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Let’s Immerse Ourselves in the Verse By Peter Filichia

“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, 
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.” 

Can you identify the song from which these words come?

Believe me, you’ve heard the song hundreds of times – or maybe even more.

But when these lyrics were sung at the recent concert of This Is the Army at Feinstein’s/54 Below, I didn’t recognize them.

I could, however, identify the words that followed: “God bless America; land that I love …”

Yes! “God bless America” has a verse, which may not be news to you, but certainly was to me. And yet, I wasn’t all that surprised, for Irving Berlin wrote the song when verses to songs were par for the musical course.

Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely” was first heard in Red, Hot and Blue! in 1936, but it’s now much more associated with Anything Goes where it was interpolated into the heavenly 1962 off-Broadway revival. (That’s why you don’t hear it on the Mary Martin studio recording of Anything Goes, which was made ten years before its off-Broadway renaissance.)

This song doesn’t just have a verse; it admits it:

“I feel a sudden urge to sing the kind of ditty that invokes the spring
So control your desire to curse while I crucify the verse.
This verse I’ve started seems to me the Tin Pan-tithesis of melody,
So, to spare you all the pain, I’ll skip the darn thing and sing the refrain.”

Frank Loesser, who liked writing hit songs as much as hit shows, said that verses got in information relevant to the show that otherwise wouldn’t mean anything or would just be confusing to a refrain that could step out of the show and become a pop hit. There were several recordings of Guys and Dolls’ “I’ll Know,” but none included the information that Sarah Brown gave Sky Masterson (“For I’ve imagined every bit of him to the strong moral fiber to the wisdom in his head …”) or that he imparted to her (“You have wished yourself a Scarsdale Galahad, the breakfast-eating, Brooks-brothers type …”)

Eleven years after Loesser wrote Guys and Dolls, he provided the score for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Its hit was “I Believe in You,” which began with Finch’s singing to his reflection in a mirror:

“Now there you are; yes, there’s that face –
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you to hear me say it,
But say it I must
Say it I must.”

Shirley Bassey, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson certainly didn’t find it a “must” to say it when they covered the song.

Betty Comden fully admits that she and Adolph Green took Loesser’s advice when writing a certain song for Bells Are Ringing. Their verse went:

“He’s in love with Melisande Scott —
A girl who doesn’t exist —
He’s in love with someone you’re not
And so, remember, it was never you he kissed.”

And then came “The Party’s Over,” which was recorded by Doris Day, who saw it on the charts for eleven weeks in 1956 – but without the verse, which would have only confused the singles-buying public.

Columbia record producer Goddard Lieberson included this verse on the original cast album. But he didn’t include this one on the cast album he’d recorded some months earlier:

“When you mentioned how your aunt bit off the spoon
You completely ‘done me in’ —
And my heart went on a journey to the moon
When you told about your father and the gin
And I never saw a more enchanting farce
Than the moment that you shouted
‘Move your bloomin’ –

Good, you got it: My Fair Lady’s Freddy Eynsford-Hill is referring to Eliza Doolittle’s gaffes at the Ascot Racecourse. Thank the Lord that Mrs. Pearce answers the door just in time to interrupt us from hearing the naughty word – and just before Freddy sings, “On the Street Where You Live” – the biggest Top 40 hit from the 1956 show.

When Vic Damone, Eddie Fisher and Andy Williams recorded it, they of course left off this verse assuming that it would have meant nothing to the average record-buyer. But maybe it would have. Remember, the original cast album of My Fair Lady was once the biggest-selling album of all time – not in just the “Shows and Soundtracks” category, mind you, but in all categories. So even those listeners who weren’t able to see the show had liner notes to help them get the gist of the story and the jokes – and would have learned what the verse meant.

Lieberson – who believed so much in My Fair Lady that he had Columbia pony up the entire $350,000 investment – was taking no chances, though. Even when he recorded the London cast album two years later, he didn’t include the verse.

The heyday of the original cast album wasn’t over. The Sound of Music was the best-selling album of all 1960. It topped Billboard’s  monaural charts from February 8 through May 1 and its stereo list from January 25 through April 24 before returning to Number One from May 2 to May 15. We can therefore infer that hundreds of thousands of people had heard Mary Martin start her first song with:

“My day in the hills
Has come to an end, I know.
A star has come out
To tell me it’s time to go.
But deep in the dark green shadows,
Are voices that urge me to stay.
So I pause and I wait and I listen,
For one more sound,
For one more lovely thing
That the hills might say.”

And then Martin went into the refrain of the show’s title song. So isn’t it funny that six years later the film started with Julie Andrews singing the refrain, yes, but eliminating the verse, which was only heard in part as introductory music.

It was an indication that by the ‘60s, verses were considered very old-hat. And yet, had Lieberson recorded Drat! The Cat! (for which he had bought the rights but chose not to do after the show ran only eight performances), you would have heard plenty of verses. For lyricist Ira Levin – yes, that Ira Levin, now best-known for Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives and Deathtrap – used the convention for no fewer than eleven of the score’s fifteen songs.

That included “She Touched Me,” better known as “He Touched Me,” thanks to a certain Barbra Streisand single. She recorded it because her husband Elliott Gould was the star of the show, and she thought she’d help him out.

It probably was another nail in the coffin of their upcoming divorce. All he got was a quick flop while she had another entry in her forthcoming Barbra’s Greatest Hits album.

For decades, the acknowledged expert on verses was John Bubbles, who’d originated the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. In the ‘60s, he would routinely show up on The Tonight Show where he’d challenge Johnny Carson to guess what song he was singing just from doing the verse.

My favorite occurred when Bubbles sang:

“When you’re awake the things you think
Come from the dream you dream.
Thought has wings, and lots of things
Are seldom what they seem.
Sometimes you think you’ve lived before
All that you live today
Things you do come back to you
As though they knew the way
Oh the tricks your mind can play.”

Actually, I knew the answer, because I had bought the sheet music for “Where or When” from Babes in Arms. I daresay that Carson was stumped for here was his guess:

“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light …”

 Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.