The place: ‘an unlikely village in France’. The time: some time in the seventeenth century. The situation: familiar!
The Mayor, Monsieur Argan, has two problems: his health and his daughter. He is a confirmed hypochondriac, cared for by a live-in nurse named Toinette, making him a goldmine for the local medical profession. He is determined that his daughter Lucinda shall marry the odious Horace Diafoirus, the daughter of a rich neighbor, and not the man she loves, Leander, who is unacceptable because penniless. When she decides to take poison, if only she can find some among her father’s many medicines, Toinette comes up with an alternative, safer plan: she will lose her voice, and a fake doctor can then be called in to help her. All they need is to find someone to be the doctor – even if it has to be in spite of himself.
The Carefree Heart isn’t quite an adaptation of Moliere’s Le Malade Imaginaire, for the simple reason that it is also not quite an adaptation of Moliere’s Le Médecin Malgré Lui. The authors Robert Wright (1914-2005) and George Forrest (1915-99), the team previously responsible for Song of Norway and Kismet, conflated the two Moliere plays together to make a musical, which they originally titled Speak, Lucinda!
Renamed, it opened for a pre-Broadway tour at the Cass Theatre, Detroit, on September 30, 1957, then moved on to Cleveland. Comedian Jack Carter took the leading role of Sganarelle, and Billie Worth was Martina.
Their first scene, of course, features a husband-and-wife fight. Here they are butting heads in rehearsal:
Which leads, among other things, to…
And now onstage:
As in countless productions of Moliere’s play, the outcome is…
The rest of the story can be told in short order, because we know it already from Moliere: Sganarelle gets beaten into accepting the identity of a famous and eccentric doctor, and he both cures Lucinda and sees to it that she gets to marry Leander after all.
The Carefree Heart didn’t enjoy quite such a happy ending. It got excellent notices but did terrible business at the box office, and the tour only took it as far as Cincinnati, where it closed November 2. The planned Broadway opening the following week simply never happened.
In 1959, the show got a second chance in London, retitled The Love Doctor and with the period setting updated to Victorian times and the pre-Wooster, pre-Wimsey Ian Carmichael cast in the lead. But the American producers lacked confidence in the script, and tinkered persistently with it throughout rehearsals. And by then, one of the things that had already been tinkered out was, alas, the spanking. In fact, the entire role of Martina was excised, to make Sganarelle a mendicant tramp who once stood up Toinette on a date and so caused her to be unjustly jailed on a charge of soliciting. And needless to say, the musical bombed in the West End just as it had in the American Midwest!