Donna Levin on Brigadoon: When a Miracle Lets You Down

Stumbling around YouTube the other day, I happened on a scene from the 1954 movie version of Brigadoon.

I’ve always loved musicals. My mom got me started early, playing West Side Story, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie and more, on our turntable, and then, a few years later, Camelot, Cabaret and Oliver.

Those shows seem dated to me now. If not for Sondheim, I don’t know if I would be the devotee I am today, not just of his work, but that of his descendants, such as Jason Robert Brown, and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

But meanwhile, back in our living room with the turntable, Brigadoon fell through the cracks; I only saw the 1954 movie on television much later. I’ve seen it once or even twice since then, and the YouTube clip revived some serious complaints I’ve wanted to file with the Musical Theater (I will not spell it “theatre”) Complaint Department for some years. There is no such thing, so I am grateful to have, at last, this modest platform.

Brigadoon has plot holes so big that, if the script were a colander, you couldn’t strain pasta in it. Not just plot holes, but seriously mixed and disturbing messages, and I mean, beyond the standard-issue notion that true love is destined, and lasts forever. “Lasting” is a particularly troubling concept in this case, as we’ll see.

It will help if you’re familiar with the story; if not, I hope this synopsis will suffice:

Tommy and Jeff are two thirty-something Americans who get lost while hunting in the Scottish Highlands. They stumble on a village called Brigadoon, which sounds like a cookie, but isn’t. Brigadoon isn’t on their map. The cookie isn’t in the store. There is no store. The villagers dress as if it’s the mid-18th century, and they sell — for it’s market day — only products available in the mid-18th century, which don’t include anything containing partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil. That’s my last attempt at cookie humor.

In the movie, Tommy and Jeff are played, respectively, by Gene Kelly and Van Johnson. It’s an understatement to say that Gene Kelly was one of the great dancers of his time. I’m bored by his pseudo-ballet numbers, but watching him tap dance, for me, is almost a religious experience. Here I’ll refer you to the production numbers “Good Morning” and “Moses Supposes” in Singing in the Rain.

Kelly and Van Johnson perform a not-quite-as-mesmerizing number in “Go Home with Bonnie Jean,” but time now for The Plot and Its Problems.

In the first act, Tommy falls in love with Fiona MacLaren, played in the film by Cyd Charisse. Jeff has something going on with her friend Meg, but it’s not clear what, since this is Hollywood in the 1950s, and it’s all very “a nudge is as good as a wink.” More importantly, though, we will learn that Fiona’s sister, Jean, will marry another villager, Charlie Dalrymple, that very night.

But why is everyone dressed like it’s Colonial Day at your fifth grader’s school? The big reveal comes when Jean’s fiancé arrives to sign the MacLaren family Bible, and Tommy sees that Fiona was born in 1722. That makes Fiona 200-something. Cyd Charisse is aging very well—just look at her neck!

Fiona takes Tommy and Jeff to see the town schoolmaster, Mr. Lundie, who explains: Two hundred years earlier the village of Brigadoon was being threatened by witches. These weren’t cool, Elizabeth Montgomery-as-Samantha Stevens witches, willing to give up a wide range of superpowers for the latest Frigidaire—no, these were witches “who were taking the folk away from God’s teachings and putting the devil into their souls.” Those are all the details he deems necessary to describe this existential threat.

So, two hundred years ago (or last Wednesday, depending on whom you speak to), the town minister, Mr. Forsythe, went out to a hill beyond Brigadoon, and made a deal with God: the town would disappear at night, for a hundred years, then reappear, but for one day only. Mr. Forsythe’s part of the bargain was that he would leave the town and never return.

Mr. Lundie frames this as a sacrifice, since Forsythe loved his parishioners so much, but my guess is that he owed money to a lot of them.

And by the way, since Mr. Forsythe couldn’t return to the town, how did the residents learn these details? Did he leave a note? Did he go out to that hill equipped with a quill pen and adequate ink?

But this last is a petty complaint. What concerns me most of all in this so-called miracle is the other part of Forsythe’s bargain, which is that no one who currently lives in Brigadoon can leave, like, ever. Apparently, they can go gather heather on the hill, and they must have nearby farms to be growing all the produce they sell at the weekly market, but there’s a curfew. Invisible electrified fences, maybe.

Those were more petty complaints. Now we get to the part that makes me angry. Harry Beaton, another villager, is in love with Fiona’s sister, Jean. Remember that Jean is to be married that night to someone else. Let’s give Harry the benefit of the doubt and say he’d look for another true love, given a few centuries to get over Jean. But how many available women are there to choose from? Brigadoon isn’t a major urban center. Jokes about dating apps are overly obvious, but something bugs me much more: Harry wanted to “go to the university and improve meself.” Now he can’t even do that! What kind of effing blessing is it to force a man to stay in a tiny town and watch the woman he loves start a family with someone else?

And by the way, just how are they going to start a family? A pregnancy is 280 days, give or take. That means that a baby conceived the night of this so-called “blessing” will be born in the 48th century.

But I doubt it would come to that, because it seems likely to me that in a day or two the Brigadooners will awaken to find themselves buried under luxury condos.

This is the kind of post I write that elicits comments like, “it’s a musical. Chillax.” And yes, at this point I might be overthinking, because I’m imagining a century in a world without Ambien. “Honey, I couldn’t fall asleep for fifteen years last night.”

When Mr. Lundie describes his nights (“like being carried away by shadowy arms”) he hears soft moans, and concludes that “many people are looking for a Brigadoon.” Harry Beaton wasn’t looking for a Brigadoon, and neither am I. An Airbnb—three nights, tops.

Postscript: I found the 1966 television version online and slogged through much of it. This adaptation made at least one welcome, if somewhat gruesome, change: instead of referring to a vague coven of witches, Mr. Lundie describes a time when accusations of witchcraft were being hurled around, and that neighbor was turning against neighbor (plus ça change, plus la meme chose, as the French say), and Mr. Forsythe himself was thrown into prison. He made his bargain with God while being chained to a wall, after such a false accusation, you know, as opposed to a justified accusation, of witchcraft. The miracle took place the day they hanged Mr. Forsythe as a wizard.

So I repent of my snarky comment about his possible gambling debts. I stand by the rest.


Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.