By Peter Filichia —
There’s that old expression, “You don’t have to be Jewish to” – whatever. Well, I’ll say that on this November 1, you don’t have to be Catholic to celebrate All Saints Day. All you have to do is play songs in which saints were involved.
If you’re really ambitious, you’ll play the full opera of The Saint of Bleecker Street. But if time is at a premium, you still have a few nifty numbers from which to choose.
“The Bells of St. Sebastian” is the stirring first act closer of Nine. In it, the adult Guido Contini looks back on the day when the nuns discovered that he had been in the company of a prostitute. Needless to say, they weren’t favorably impressed.
But we can be more than favorably impressed with Maury Yeston’s song and Tony-winning score. Did Yeston ever dare think while growing up that he’d beat Stephen Sondheim in a Best Score race? He did by having his Nine best Merrily We Roll Along – which really says something, because that’s a marvelous score, too.
Agnes Gooch in Mame prays to St. Bridget, in hopes that she’ll deliver them to Beekman Place. And in that pre-GPS era, St. Bridget does just that. That leads to Agnes having many adventures of which she wouldn’t have dared dream before arriving there. That includes a comic solo in Act Two in which she ponders her pregnancy. It’s called “Gooch’s Song” but that title is purposely meant to obfuscate. If the program ever offered us the logical title of the song, a good Jerry Herman joke would be given away. And saints preserve us: we wouldn’t want that.
Oh, Captain! gives us both a character and a song called “Captain Henry St. James.” While sailors are famous for having a girl in every port, our captain limits himself to two: his wife in London, his girlfriend in Paris. In other words, a saint he ain’t.
By the way, A Saint She Ain’t was an early title of New Girl in Town. The reason that she ain’t a saint is because the “she” refers to Anna Christie; anyone who knows his Eugene O’Neill will recognize her as a, shall-we-say, lady of the evening. In this 1957 musical version of O’Neill’s 1922 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Gwen Verdon starred. (She did, you’ve noticed, portray a lot of been-around-the-block women in her long Broadway career.) Here she took on the role of a working girl who took time off to return home and see her father.
Bob Merrill came up with a dandy score, from the banjo-strummin’ “Sunshine Girl” to Anna’s plaintive realization that “It’s Good to Be Alive.” That doesn’t mean that she’s blocked out what it was like to be “On the Farm” where she lost her innocence to the men who worked there.
Billed right below Verdon but above the title was Thelma Ritter, making her first Broadway appearance in more than 25 years, and her first-ever in a musical. She was featured in “Flings,” where she reminisced about old liaisons, and “Yer My Friend, Ain’tcha?” in which she bonds with Anna’s father Chris.
When Ritter signed on, she’d been nominated for four consecutive Oscars; she’d get two more nominations after her New Girl in Town run. Ritter never won, but Broadway was more appreciative. Verdon and Ritter tied as Best Actress in a Musical, making New Girl in Town the only cast album where you can hear two women who won the same Tony Award.
Merrill’s next musical was another adaptation of an O’Neill play, albeit a sunnier one. Take Me Along was a musical version of the nostalgic Ah, Wilderness! But this one could have been called A Saint He Ain’t, because Merrill and bookwriters Joseph Stein and Robert Russell promoted a minor character to the lead. He was Sid (Jackie Gleason), the recalcitrant drunkard, who helped his young nephew get through a hangover in “Little Green Snake.” As good as New Girl in Town is, Take Me Along has an even stronger score; both are well worth hearing.
And only a few weeks ago Masterworks Broadway gave us another chance to meet another saint: St. Lazare. It’s a song in Paris ’90 , the 1952 Cornelia Otis Skinner one-woman musical. In it, she portrayed thirteen different women living in the City of Light as the 19th century turned into to the 20th.
“St. Lazare” has a melody by Yvette Guilbert, the French entertainer who was one of the women that Skinner was impersonating. The song needed a new English lyric, so Skinner chose Kay Swift to write it. She was one of the pioneering female composers who was working on Broadway as far back as the ‘20s. Swift’s most famous composition was “Fine and Dandy” for the 1930 show of the same name. You’ve often heard it when magicians perform.
My favorite All Saints Day, by the way, was exactly 50 years ago. Because I was going to a Catholic school, we had the day off. From my modest allowance, I still had about five dollars left. So I thought I’d take the bus and subway from my suburban Arlington, Massachusetts home and head to downtown Boston to see a movie.
But lo and behold, when I opened the newspaper that day (in the days when even kids read newspapers) I saw an ad for a great big Broadway show at the Shubert. It sported a logo with a woman’s long arm and hand waving a handkerchief on which Bye Bye Birdie was written. (Some people swear that this logo represents lips — but what would lips be doing next to a hand?)
“Matinee today at 2:30,” it said. And in those days, stage shows weren’t too embarrassed to list the prices, because, comparatively speaking, they weren’t all that high. I read that for $4.40 I could buy a seat in the first balcony (which is what we called the mezzanine then). And so I rushed into town, got F101, and saw Gretchen Wyler and Dick Patterson play the roles that Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke had originated.
I adored the show, and when my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I immediately snapped, “First and foremost, the original cast album of Bye Bye Birdie. But let me go with you when you buy it. You don’t have to give it to me until Christmas, but let me go with you when you buy it.”
An odd request? Here’s why: five years earlier when I had seen Peter Pan on TV, I fell in love with the score. When my birthday was approaching and my parents asked what I wanted, I said “The Peter Pan record” – because I was not yet familiar with the term “original cast album.”
And what did they buy? The Farmer in the Dell; Cowboy Songs for Children; and Mighty Mouse and Dinky — little yellow records for children all on the Peter Pan label. I’m still not over it. But saints be praised, I am making progress.
Anyway, we did go shopping and got what I wanted. So despite the fact that no saint can be found anywhere in Bye Bye Birdie, I’ll spend much if not all of All Saints Day listening to the score I first heard a half-century ago.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com