Carthage College theater professor Neil Scharnick is aware that “Flora the Red Menace” — a musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb — is not nearly as well known as their other Broadway shows, “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”
And, for him, that’s part of the appeal.
“Part of our mission in theater education is to give our students exposure to a broad range of shows,” he said, explaining his decision to direct a Carthage production of the 1965 musical.
Also, he added, “there are great roles in this show, particularly female roles, and we have a great cast for it.”
“Flora” was Kander and Ebb’s first collaboration and, as such, “it’s exciting for students of musical theater to see this early work,” Scharnick said. “This is the show they did before ‘Cabaret’ made them household names.
“A lot of what we love about the duo is in this show: Their storytelling, their music, even their politics. In this show, we see the artists they will become.”
Set in the winter of 1935, “Flora the Red Menace” tells the story of Flora, a high school graduate who moves to New York City to make it in the fashion world. She lives with a bunch of other young artists in the city and meets — and falls for — Harry, a member of the Communist Party. (Thus, the “red menace” in the title.)
While Flora crushes on Harry in the show, Scharnick fell in love with the character of Flora, who he calls “a cockeyed optimist in the great musical theater tradition. She’s an enthusiastic go-getter who enters the workforce at the worst possible time, during the Great Depression, and is trying to make it against all odds.”
In the story, Flora is running an artists’ co-op and has people pay what they can afford.
“Harry sees how Flora lives — she’s not concerned with money, it’s a collective cause — and he sees that as Communist,” Scharnick said. “He wins her over, and she joins the Community Party, but she’s apolitical. How she lives is just her individual style, and is there a place for Flora within party politics?”
Ultimately, he added. “Lander and Ebb were trying to make a show about celebrating the individual over party and ideology and everything else. They don’t give answers to the questions they raise, but they do examine how the Communist and capitalist systems both beat down and degrade the individual workers. If you know and admire their shows ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago,’ you’ll recognize this point of view.”
Still relevant today
Though the show is set in the 1930s, Scharnick said today’s college students can relate to the story.
“Surprisingly, there’s a lot that’s relevant here: It was a politically divisive moment for the U.S. and the Communist Party was appealing at that time. The students see that we are politically divided now and are aware of similarities to our own time.”
Also, he added, the play “opens with Flora’s graduation from high school, and the actress playing Flora mentioned how powerful it is in this moment for her, a college senior, to put on the cap and gown for that scene. This is the story of someone who just graduated and is entering the workforce and so are the actors playing the roles.”
“We have several seniors in the show, so the characters are precisely the right age for the students who are going out to make their mark in the world.”
In some ways, “Flora” is ahead of its time.
“Some of the Golden Age musicals just don’t hold up very well in today’s political climate,” Scharnick said, “but here, Flora, the principal character, is a woman who is inspirational, free minded and has to make tough decision. Getting a job is important to her, more so than just getting the guy.
“The song that has lived on from this show — ‘A Quiet Thing’ — sings like a love song, but it’s the song Flora sings when she gets the job she wanted. It’s a really sweet song, not about the boy, but about getting what she wanted: Being able to make a living as an artist and achieving her dream.”
Because “Flora” isn’t performed very often, Scharnick said local fans of musical theater should grab this chance to see it.
“This is a really significant show in musical theater history,” he said.
“It’s the creators’ first show as Kander and Ebb and, beyond that, it’s got really wonderful music, performed by talented students. It’s a gem; a sweet show with a lot of heart.”