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The 'Roald Dahl' Musical Odyssey - Part 1
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• Posted by: Clint Morgan   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Sunday, July 24, 2022, at 4:27 a.m.
• IP Address:

Part 1: From Suspenseful Stories to Golden Tickets

NOTE: Each title in this series will be covered in chronological order. I should also point out that many of Dahl's earlier suspense stories for adults were adapted for television throughout the 1950s and early '60s; a few were even featured in Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Unfortunately, many of these episodes were lost to time, and only a handful of them can be found today. At some point, I might go back and recover those that are still available, but for now, I will only be focusing on a couple in particular.

'Way Out ("William and Mary") (1961)
• Teleplay written by Roald Dahl, adapted from his short story (originally published in 1959 and subsequently added to a collection of short stories for adults entitled "Kiss Kiss")
• Episode aired March 1, 1961, on CBS
• Theme music by Otto Clarence Luening, Vladimir Alexeevich Ussachevsky, and Tod Dockstader, with original music composed by Robert Cobert

If you've never heard of 'Way Out, you're probably not alone. It was a modestly produced horror anthology series shot in black-and-white, and was paired with The Twilight Zone on CBS for Friday evening broadcasts from March to July of 1961. Producer David Susskind sought out Roald Dahl, an established author of suspense stories for adults, to help him organize the show and also introduce each episode, the writer's subversive wit and dry cadence providing a perfect setup for the show's macabre tone (much like Hitchcock's droll monologues in Alfred Hitchcock Presents). The first episode is based on Dahl's own short story in which a controlling husband allows his brain to be kept "alive" after his death in order to torment his long-suffering wife, but she inevitably gets the last laugh*. In his introduction, Dahl wryly reflects on writing the story: "I thought it was perfectly beastly." The episode stars Mildred Dunnock and Henry Jones as the titular couple, and Fritz Weaver as Dr. Landy, the neurosurgeon from hell. Even the most preposterous of plots couldn't deter the pleasure of watching such talented performers play it straight as they do here. In his only scene, for example, Henry Jones' exaggerated facial expressions and terse comebacks are a must-see. The remaining episodes, while not written by Dahl, contain similarly "beastly" concepts that would feel right at home in the author's own collection of adult tales.

When I started my research for this odyssey, I knew nothing about this series or Dahl's involvement in it. However, despite its obscurity, I found 'Way Out to be an entertaining diversion, if only for its dark humor and solid acting. Perhaps due to budget constraints, the show relies primarily on electronic music (most likely Wurlitzer and/or Hammond organs as far as I could tell) and avant-garde techniques to create its spooky, gothic soundscape, with minimal orchestral presence in most episodes. The composing team for the series included electronic music pioneers Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Tod Dockstater, who all contributed to the aleatoric intro theme; Dark Shadows series composer Robert Cobert provided the original music featured in all 14 episodes. Screeching stingers, creepily meandering organ solos, and foreboding chords are commonly used throughout the series to underline suspense and moments of shocking revelation, with hardly a single romantic or purely tonal moment. In "William and Mary," interestingly enough, the score features a recurring 4-note "sinking" motif that appears to be a direct reference to Stravinsky's ballet "The Firebird" as well as Miklós Rózsa's classic score for Spellbound. This particular idea consists of three descending chromatic pitches before the fourth pitch lands on a lower tone, with the distance between the first and last pitches in the sequence delineating a tritone (a.k.a. "The Devil's Chord"). It's a surefire musical technique for conveying an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, so its usage in this context is appropriate. No soundtrack album exists, nor will there ever. Overall, the "less is more" approach to the music of 'Way Out is basically effective even though it understandably lacks the robust appeal of the concurrent music in The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The extensive use of avant-garde techniques is undeniably eerie in context, and that alone should please any enthusiast of the macabre genre. Furthermore, it's a sound that has been parodied endlessly in the decades since, meaning you either like it or you don't. Personally, I dig it.

Music as written for the series: ***
Music as heard in "William and Mary": ***
Overall: ***

Watch the episode here:

More episodes of 'Way Out are available to watch here:

*This would be a fun "Cold Open" sketch idea for Saturday Night Live with Donald and Melania Trump as the main characters.

36 Hours (1965)
• Live-action film, with a screenplay by George Seaton (based on "Beware of the Dog" by Roald Dahl and a story by Carl K. Hittleman and Luis H. Vance)
• Release date: January 28, 1965
• Music composed and conducted by Dmitri Tiomkin

The concept of gaslighting has long provided fertile ground for tales of psychological terror (unless you count The Truman Show), and such insidious human behavior informed the basic plot of Roald Dahl's 1944 World War II short story "Beware of the Dog." That story follows an RAF pilot named Peter Williamson who, after sustaining a ghastly injury while flying a mission over German-controlled Vichy France, awakens one day in a British hospital. The poor bastard slowly realizes that things are not at all as they seem, however, and the story ends when a fake RAF commander begins interrogating him. Dahl drew upon his own harrowing experiences as an RAF pilot in the war while writing the story; the author had survived a terrible fighter aircraft crash in 1940 and was temporarily blinded from the accident. Throughout the 1950s, many of Dahl's popular stories were brought to life on television (this was before he began focusing on children's literature), and it was only a matter of time before his stories made it to the big screen.

In 1964, "Beware of the Dog" was finally made into an American feature film by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and starred James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Taylor. (Writer-director George Seaton also credited a similar story by Carl K. Hittleman and Luis H. Vance as a source for the film's plot.) Understandably, the plot of Dahl's original short underwent substantial changes: while the film still takes place in 1944, the character of Peter Williamson is now a US Army intelligence officer named Jefferson Pike, played by James Garner. After arriving in Lisbon to meet an informant, Pike is immediately drugged and kidnapped by Germans, led by Rod Taylor. With only 36 hours to get vital information from him, the Germans pull an elaborate hoax on Pike in order to convince him that he is back in the United States, the year is 1950, the war is over, and he is long-suffering from amnesia. In true Hollywood fashion, however, the American eventually sees through this web of lies and luckily escapes the German forces in the end, but not before striking up a romance with his female nurse. Although it features strong acting from all three leads (Eva Marie Saint is particularly effective as a concentration camp refugee forced to act as Pike's nurse*), the film was not very well received when it premiered in January of 1965. Indeed, the film's plot, while impressively staged, is all set-up with little payoff; it's convoluted without being especially clever or suspenseful. Had the script began with Pike's awakening in the false hospital and allowed the audience to unravel the mystery along with him, there could have been a much more engaging movie here.

Among the film's redeeming qualities is the original score by Academy Award-winning composer Dmitri Tiomkin. In retrospect, 36 Hours is only a minor work in Tiomkin's illustrious career, but it nonetheless supplies its film with a much-needed sense of urgency and emotional potency. Furthermore, the work will likely appeal to listeners who gravitate toward piano-dominated classicism, Tiomkin applying densely virtuosic piano performances throughout this score to bring the drama into sharper focus. The heavy use of broken chords and sixteenth-note figures that dance nimbly around the orchestra in the militaristic "Main Titles" is one such example. The main theme's driving performance in that opening cue is arguably the highlight of the entire soundtrack, augmenting the disturbing events to come. An interesting aspect of the music overall is how it is kept at a minimum for scenes which take place indoors, but for exterior shots (including the subsequent escape sequence), the action is enhanced by robust, rhythmically complex movements for the piano and orchestra. Since the script included a "love interest" subplot, it is fitting that Tiomkin supplied a love theme for Pike and Anna. Conceptually, it's a gorgeous jazz-inspired theme, highlighted by characteristically lush harmonies, but it's also an arguably inappropriate one considering Anna's horrifyingly traumatic past--her story could have merited its own film. This issue is exacerbated by the syrupy lyrics in the song rendition of the theme "A Heart Must Learn to Cry," which honestly would have worked just as well in any James Bond film at that time (if not better). While the song itself does not appear in the film, its thematic statements are enunciated well by some exquisite piano improvisations on top of the orchestra's performances. You could say that the entire score is elevated by these piano performances, their energy often exploding through layers of orchestral activity but also registering just as powerfully in the score's more subtle moments.

Vee Jay Records issued a condensed version of 36 Hours on LP in 1965 after the film was released; the same product was reissued by Varčse Sarabande in the late 1970s. Thankfully, in 2002, Film Score Monthly released a complete, remastered version of the score as well as the original song recording, illuminating Tiomkin's original intent for the music. While I have yet to hear this album in its entirety, I'll go out on a limb and say that I think the score probably works a little better on album than it does in the film. Having said that, I fully plan on coming back and reviewing the album properly as soon as I get my hands on a copy. Until then, my rating of the score remains incomplete based solely on as it was heard in the film, although even on those terms, my recommendation is positive.

Music as heard in the film: ****

Listen to the excellent "Main Titles" here:

*Coincidentally, Dahl's wife, actress Patricia Neal, was originally offered the role of Anna.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
• Live-action musical film, with a screenplay by Roald Dahl and David Seltzer, who is uncredited (adapted from Dahl's 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
• Release date: June 30, 1971
• Music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; score adapted and conducted by Walter Scharf

Arguably Dahl's most popular work is 1964's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the story of a lucky boy named Charlie Bucket who, along with four spoiled children, wins the coveted "Golden Ticket" to tour a fantastical chocolate factory owned by world-famous candy-maker Willy Wonka. Thanks to this novel, readers everywhere were blessed with such whimsical terms like "scrumdiddlyumptious" and "Oompa Loompas" (a.k.a. the fictional characters that make up Wonka's workforce*). Likewise, it was a hit with young readers, as was Dahl's earlier, equally magical James and the Giant Peach from 1961. At the insistence of his 10-year-old daughter, acclaimed director Mel Stuart was determined to adapt Dahl's story into a feature film along with his producing partner David L. Wolper. Dahl himself was originally tasked with writing the film's screenplay, but when it was decided late in the game that the film would be a musical, Stuart and Wolper brought in David Seltzer to rewrite Dahl's script in order to accommodate such changes. The name in the title was then changed from "Charlie" to "Willy Wonka," a marketing move intended to promote the tie-in of candy with the film's "Wonka" brand. The film turned out to be a box office flop upon its 1971 release; Dahl still received primary screenwriting credit despite his public disgust with the picture, ironically. In the years since, however, it has become a beloved cult classic due to its extraordinary performance in home video sales as well as numerous television broadcasts. (Gene Wilder's portrayal of Wonka is now immortalized as an internet meme.) As it stands, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is fast-paced, well-acted, and often hilarious (the early interstitial scenes involving the search for the Golden Tickets are some of the film's most risible moments). It's also a great example of movie world-building, thanks to its skillful production design, colorful costumes, and inventive special effects; the wondrous rooms and machines within Wonka's factory are feats of imagination. Although some may argue that it deviates from the novel to a fault, the film nevertheless endures as charming family entertainment, and it still has a nostalgic appeal for many who grew up watching it, this writer included.

The musical numbers in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are the work of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, with a score adaptation by Walter Scharf. Their combined efforts garnered the film's only Academy Award nomination for "Best Music: Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score," but the team would ultimately lose out to rising star John Williams for his work on Fiddler on the Roof (the first of several Oscar wins for Williams). The musical numbers are generally fine but not overwhelmingly spectacular, which could partially be attributed to the curious lack of dance choreography in most of them. Furthermore, the singing in these numbers actually varies in quality. Aubrey Woods' nasal tones in the upbeat opening number "The Candy Man," for example, are borderline irritating, and Woods' singing simply lacks the vivacity of Sammy Davis Jr.'s popular interpretation of the song. As Charlie's mother, Diana Sowle has better luck with her loving performance of "Cheer Up, Charlie." The lyrics in this song do a decent job of raising the emotional stakes (they provide quite the contrast to those in "I Want It Now" later in the picture), and the warm, tender harmonies in the orchestral accompaniment blend nicely with Sowle's soothing vocals. It's a lovely song, but its slow tempo is likely to put many viewers to sleep. (This segment was cut from various television broadcasts of the film in order to meet scheduling requirements.) The jovial "(I've Got a) Golden Ticket" represents a turning point in the narrative as Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) rejoices with young Charlie (Peter Ostrum) over his finding of the fifth and final Golden Ticket to enter the factory. The melodic lines in this song are well-matched with Albertson's solid bass-baritone range, and the actor deserves credit for nailing his choreography within such a confined space, but the number suffers greatly from Peter Ostrum's inability to stay on pitch for most of his sung lines. The visual and musical centerpiece of the film comes in the wonderful "Pure Imagination," and thanks to Gene Wilder's melodious tenor, it is the clear winner of the lot. Not only is Wilder's handling of the frequent octave leaps in this song's melodies especially admirable, but his comic timing in this sequence is a joy to behold as well. (Fun fact: Spike Milligan was Dahl's original choice to play the character, and he would end up hating the idea of Wilder in the role.) The jazz influences in the song's underlying harmonies propel the number to new heights, and it's a shame it didn't get an Oscar nomination. The ridiculously catchy lyrics in "Oompa Loompa," and its various reprisals throughout the film's second act, follow each of the spoiled children's end-of-tour mishaps, and the little actors playing the Oompa Loompas do a commendable job of keeping a straight face at all times. These scenes represent the movie's best attempts at music video-style editing, and the results are as visually clever as they are outlandishly funny. (They also have the best choreography, which isn't saying much.) Lastly, "I Want It Now" (a.k.a. everyone's favorite song to sing during coitus) features solid vocals from Julie Dawn Cole as the aptly named Veruca Salt. Aside from Ostrum, Dawn Cole was the only child in the film to be given her own musical number, and the actress swings for the fences. While intentionally shrill, the main drawback to this song is her literal screaming of the line: "I'm go-ing to screeee-EEEE-AAAAMMMM!" before unleashing mayhem in the factory. Arguably, the only thing missing is a final chord to "break" the character's fall down the garbage chute.

The songs are adapted quite well into the film's accompanying underscore, but this facet is often betrayed by the score's poor presentation on the soundtrack album. (For the purposes of this review, I will refer to the album track titles to give a basic rundown of the score highlights.) "Main Title (Golden Ticket/Pure Imagination)" is an excellent medley of the film's best two songs that plays over the delicious-looking opening credits. Scharf's arrangements are impressive here, the depth of orchestration being worthy of study. Sadly, the only reference to "Cheer Up, Charlie" in the underscore occurs during a brief close-up of a teary-eyed Charlie after hearing about the final Golden Ticket "winner" on the news (this cue is not on the album). "Lucky Charlie" contains a nice, slower rendition of "The Candy Man" as Charlie approaches Bill's Candy Shop. The second half of this cue accompanies the pivotal moment in which Charlie miraculously finds his Golden Ticket (another highlight of the film), which leads right into a bustling, up-tempo rendition of "(I've Got a) Golden Ticket" as he races home. Unfortunately, the album version of this cue fades out at the moment when Charlie encounters "villain Slugworth" in a tunnel; it leaves off the victorious end of the cue where Charlie dashes through his front door to deliver his good news to the family. Another important score moment comes in the first minute of "The Wondrous Boat Ride," which contains a sweeping orchestral play-off of "Pure Imagination" (the woodwinds, brass, and keyboard percussion are all applied quite nicely in counterpoint here)... before plunging straight into hell for one of the most outrageously frightening scenes in a kid's movie. This infamous sequence mixes together furiously chugging strings, manic pizzicato lines, growling trombones, and discordant high brass layers over a barrage of jarring, echoey sound effects. Boy, that's great stuff! It all builds up to a song (of sorts) sung by Wilder in "There's no earthly way of knowing..." The lyrics here are actually the only song lyrics taken directly from Dahl's book, and Wilder earns his paycheck simply for his unhinged performance in this scene alone. The cue ends with almost Howard Shore-like intensity before coming to a comically abrupt end. The boat sequence in Willy Wonka is one of those movie scenes where it is simply impossible to divorce the soundtrack from the visuals, which sinks the album further.

Another score cue of note is "The Bubble Machine," a funny scene in which Charlie and Grandpa Joe enjoy the elevating effects of "Fizzy Lifting Drinks" before being brought dangerously close to death by a ceiling fan. A singular, lilting waltz melody highlights the first half of this cue before devolving into chaos; that idea could very well have formed the basis for another second-act song. (Maybe it did at some point?) Finally, "End Title (Pure Imagination)" closes the score and album on a high note and is graced specifically by a gorgeous solo violin rendition of that song's melody partway through (the moment when Wonka grants Charlie eternal access to the factory as a reward for his goodness). As mentioned previously, the soundtrack album is a mess and should be avoided. That product is unnecessarily littered with dialogue and extended sequences of sound effects from the film (e.g. "Everlasting Gobstoppers," "The Bubble Machine," "Wonkamobile/Wonkavision" and "Wonkavator"). While it might tickle die-hard fans of the movie to hear all the beeps, bubbles, chirps, whistles, ticks, hums, hisses, and farting noises of the factory machinery on album, it's a pain in the ass for anyone wanting a cohesive presentation of the music... or even just a smooth listening experience. In the end, I hesitated before settling on a final rating for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl's own hatred of it aside, few could deny the impact of the film's pop culture influence, especially since it has become such a cult classic. The songs and score all work wonderfully on paper, but the uneven singing, lackluster choreography, and the weak album presentation leave much to be desired, especially in comparison to other movie musicals of the time. Until a more comprehensive album is released (if possible), the best way to experience the music is simply by watching or listening to the film, which you should do anyway if you haven't already. It took several decades for this film to finally be made into a Broadway musical, which would also come with its own drawbacks.

(Oh, and Tim Burton and Danny Elfman also made another musical adaptation, but more on that one later...) smile

Songs as written for the film: ****
Songs as performed in the film: ***
Score as adapted for the film: ****
All music as heard on album: **
Overall: ***˝

*Alternate ending: Due to the overwhelming health and safety hazards within the factory, each child meets a tragic fate during the tour, Wonka receives life in prison for gross negligence and child endangerment, and the Oompa Loompas, no longer unionized, continue successful individual careers in various professions, including international law, fashion design, and stand-up comedy.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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