A musical about the Mummers, the Philly accent, and the Queen of Romania: Why did it take so long?
Longtime theater composer Michael Ogborn has written plays and musicals that have won 10 Barrymore Awards. Now based in New York, he grew up in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, and went to college at DeSales University in Lansdale.
“When I went to college, I had an accent,” said Ogborn. “When I came back for Thanksgiving — and I would say, ‘Pass the mustard’ (instead of ‘pess the meausterd‘),” his brothers chided him.
“Oh! He’s from England now,” they’d say.
“In the neighborhood, the ladies used to say, ‘She sits areaund the hewse like she’s the Queen of Reumania,'” Ogborn remembered. “Why do these women know about the Queen of Romania? Why not the Queen of England? How did this get into the working-class Philadelphia vocabulary?”
Ogborn visited the archives of the Pennsylvania Historical Society on Locust Street and discovered Queen Marie of Romania visited Philadelphia in 1926 during a cross-country tour. She is one of the three Maries in Ogborn’s “The Three Maries.” The others are a mother and daughter trying to class-up in preparation for the royal visit, while their husband/father prepares for the upcoming Mummers Parade.
“I don’t know why anyone else hasn’t thought of this before,” said Ogborn.
The story is about the young Marie who decides — against the wishes of mother Marie — to get a job instead of pursuing marriage. She goes to work as a secretary for a low-level City Hall official, Mr. Waterhouse (Wooderhewse).
A random telephone operator enlightens Marie that her Philadelphia accent is getting in the way of her professional career.
“You’ll be pleased to know it’s not genetics,” the operator sings. “Get ready for your lesson in phonetics.”
“Can you instruct me in the proper ways of Bell Telephone etiquette?”
“I can even make you sound like you come from Connecticut.”
Ogborn wrote this script years ago, keeping it in his desk drawer until the time was right. The time came when producer Monica Rosenthal, originally from Philadelphia and an alum of the Upper Darby Summer Stage, met Ogborn at a convention.
“I said, ‘Nobody has ever written a musical of the Mummers,'” recalled Rosenthal, whose brothers were Mummers with the Woodland String Band. “Michael said, ‘I have!’ He had it in his back pocket.”
“The Three Maries” continues through Jan. 10 at the Prince Theater on Chestnut Street, but Rosenthal would like to see it become a local institution.
“My dream is that it would run here forever,” she said. “It would be like ‘Sheer Madness’ in Boston or ‘Beach Blanket Babylon’ in San Francisco — shows that run forever in one place.”
Ogborn, for his part, believes the Philadelphia-centric show would have legs in other cities because of the story’s universal message about class mobility, couched in local color.
“This play is about language,” said Ogborn. “People in Philadelphia, we don’t allow each other to reinvent. You can’t reinvent yourself here. You can’t say, ‘I’m somebody different now.’ People will say you’re that kid in second grade who … you know.
“You can’t pretend you’re somebody else. There’s a pride and humility there, being who you are unashamedly,” he said. “Language, class structure, how people jump class, how people are moving up.”
While Ogden wrote the music for “The Three Maries,” he says it was inspired by Mummer music. The live, onstage band wields banjos, saxophones, glockenspiels, and glitter.