Afresh-faced young couple stands outside a department store, gazing at a gaudy window display. Three mannequins are positioned there, a priest and the couple he is marrying. The newlyweds inside look remarkably like the young lovers outside, tall and slim young men and golden-haired young women, but a closer look at the mannequins reveals their lifelessness. Their posture is ram-rod straight, and his boxy tuxedo and her frilly gown cling to their motionless bodies. But behind their glazed-over expressions is a hint of buried anguish, and the groom’s eyes look watery—has he been crying? The living couple, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem to notice; they look away from the staged scene and smile blissfully at one another. The scene of the living lovers and the dead fades away, subsumed by the chatter and car horns of the crowded city street.
Evening Primrose is a television musical that aired once on ABC in 1966; its origins are practical and unassuming. Screenwriter James Goldman needed extra cash for a larger apartment—his wife Marie was pregnant with a second child, and their current lodgings would be too cramped for four. Goldman and Stephen Sondheim, who were in the midst of writing the musical Follies, decided to apply for an ABC series entitled ABC Stage 67, which programmed original plays and musicals. They elected to adapt John Collier’s short story “Evening Primrose” as a short musical, and were given the green light, providing Goldman his new apartment and a novel experience for the two writers.
The film, directed by Paul Bogart, centers on a solitary young poet named Charles (played by Psycho’s Anthony Perkins), so defeated by the relentless grind of quotidian American life that he decides to surreptitiously move into a department store, evading the guards and living off of its merchandise. To his surprise, he is not the first person to have this idea: he finds a secret society already living there, who do not take kindly to outsiders. Their leader, eccentric grande dame Mrs. Monday (Dorothy Stickney), begrudgingly decides to let him stay. He is elated, but his peaceful life is threatened by his burgeoning love affair with Mrs. Monday’s servant Ella (Charmian Carr, who played eldest daughter Liesl von Trapp in The Sound of Music). Ella is not like the rest, as she did not arrive by choice—she got “lost in hats” when she was 6, as she puts it—and thus is treated with suspicion and forbidden from forming close relationships.
As Ella and Charles surreptitiously meet, she begs him to return to the outside world with her, and while Charles is not eager to face the crushing city again, he agrees to sneak out and build a life together. They plan for their escape, growing optimistic for the life ahead of them, and are ready to make their final exit from the store during the cult’s annual Fourth of July party. But they find themselves monitored and pursued, undermining their stealthy plans—unbeknownst to them, they had been found out long before. As they desperately try to make it out, they are stalked on all sides by shadowy figures: the Dark Men, a secret society living in mortuaries called upon by Mrs. Monday to murder attempted runaways. Though we never see what the Dark Men do to Charles and Ella, the couple’s final appearance is evidence of their ultimate capture: the mannequin newlyweds stuck behind the display window.
This is, of course, a deeply bizarre story, and intentionally so: Sondheim writes in his annotated collection of song lyrics Look, I Made A Hat that he thought the plot’s strangeness would set him and Goldman apart from other applicants to Stage 67. It is easy to dismiss Evening Primrose because of its implausible and off-putting narrative, and the fact that Primrose is a musical would not seem to help matters. While, on paper, the characters spontaneously breaking into song would seem to only heighten the story’s absurdity, Sondheim’s carefully crafted songs in fact add psychological weight to the characters’ predicament. Each song is performed by Charles, Ella, or both as a duet, and each song tenderly paints the contours of their doomed love story. The songs are indicative of their shared philosophy and the conflict between them: both desire a better world, but the worlds they seek are the ones the other wants to escape from. Their final duet, “Take Me to the World,” finally sees them bridge the divide between them and endeavor to escape the store for the wider world together. While their plan is doomed, the exuberance they reach in their duet suggests the world they have created together is as real as any structured society, transcending the confines they had been resisting their entire lives.
The yearning and ecstatic hope of Stephen Sondheim’s songs creates a narrative and an aesthetic that is, to my eyes, distinctly queer. Its romantic plot seems to contradict this reading, predicated as it is by a fairly stereotypical heterosexual romance involving a man “rescuing” a beautiful young woman. But the utopian hope in the face of brutal structures of power expressed by this central couple, not only described but sung about, signals queer understandings of desire and repression. The simple act of longing for a better, freer, more loving life can be affectively queer, and Evening Primrose’s expansive utopian desire suggests as much.
The musical introduction to Charles, “If You Can Find Me I’m Here,” is a giddy expression of fulfilled desire. Having managed to stay undetected the store past closing by hiding in a kiosk, he jumps for joy at his newfound life:
He steps out of the kiosk and starts wandering through the deserted store, past the wine coolers, French telephones, dog collars, ceramic bookends and into the yawning cavern of the store.
Look at it:
What a place to live, what a place to write!
Charles exudes unadulterated glee at living amongst a menagerie of essentially useless knick-knacks—so “beautiful” does he find the store’s merchandise that he is inspired to write poetry. This belies a very camp utopianism in Charles’ outlook. Susan Sontag writes of camp as a purely aesthetic orientation to the world, a prioritization of “the degree of artifice, of stylization” of objects as opposed to “natural” beauty. Mass-produced commodities, particularly decorative objects which serve little-to-no practical purpose, are textbook examples of camp according to Sontag, and she lists Tiffany lamps and feather boas as among examples of camp aesthetic. These items on Sontag’s list would certainly have a home in Sondheim’s indexing of merchandise, a litany of man-made decorative objects, none exhibiting “good taste” but all made to be admired. Bogart shows Charles prancing through aisles stacked with Christmas cards, typewriters, and at least one decorative suit of armor, trying on slippers and scarves and singing of the “40 pianos and 10,000 shoes” at his disposal. The department store, particularly at its mid-century excess captured in the film, is a paragon of artificial, decorative, endlessly replicated products, and Charles’ full-throated love of the store’s goods situate him as a paragon of camp consumption. On a practical level, he’s happy to have full access to everything he might need to live (shelter, food, clothing), but his ecstatic embrace of the store suggests a purely aesthetic adoration.
Ella, in the song “I Remember,” expresses the opposite sentiment: stuck in the store with no way out for almost her entire life, she yearns for the natural world that is now foggy in her memory. While the world outside the store is represented by “bloodsucking landlords” to Charles, Ella sings to Charles of simple natural phenomena: sky, snow, trees. These words are some of the first that any child would learn, defining and giving shape to the world around us. Ella’s usage of them implicates her wide-eyed relation to the distant outside world, still awestruck by the features of the environment we learn to take for granted. This stands in direct opposition to Charles’ earnestly expressed attachment to knick-knacks. While Charles’ “10,000 shoes” implies the labor and industrialized process required to create such a commodity, Ella’s “sky” is profoundly simple. Just look up. Yet “I Remember” illustrates how a lifetime surrounded by manmade products has warped Ella’s perception:
I remember leaves,
Green as spearmint,
Crisp as paper.
I remember trees,
Bare as coat racks,
Spread like broken umbrellas…
While Ella’s memories of the world are broad and childlike, her points of comparison are specific bits of merchandise—after all, those are the contents of the only world she truly knows. Throughout this delicate, minor-key ballad, the camera moves in further and further on Charmian Carr’s face as she lists what she “remembers,” visually inflicting the ever-encroaching restrictions on her life. Eventually in a tight close-up, the spectator sees Ella’s unfulfilled desires flash across her face. Her eyes are in constant motion, looking up and to the side and down as if searching for the leaves and trees she has long been torn away from. The song concludes with an ominous wish: “I would gladly die / for a day of sky.” (Sondheim, crafting the song based on a free-form monologue from Goldman, wrote in Look, I Made a Hat that he always intended to conclude with the word “die.”) This song, which follows the introduction of the paranoid and authoritarian secret society presiding over the store, crushes the camp exuberance of “If You Can Find Me I’m Here.” While Charles thrills at the prospect of opting out of society in favor of aesthetic thrills, Ella’s “I Remember” reveals the store as a site of psychic terror, profound restrictions, and compulsory submission to a dominant social order, essentially a mirror image of the world Charles has escaped. Brought together by a shared utopian yearning, Ella and Charles are divided by where they believe they can locate utopia.
Now furtive lovers, Charles and Ella endeavor to find time alone together—a duet, “When,” sees them singing to each other through inner monologue as Ella waits on Mrs. Monday and company and Charles socializes with them. They soon decide on a secret meeting place in a typically empty section of the store: outdoor sports. Here, an electric fan creates a breeze, birdsong emanates from a record player, and Ella and Charles lie in a hammock under a plastic tree. The residents of the store may be averse to this section due to its approximation to the outside world, but it is still a tacky, manufactured space designed to show off commodities. In other words, while it fails to be a campsite, it succeeds at being a site of camp.
Surrounded by reminders of the outside world she cannot escape to, Ella’s unhappiness reaches a breaking point: “Charles, I want to hear a bird.”
“Okay, I’ll play you one.”
“I want to see a bird, on a twig, with leaves!”
Charles is in the midst of a blissful, camp utopia, one which glossily mimics natural aesthetics, but Ella sees it as a claustrophobic prison. Thus begins “Take Me to the World,” beginning with Ella beatifically pleading Charles to “let [her] see the world, with clouds.” Charles listens with consternation, and as a minor-key vamp begins pulsing, he lists the reasons they could never be happy in the world: “You couldn’t get a job; I wouldn’t hold one. We’d begin to hate each other. We’d have fights, you’d cry. I couldn’t bear it if you cried.” Ella, concurrently, resumes her song, beaming with desire, and neither of them look at each other. This is perhaps the most alienated the couple is from one another in the film—for a moment, Ella’s pulsating need and Charles’ world-weary hesitation cancel each other out. He turns to her and joins in her song, attempting to convince her that he knows better, but after Ella’s pleas (“oh, Charles, if you love me at all…”), he is won over and concocts a plan for their escape. Charles dashes over to the record players, turns on each “nature” sound, and musically declares that “you shall have the world!” Enfolding each other in an embrace, they finish out the song with soaring, exuberant harmony: “We shall have the world.”
The four songs of Evening Primrose construct and perform Charles and Ella’s desires—for escape from a brutal society, for aesthetic comforts, for the openness and tangibility of nature, for a safe space to love freely, and finally, for the whole world. Their desires change shape and expand until they arrive together at a shared utopian world, and crucially, their desires are always fundamentally tamped down and restricted by the structures of power which constantly encroach upon them. The constructions of desire, and the shared utopian longing, of Evening Primrose brings to my mind José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of queer utopia, which he defined and applied as a critical framework in his book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity:
The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there…Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.
Queer utopianism, in other words, is the enacted desire for a better world, one that envisions a future beyond the rigid structures of the present. It is a utopianism that goes beyond the material restructuring of the world, rather, it is a framework for imagining a better life. Queerness, to Muñoz, is not simply difference from the norm in sexual orientation or gender identity, but an alternative way of experiencing the world—an orientation to the world that does not simply fight against the restrictions and oppression queer individuals and communities are relentlessly subjected to, but one that looks to the past and the imagined future to see a life beyond oppression.
While Muñoz uses queer utopianism as a framework for considering art that is, for the most part, explicitly queer, Evening Primrose is a work of mass culture focused on a heterosexual romance. Its creators are a mixed bag in terms of identity—Sondheim is a cisgender gay man, albeit one who infrequently makes explicit mention of queerness in his work, and Goldman and Bogart were (to my knowledge) cisgender and heterosexual men. Yet what do Ella and Charles experience and envision if not a queer utopian vision of the world? They are obstructed at every turn by the forces of the present: by the direct assault on human life wrought by American capitalism, and the microcosm of this society represented by Mrs. Monday and company. The vehicle through which they express themselves, the showtune, is formally designed for envisioning a better life beyond one’s stultifying present. The “I Want” song, in which a character expresses their primary desires that will go fulfilled or unfulfilled over the course of the musical, is a standard device of the genre, yet Sondheim takes a step further by writing each song to fulfill this function, with the “want” expanding and growing stronger with each song.
“Take Me to the World” is the zenith of Evening Primrose’s four “I Want” songs. It is a fervent, devoted expression of an expansive desire to shape a new world, “forever, for our own” as Charles sings. It is a world separate from the struggle and strife of a ruthlessly competitive society and the oppression of an underground cult, one where Charles and Ella can love and live freely without the need to appease forces that aim to stifle them. “Take Me to the World,” then, is emblematic of the “insistence on potentiality” for a better world to come that Muñoz describes. Charles, motivated by love for Ella, sees beyond the stifling present and crafts with Ella a potential world they can share.
As a queer viewer, I was startled by my identification with Evening Primrose; the depth of longing expressed by Ella and Charles moved me on a level I did not anticipate. In particular, when watching “Take Me to the World” for a second time, I was compelled by a sequence at the end of the song. As a beaming Ella and Charles sing to each other, an intercom picks up their song and projects it across the store, and we see each member of the cult react in outright terror to an earnest expression of love. This suggests the devastation to come, but unaware, Ella and Charles continue their song, and it ends with a close view of their embrace. Bogart shows the spectator both the exuberance of their desire and the disgusted opposition they face, but by ending the sequence with a shot of the couple, he suggests the continuance of their shared desire despite outside forces which aim to extinguish it. The constant surveillance and repression Ella and Charles endure, their committed attempts to find space for their love and desire to thrive, and their embrace of a future they know may not materialize, all correspond to experiences of queerness under a repressive society, and the desire to escape said society as articulated by Muñoz. I have felt the “quagmire of the present,” as Muñoz writes, a set of interlocking structural forces restricting the lives that queer people can have—and despite the legislative and judicial successes of the contemporary gay rights movement, achieving certain civil rights only goes so far to change the queer subject’s ability to chart their own course under structures that were never designed for our benefit. Ella and Charles’ unwillingness to submit to the oppression of the present, and their ability to imagine a future, seemed to me like both an act of defiance and an act of hope. In the face of forces almost impossible to overcome, forces we see react in terror to their love, they firmly set their sights on the future—certainly a queer orientation to living in the world.
Despite the thrill and tenacity of Charles and Ella’s utopian desire, Evening Primrose’s morbid ending would seem to snuff out utopian longing—Ella and Charles are overheard by the secret society, and they are captured by the Dark Men when they attempt to escape. That the Dark Men preserve Ella and Charles, as they do all their victims, as display mannequins tilts the film’s relationship to camp and commodity into outright horror. Not only are they killed, they are transformed into decorative objects, tacky, made-up corpses mean to inspire aesthetic appreciation and motivate the purchase of products. If Ella and Charles spend the film fighting to enact their utopian desires, then the Dark Men are the most extreme anti-utopian figures in the film—not only do they suppress Charles and Ella’s desire, they mold them to be promotional products in service of what they resisted, advertising the store that ensnared them. They are ended by the ever-encroaching forces of the present.
The last time we see Charles and Ella alive, they are hiding out in a delivery truck parked in the store’s garage. Clinging close together, they sing a reprise of “Take Me to the World,” a sound that continues as we see the door linking the store and garage open, and into the following morning, where we discover their preserved bodies in the window. The song begins to be drowned out by sounds of traffic, dampening the utopian longing of the song in concert with the visual indication of their ultimate doom. But even as the camera pans out and away from the dead and living couples, taking in a full view of the store’s façade and the masses of people walking briskly by, the song continues.
Maybe it is a cruel irony, a reminder of Charles and Ella’s dashed hopes against a series of increasingly bleak images. But more than anything else, I think of the continuing song as a bit of hope still floating through the air, an indication that the desire for a better world has not been eliminated alongside those who dreamt it and sang of it, ready for someone to take up its pleas.