"We are the Musketeers; bold, dashing Mus..." I tell you, sonny, they don't write rousers like that no more, no more. And Joe Layton, who took over the direction of that venerable operetta "The Three Musketeers," which opened last night at the Broadway, has created a laughable, occasionally lovable, eye-filling and melodious hodgepodge. Things do get a bit sloppy from time to time, but it's all in fun.
Trying to sort things out, there has been a replacement of "Musketeers" songs with Friml numbers from other sources; a new book by Mark Bramble that makes hash of the William Anthony McGuire original drawn from the Dumas novel; and occasional inoffensive dips into a rock beat.
The general idea has been to make a hoot of the swashbuckling classic about the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu and the recovery of the French queen's diamond necklace by the Three Musketeers and their hot-tempered Gascon companion D'Artagnan. And in its own lighthearted way, skirting the edge of camp, it often works.
Above all, there are songs that call for voices, and what a pleasure it is to hear lusty, trained tones on a Broadway stage once more. Actually, D'Artagnan (set forth with dash by handsome young Londoner Michael Praed) has a contemporary vocal style, but it covers the ground nicely in his "Only a Rose" duet with the Lady Constance, a role acted and richly sung by Liz Calloway. Among the other male voices, which range from fair to fine, the baritone of Joseph Kolinski (Buckingham) is outstanding.
But the most delightful and amusing performance is that of fetching Marianne Tatum as a truly wacky Milady de Winter, that villainous accomplice of Richelieu (Ed Dixon) and the Comte de la Rochefort (Michael Dantuono). Out of nowhere, she delivers a "L'Amour, Toujours, L'Amour" in a seduction scene with D'Artagnan that would drive men wild - wild with laughter. There's other neat work by Roy Brocksmith as a fat and fatuous Louis XIII, by Darlene Anders as Queen Anne, who's having it on with Buckingham; and by Chuck Wagner, Brent Spiner and Ron Taylor as Athos, Aramis and Porthos.
Layton has his large cast spilling all over Nancy Winters' deep and constantly changing set with a pair of curved stairways leading to a balcony from which, quite naturally, a speared member of Cardinal's Guard plunges lifelessly to the stage below (there's a cushion there, by chance).
Add to all this Freddy Wittop's sumptuous costumes that reach their peak in the ball-scene finale, a vision in slickly white splendor to rival RSC's "Much Ado About Nothing." Ken Billington's lighting explodes at one point into a sunburst fireworks display in the background.
The "March of the Musketeers," which you'll recall I started humming at the outset of this piece, is struck up time and again in the course of the evening, and rightly so.
Rumor has it that the peripatetic Yul Brynner and "The King and I" have been booked into the Broadway beginning Dec. 23. If so, that's tantamount to stealing toys from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. For "The Three Musketeers," with all its action, messy and otherwise (D'Artagnan enters down the aisle astride a horse), is bound to appeal to kids as well as those adults cheered to hear voices raised on high once more, and in some grand songs.
Dull is not a particularly cheerful word applied to a musical, but it is the one that comes most readily to mind in considering the weird version of Rudolf Friml's swashbuckling The Three Musketeers, which swashed up last night at the Broadway Theater - badly buckled, almost crumpled.
This is the worst new musical of the Broadway season. Of course, as it is also the first new musical of the Broadway season, this may not prove definitive - should anyone wish to quote it.
What went wrong - apart from virtually everything? Well, first there was the original idea, which came from Mark Bramble, who was primarily responsible for the literary and library aspects of this version, and the staying concept, apparently that of Tom O'Horgan, who until a day or so ago was credited as director, but now, by the grace of God or contract, has had his name erased from the playbill.
The trouble is no one had faith in the original material - that score by Friml, and the lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse and Clifford Grey, to say absolutely nothing of the first book by William Anthony McGuire. And as no one had belief in The Three Musketeers in the first place, why exhume it in the second?
The final result is not merely dull, it is also silly and wasteful; it has neither the integrity of a period piece or the charm of a freshly restated classic. It even lacks the camp appeal of a clever pastiche.
The Friml score comes from everywhere; at a late count the producers were claiming that only 40 percent originated with The Three Musketeers. Very likely - Only a Rose, for example, comes from The Vagabond King - and all of the music has been "adapted, arranged, and supervised" to disastrous effect by Kirk Nurock. The result is a show not merely without a show-stopper but without even a show-starter.
The Alexandre Dumas story is still vibrant, and can be adapted for the stage very handily. Roger Planchon's simply spectacular, and spectacularly simple, version for Le Theatre de la Cite in Lyons (seen at Lincoln Center in 1968), and Flemming Flindt's robustious ballet version (originally for the Danes, about to be staged by the Dallas Ballet) speak well for Dumas, as do Richard Lester's two comparatively recent movies. But Bramble is not a Planchon, a Flindt, or a Lester. He is essentially a Bramble.
The show is now directed by Joe Layton, who probably has ministered manfully. No play doctor can do overmuch with a patient suffering from pernicious anemia who is hemorrhaging.
The choreography - what there is of it - by Lester Wilson looks derivative (the equestrian dances are a watered-down device from the Georgian State Dance Ensemble), the scenery by Nancy Winters proved gloomy, and the costumes by Freddy Wittop conventionally Broadway, with only the occasional flash or flair of imagination. The whole look of the show turned out costly instead of rich.
The performances had good-natured vivacity rather than anything else. The young and unknown English actor Michael Praed, who starred as D'Artagnan, rode his horse up the aisle quite efficiently, but once out of the saddle, appeared to have only his admittedly abundant charm to commend him.
His singing voice was awful - even amplified, he sang Only a Rose in a kind of low, crooning bleat - and his acting could best be defined as boyish. He looked quite a good swordsman - which is more than could be said of any of the others on stage.
Marianne Tatum - who stole a show never very carefully policed - had genuine fun as the wicked Milady, but Liz Callaway bustled, wasted and ineffectual, as the loyal Constance. Ed Dixon did produce a few moments of sacerdotal and sardonic glee as Richelieu, although the three musketeers themselves - roles low in comedy but not Ritzy - looked more anonymous than eponymous.
There was one passable stage effect when D'Artgnan's boat sailed for England. It was typical of the show's luck that even this went off sternfirst. That was the way things were with The Three Musketeers.
Of the original operetta in 1928 (it ran for 319 performances) Alexander Woolcott observed after the first night: "I did greatly enjoy the first few years of Act I." He was always a kind critic.
The one real lift in ''The Three Musketeers,'' the new musical at the Broadway, occurs early - when D'Artagnan enters the auditorium on a horse. Enjoy this spectacle while it lasts. Once the horse has deposited his passenger on stage, he disappears - never to return, not even for his curtain call. Where does the horse go? We're never told, but if he has any horse sense, he's probably around the corner at the Gershwin, trying to curry favor with the more gainfully employed D'Artagnan of ''Cyrano de Bergerac.''
There's certainly little profit in lingering long at the pageant of swashbuckling 17th-century France on display at the Broadway. ''The Three Musketeers'' is a good-natured attempt to jazz up Rudolf Friml's Dumas-inspired operetta, a Florenz Ziegfeld extravaganza of 1928, much as the New York Shakespeare Festival retooled ''The Pirates of Penzance'' a few seasons ago. But this time the source material is many rungs below Gilbert and Sullivan - and the new accoutrements add no wit, style, sexiness or show-biz dazzle. In the end, ''The Three Musketeers'' has less in common with ''Pirates'' than it does with a routine English Christmas pantomime or with Broadway's 1983 kiddies' show, ''Merlin.'' Yet at least ''Merlin,'' rest its soul, had magic tricks, a lavish physical production and, if memory serves, a prettier horse than the one on fleeting view here.
The man behind this enterprise is Mark Bramble, who has provided ''a new version'' of William Anthony McGuire's 1928 libretto. Mr. Bramble's idea of writing a musical book, as he has previously demonstrated in his collaborations on ''Barnum'' and ''42d Street,'' is to minimize the book. The baroque plot of ''The Three Musketeers'' is so frenetically and confusingly conveyed that no child is likely to understand who the Duke of Buckingham is, or why Cardinal Richelieu is such a pill, or why everyone is chasing after a diamond brooch throughout Act II. The disorientation is further compounded by Nancy Winters's cheesy, joyless sets, which, as lighted by Ken Billington, are often more successful at revealing the stagehands in the wings than at conjuring up the show's various royal and bucolic locales.
The title characters - professionally played by Brent Spiner, Ron Taylor and Chuck Wagner - have little dialogue and often seem like interchangeable stand-ins for the Three Stooges. D'Artagnan, France's greatest swordsman and lover, is the dominant figure; he's modeled along the teen-idol lines of Rex Smith's Frederick in ''Pirates.'' But, as impersonated by a thin-voiced and insipid young English performer named Michael Praed, the hero is the vacuum into which the musical disappears rather than the galvanizing star that might bring it panache.
Joe Layton has tried to give the show the illusion of excitement by staging it at a frantic pace and by sending the actors running up and down the aisles. The technique worked for this director in ''Barnum,'' where he had Jim Dale, a bouncy score and circus acts, but in ''The Three Musketeers,'' everyone seems to be scurrying pointlessly about just to keep busy. After a while, the company begins to look like a road troupe of ''Camelot'' on amphetamines. It's only when speed is essential - in the sword fights staged by Steve Dunnington - that the cast slows down.
The two leading ladies, Liz Callaway (of last season's ''Baby'') and Marianne Tatum, fare best among the performers, but their respective characterizations of Lady Constance Bonacieux and the duplicitous Milady de Winter are as mirthlessly broad as all the others. At one low point, these two talented women must roll about the floor in a wrestling match suitable for airing on late-night television. While they and many of the other principal players have exceptionally strong voices, the Friml score and P. G. Wodehouse-Clifford Grey lyrics are distorted by tinny amplification and by mushy orchestrations in a variety of clashing idioms.
The only songs that still sound rousing are the ballad ''Only a Rose'' (an interpolation from Friml's ''Vagabond King'') and, of course, ''March of the Musketeers.'' It's typical of Lester Wilson's choreography - not to mention the rest of this entertainment - that the musketeers don't really march while singing their anthem but instead stomp incessantly in place.