Archy & Mehitabel
A beguiling, modern-day fable about a cat and a cockroach is full of wit, wisdom and the unexpected.
Show Essentials
5
Roles
+ Ensemble
PG
Rated
2
Acts

Full Synopsis

Act One

The place and time are arbitrary. It's here and now or there and then, but definitely the wrong side of the tracks in a big town. There's a set. Sort of. That comes and goes. Maybe an office. Maybe an alley. And the cast? Cats! An invisible newsman-narrator. A cockroach. And several ladybugs thrown in for good measure. And the point of view? Down here. Way down here... as seen through the eyes of the somewhat vertically challenged "archy," the rather shy and sensitive cockroach. The desk, the chair, the telephone, the typewriter are enormous... as though we were dropped into a newspaper office the size of Mount Rushmore.

The voiceover describes the place in the first song, and we see little Archy dancing from key to key on the enormous typewriter keyboard. (Surely, somewhere in the Warner Brothers' archives there's a Busby Berkeley sequence we can consult for reference.)

Archy and the newspaperman exchange notes. Archy addresses him as "boss" and the voiceover journalist, with respect and appreciation, encourages his little correspondent to leave samples of his literary output (in exchange for a few apple peelings left in the wastepaper basket) in the free verse tales that the tiny insect "hops out" on the typewriter keys – all in lower case, mind you, since Archy or "archy" finds it impossible to manipulate the cap and the letter keys simultaneously. What is left in the newsman's typewriter each morning is the saga of the sensitive Archy and his sensual friend, Mehitabel, the disreputable alley cat.

The first episode sets the scene in Shinbone Alley, where Mehitabel and her feline friends are throwing a party, dancing among the trashcans and cardboard cartons, singing about their freewheeling lifestyle. Mehitabel admits that she's had her ups and downs, but she's still game; a plucky puss is she.

The sound of police sirens breaks up the party, and the cats scatter. But, with a lilting grin, despite her occasional limp and her tattered fur, Mehitabel sings her philosophy: "Toujours Gai." In the midst of the song, Archy wonders if she might not be a bit too-toujours gai for her own good, but she responds, defending her lifestyle.

Next, we see Archy diligently at work on the typewriter keys, pouring out his heart on such issues as philosophy, politics, ethics and "The Bragging Flea," but his major concern is Mehitabel, who admits that she's in love again. "Not again!" cries Archy as Big Bill, the tom cat, as tough as they come and obviously the focus of Mehitabel's affection, arrives on the scene and gives the gentle poet-cockroach a hard time. If a cat could bark, Big Bill would bark. But Mehitabel comes to Archy's rescue as Big Bill merely tosses the little critter aside and warns him to keep his distance, making way for the "Mehitabel and Big Bill Duet" that follows. It's a song that itemizes the delights of sexually compulsive cat life on the wild side.

Archy leaves the newspaperman a note to the effect that he tried his best to make a respectable cat out of Mehitabel but has failed miserably. To get his mind off of her, he composes the "Ballad of Broadway, The Lightning Bug," but the newsman knows that Archy's thoughts are still on Mehitabel. No sooner has she run off, than she's back in Shinbone Alley, and Archy sings out the joyous news. A rather bitter and bedraggled Mehitabel, jilted by Big Bill, is offered consolation by Archy, who now is determined to reform the naughty cat.

But she's in no mood for reform. She's in the mood for a song and dance, so they join forces with "Flotsam and Jetsam." Mehitabel outlines her life history in the song, a tale of woe, and Archy describes how unfortunate it is to be an insect at the bottom of the food chain, "lower than the lowly worms," where the only things lower are germs. Both admit that they are just drifting and dreaming of something better than what they've got. Meanwhile, at least they have each other.

Perhaps determined to reform, Mehitabel decides to get herself a respectable position as a housecat. Archy is overjoyed just as the debonair old tomcat, Tyrone T. Tattersall, a revered figure of the theatre, saunters by, warming up his vocal chords with a bit of "me, me, me... me-ow." Tyrone's gallantry turns Mehitabel into a smitten kitten, all blushes and giggles, and he promises to make her a star. Archy attempts to block the seduction – getting a whiff of Mehitabel's old bent toward decadence – but Tyrone is brimming with charm, and she buys it hook, line and sinker. Off they go.

Forlorn, the little cockroach confides again in the "boss," typing out "Archy's Suicide Song," in which, to his frustration, the heavy-hearted but lightweight bug relates his attempt to leap out of the window of the sixth floor, only to find himself floating up weightlessly to the eighth.

Meanwhile, the thespian, Tyrone, endeavors to turn Mehitabel into a legitimate actress, but all is not going well. She gives him "fish and affection," but talent? No! To salve his wounded pride, he sings "The Actor Cat," recalling his glory days in the theatre, when, in a pinch, he was called upon to play a bloodhound and, on another occasion, coming to an actor's rescue, once played a beard.

Next comes the Mehitabel dramatic lesson with readings from Shakespeare, leading into her song reciting "Romeo, Romeo" to a jazz beat as the eminent Shakespearean scholar, Tyrone – in horror – abandons her on the spot. Her reaction: "And to think... I gave that big bum the best two weeks of my life!"

Act Two

The voice of the newspaperman brings us up-to-date. Tyrone has gone on the road to fame and misfortune, and Mehitabel is back to her solo act among the alley cats downtown. But Archy tries to turn a deaf ear and declares that he's through with that wayward puss, resorting to his literary pursuits to sublimate and, of course, true to form, considers suicide again.

Then, he happens to read an item in the society column that Mehitabel is a mother. Kittens! Six! Archy, traumatized, rushes out in search of her.

The lady cats of the neighborhood caterwaul a lullaby to the little ones, but Mehitabel is not a joyful mother. The kittens will interfere with her career. Archy arrives at the ash can nursery just as it's begun to rain and water is collecting in the can. Archy pleads with Mehitabel to save the little things from drowning, but she turns a deaf ear. He continues pleading until she finally relents and rescues the brood. She softens... a bit (sentimentality is not in Mehitabel's gene pool) and decides to go straight and answer a want ad for a house cat in the high rent district. She knocks at an enormous door and is ushered in for an interview.

Weeks go by. Back at the newspaper office, Archy paces nervously. No mail. No word from Mehitabel.

The scene shifts to an indolent Mehitabel stretched out on a bear skin rug, a ribbon about her neck, sipping cream through a straw... but bored. The household that keeps the cat sings a "Pretty Kitty" ditty but Mehitabel treats all the attention with disdain.

Archy, missing her painfully, pays her a visit, gaining entrance through a keyhole. She levels her complaints about her luxurious but apathetic life, playing with a ball, rolling on a rug, and blames Archy for getting her into this situation. She runs him out then sings guiltily about mistreating him when she knows that he's the best friend that she ever had. Archy picks up the song, walking alone along the lonely streets, regretting that the fire that once lit up her eyes has diminished in her current, comfortable and secure situation.

Back at the newsroom, the reporter is shocked to discover Archy there drinking. The little cockroach is drunk and staggers out of the press room and, in a stupor, encounters some ladybugs of the evening who sing the "Lady Bug Song," trying to seduce him and lure him into their den of iniquity. In his inebriated state, his pockets are duly emptied by the ladybugs during the course of a frolicsome dance but all that they discover are bits of verse.

The big thug, Big Bill, appears again on the scene and, hovering over a collapsed Archy, considers the fact that the little fellow really loves Mehitabel and proceeds to roar with laughter.

Archy is back at the newsroom. "How did he get there?" he asks his writer-pal. "Did she bring him back?"

The newspaperman recognizes a new depth in Archy's writing now, a sadder but wiser cockroach who sings the "Song of the Moth," a haunting tale of one who could not resist the natural attraction of the flame, and quotes variations on Alfred Lord Tennyson's "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all." Archy recognizes that the moth reminds him of Mehitabel, not the pampered housebound pet that she is now, but the Mehitabel of the streets, the toujours gai Mehitabel.

Faintly, her voice is carried on the downtown breeze, first from a distance, then closer, and, yes! she's back, declaring "It's cheerio, my dear-i-o, there's life in me yet!" All of her feline friends welcome her back to the alley in a "Finale" as Archy (back in the newsroom) looks on at the joyful reunion. Archy sees now that Mehitabel has to be what she has to be, and that happens to be wonderful. Curtain.

Casting

Casting

Cast Size: Flexible
Cast Type: Star Vehicle Female
Dance Requirements: Standard

Character Breakdown

The Newspaperman
The narrator of the story and Archy's boss at the newspaper. This unseen character both prompts and provokes Archy. An omniscient voiceover.
Gender: both
Age: 30 to 60
Archy
The cockroach with a soul. Often worrisome to the point of pessimism. Must follow his calling to write. Acts as a sort of protective, father-figure to Mehitabel out of his love for her.
Gender: male
Age: 30 to 40
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: G3
Mehitabel
The Queen of Shinbone Alley. A free soul who loves life, she is tough and short tempered. Boy crazy but secretly longs to find that one special companion.
Gender: female
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: E5
Vocal range bottom: G3
Big Bill
Tough. Mean. Brave. The one-eyed terror of Shinbone Alley who falls in love with Mehitabel and then leaves her when she is pregnant.
Gender: male
Age: 35 to 50
Vocal range top: E5
Vocal range bottom: B3
Tyrone T. Tattersall
The actor cat. A big ham and true artist who thinks the tradition of theatre and art is dying. Snobbish, pompous, and easily annoyed.
Gender: male
Age: 30 to 45
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: A3
Ensemble
Ladybugs, Cat Friends, Unseen Humans
Full Song List
Overture/Dance of the Cockroach
What Do We Care?
Toujours Gai/Queer Little Insect
The Honey Bee
Big Bill
Mehitabel and Bill Duet
Lightning Bug Intro
The Lightning Bug Song
Flotsam and Jetsam Intro
Flotsam and Jetsam
Come to Mee-Ow
Archy's Suicide Song
The Actor Cat
Shakespeare to a Beat
The Lullaby
Pretty Kitty
Quiet Street
The Lady Bug Song
The Moth Song

Show History

Inspiration

Archy & Mehitabel is a musical with a book by Mel Brooks and Joe Darion, music by George Kleinsinger and lyrics by Darion. It is based on an extremely popular news column of the same name that appeared in the New York Tribune, starting in 1916. The column talked of a poetic cockroach and his alley cat friend; the articles themselves served as allegories for New York City society in the 1910s and 1920s.

Archy & Mehitabel first came together as a 45-minute album in 1954, which featured performances from Carol Channing as Mehitabel and Eddie Bracken as Archy. George Kleinsinger, known for his work on the children's musical, Tubby The Tuba, worked on the music while Joe Darion, who would later go on to write the song, "The Impossible Dream," wrote the lyrics.

Productions

The musical was presented in a concert version at Town Hall in New York City in December 1954. In the two years that followed, Kleinsinger and Darion reworked the piece and added a new member to the creative team, a young humor writer by the name of Mel Brooks. After Mel Brooks became a bookwriter for the musical, they changed the name to Shinbone Alley and premiered it as a full-scale Broadway musical on April 13, 1957, at the Broadway Theatre. It closed on May 25 of the same year after 49 performances.

After almost 50 years, productions of Archy & Mehitabel began to reemerge in the 21st century. The musical made its international premiere in 2005 in Melbourne, Australia. In November 2006, the "Musicals Tonight!" series presented a staged concert version.

Cultural Influence

  • Darion, Brooks, and Kleinsinger adapted their musical into an animated musical comedy film. It was titled Shinbone Alley and was released in 1971.
  • On May 16, 1960, an abridged version of Archy & Mehitabel was broadcast in the syndicated television anthology series, "Play of the Week."
  • The Broadway production of Archy & Mehitabel has been heralded as a key show for racial relations in musical theatre. It was one of the first shows to use a fully racially integrated cast.
  • Archy & Mehitabel has been said to be a notable precursor to the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit musical, Cats. Both musicals feature performances from anthropomorphic animals.

Trivia

  • Celebrities that have starred in all iterations of Archy & Mehitabel include: Carol Channing (mehitabel), Eartha Kitt (mehitabel), Chita Rivera, Eddie Bracken (archy), Erik Rhodes (tyrone), George S. Irving (big bill), Ross Martin, Cathryn Damon, Jacques d'Amboise and Lillian Hayman.

Critical Reaction

"The show is filled with flashes of dark, hip humor that probably defied the expectations of its day... a study of human nature at its most fallible and fragile depicted through the antics of anthropomorphized animals."
– The Chicago Reader

"For being essentially a cartoon about a cockroach and an alley cat, Archy & Mehitabel is actually pretty deep. ....Optimism is a theme that pervades the piece, but in a particularly interesting way. ....The punchy dialogue is what unsurprisingly makes it work."
– TheaterJone

"A skillfully woven series of songs and sketches."
– The Evening Independent

Tony® Award

1958 - Best Costume Design, Nominee (Motley)

Connect

Billing

Based on the stories of Don Marquis

Requirements

You must give the authors/creators billing credits, as specified in the Production Contract, in a conspicuous manner on the first page of credits in all programs and on houseboards, displays and in all other advertising announcements of any kind.
Percentages listed indicate required type size in relation to title size.

"archy & mehitabel"

 
Book by
JOE DARION and MEL BROOKS
Music by
GEORGE KLEINSINGER
Lyrics by
JOE DARION

 

(Based on the stories of DON MARQUIS)

 

Produced on Broadway as SHINBONE ALLEY

The videotaping or other video or audio recording of this production is strictly prohibited

Included Materials

ItemQuantity Included
FULL SCORE VOL. 1 OF 41
FULL SCORE VOL. 2 OF 41
FULL SCORE VOL. 3 OF 41
FULL SCORE VOL. 4 OF 41
LIBRETTO2
LIBRETTO/VOCAL BOOK15

Production Resources

Resource
REFERENCE RECORDING

STANDARD ORCHESTRATION

InstrumentationDoubling
BASS
GUITARACOUSTIC GUITAR , BANJO , ELECTRIC GUITAR , FENDER BASS
PERCUSSIONCHIMES , COWBELL , GLOCKENSPIEL , TOM TOM , TRIANGLE , VIBRAPHONE , WOOD BLOCK , XYLOPHONE
REED 1ALTO SAXOPHONE , BARITONE SAXOPHONE , CLARINET , FLUTE , PICCOLO
TROMBONE
TRUMPET