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A Li’l Bit of L’il Abner

A Li’l Bit of L’il Abner

In 1956, long before comic strip icons Superman, Charlie Brown and Annie became lead characters in Broadway musicals, there was Li’l Abner.

Al Capp’s famed comic strip about the rustic inhabitants of Dogpatch, U.S.A. began in 1934 and continued into 1977. Thus, a little more than halfway into the run, Broadway got to meet Li’l Abner Yokum (Peter Palmer), his irascible Mammy (Charlotte Rae), his henpecked Pappy (Joe E. Marks), his hopelessly-devoted-to-you girlfriend Daisy Mae (Edith Adams) as well as his friends and neighbors who had such colorful names as Stupefyin’ Jones (Julie Newmar), Appassionata von Climax (Tina Louise) and -- my personal favorite if you say the first name and initial very fast -- Senator Jack S. Phogbound (Ted Thurston).

The result was a 693-performance run, good enough to then make Li’l Abner the nineteenth-longest running book musical in Broadway history.

Although Rodgers and Hart had in 1928 written a musical about a castrated man (Chee-Chee; 31 performances), Li’l Abner’s plot greatly involved a man’s chemical castration – well, in a manner of speaking. Mammy Yokum gave Abner a good dose of Yokumberry Tonic with the regularity with which other mothers around the country dispensed Flintstones vitamins. And while Mammy’s medicine did make Abner grow to a six-foot-three frame that housed over two hundred muscular pounds, it sapped away any sexual desire that the lad would have ordinarily had. That’s why he had such a difficult time responding in kind to Daisy Mae.

For years, we’ve had the recording of the original cast album available for downloads and on CD; now we finally have the soundtrack – well, in a manner of speaking.

Every musical theater enthusiast worth even a pinch of salt knows that an original cast album is one recorded by a stage show’s original cast, and that a soundtrack is the “track of sound” taken from the movie version.

Now look at the cover of the newly reissued L’il Abner that celebrates the 1959 film. The word used to describe the recording is “sound-track” – with a hyphen in between the two syllables.

I’m not suggesting that the powers-that-be were coining a new word, but in a way, they would have been right to. This recording of L’il Abner wasn’t totally taken from the “track of sound” from the film. So even if you know the original cast album and the film inside out, you’ll find some surprises here – a snippet of difference here, an edit there. For example, “If I Had My Druthers,” Abner’s philosophy in song, is twice as long on the recording. Some of the songs were actually done in the studio, all to make the songs more amenable to airplay.

Among those of us who were too young or unborn to see the musicals of yore, the film of Li’l Abner is as prized as the movie versions of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. We treasure them because these films are the most faithful to the stage shows, with the look, feel and pretty much the same cast.

Were they “opened up”? Hardly – and hardly any true musical theater aficionado cares. Until the moment when a time machine is invented, these films will provide us with the closest replication of the Broadway productions.

Pajama Game and Damn Yankees were Warner Brothers productions, and the studio unceremoniously dropped Janis Paige in favor of Doris Day for the former and replaced Stephen Douglass with Tab Hunter for the latter. Don’t infer, however, that Paramount did the same when using Leslie Parrish in place of Edith (later Edie) Adams. Ms. Adams wasn’t dumped, but she was with child, so Parrish was summoned to play Daisy Mae (and did so quite delightfully).

According to Al Capp’s biographers Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen, pregnancy was also the reason that Charlotte Rae didn’t repeat her Mammy Yokum and had to be spelled by Billie Hayes. Schumacher and Kitchen also say that Tina Louise “wasn’t interested” in replicating her Appassionata. Clearly Ms. Louise was holding out for such quality roles as Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.

As faithful as the film was in casting and design, Hollywood manhandled musicals during that era by routinely dropping some songs and sometimes replacing them with others. Let’s put it this way: if you’ve never much cottoned to Li’l Abner’s “Oh, Happy Day,” “Progress Is the Root of All Evil,” “Love in a Home” and “What’s Good for General Bullmoose,” then this “sound-track” is the Li’l Abner for you.

Dropping “Oh, Happy Day” had to be a last-minute decision, for the film actually used the phrase on its posters and print advertising. Those who know Li’l Abner’s original cast album and have keen ears will infer that an even later last-minute decision was made in replacing “Love in a Home” with “Otherwise.” Listen to the overture on this “sound-track” you’ll catch a quick measure of “Love in a Home.”

Many of us mourn when a wonderful number from a stage musical is replaced by an inferior one, such as “A Bushel and a Peck’s” giving way to “Pet Me, Poppa” in the Guys and Dolls film. But “Otherwise” is actually an improvement on “Love in a Home.” The earlier song involves a tender and valid enough sentiment, but the newer one deals with a genuine conflict: Daisy Mae is nobly marrying a man she doesn’t want in order to keep Abner out of harm’s way, but now the reality of never becoming man and wife is dawning on both of them.

And because the film went into production long after the stage show had come and gone, it was able to incorporate “Room Enuf for Us,” which was added as the Broadway run continued, but too late to make the original cast album.

The “sound-track” offers a bonus of a different kind: stereo. Li’l Abner’s original cast album was just a wee too early for this new process, but the film was made during stereo’s infancy, when every effort was made to aggressively show off the new technology. You’ll enjoy the separation more than Hilary Duff and husband Mike Comrie are enjoying theirs.

In 1956, plenty of Broadway show songs were genuine hits. Most were love songs, be they tender (“On the Street Where You Live” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady), jaunty (“Just in Time” from Bells Are Ringing), yearning (“Standing on the Corner” from The Most Happy Fella) or appreciative (“Mutual Admiration Society” from Happy Hunting). Li’l Abner’s hit song, however, was a rarity, for it celebrated a character who was never seen on stage and one whose name was associated with “disaster,” “misjudgment” and “humiliation.”

That’s “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” a paean to Dogpatch’ most famous citizen. But a listen to Gene De Paul’s music, Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, Nelson Riddle and Joseph J. Lilley’s orchestrations offers plenty of jubilation in the other eleven cuts.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.