ewoldt (as Rose Smith), Kathy Fitzgerald (as Katie), Ian Holcomb (as Warren Sheffield), Austyn Johnson (as Agnes), Jay Aubrey Jones (as Grandpa), Kylie Kuioka (as Tootie), Ashley Robinson (as postman etc.), Max Von Essen (as John Truitt.)