Stephen Sondheim on Anyone Can Whistle: New Legends of Broadway Video


Last week we talked about Columbia record producer (and sometimes president) Goddard Lieberson’s preference in allowing very few lead-in pieces of dialogue when he recorded a show song.

Now — what decisions did he make about including lines of dialogue that occurred during a song?

Lieberson was a little more liberal there.

Needless to say, he was required to include the dialogue that permeates “Simple” in Anyone Can Whistle – for there’s more dialogue than song in the thirteen-minute selection.

(Do you assume that composer-lyricist wrote all of “Simple” or that librettist Arthur Laurents furnished the dialogue? I suspect it’s all Sondheim’s work.)

This same question can be asked of “Hello, Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello Love” which Lieberson included in his recording of A Chorus Line (abbreviated though it was on the original record). Did every word come from lyricist Edward Kleban or did librettist of note James Kirkwood provide some or all of it? That’s a much thornier question.

In The Apple Tree, Ella the Chimneysweep wishes “Oh, to Be a Movie Star.” Bock and Harnick’s dialogue takes pains to explain that Ella’s reasons for wanting this aren’t superficial ones: “I’m not asking much,” she insists. “It’s not as if I want to be a rich beautiful glamorous movie star or even a well-liked beautiful glamorous movie star. I just want to be a beautiful glamorous movie star — for its own sake!”

The dialogue is not necessary to understanding what’s going on in the song, but Lieberson included it. My guess is that he wanted to showcase how delightful Barbara Harris’ Kewpie-doll voice could be with dialogue as well as song.

I’d say the dialogue is essential in a Do I Hear a Waltz?

ditty that’s been alternately known as “The Plane Song” and “What Do We Do? We Fly!” Sondheim’s terrific lyrics center on the hazards of air travel while admitting “But who has the time to take a boat?” (Now there’s a charmingly dated lyric!)

Because no fewer than five people wind up discussing no fewer than five different topics, the dialogue helps us to discern just who is who let alone what is what. That had to be a Lieberson consideration.

In All American, after many immigrants have deplaned and have sung about their American dreams, suddenly at the airplane door there’s a new face – or, if you’re only hearing the album, a new voice. He’s Professor Fodorski who explains with bemused embarrassment “I forgot my umbrella!”

The line isn’t needed to enjoy the song or the one soon to come (the delicious ragtime “Melt Us”). I infer that Lieberson included it to establish that this was a star entrance. After all, Fodorski was played by Ray Bolger, Dorothy’s beloved Scarecrow (whom, she’s not above mentioning in front of both The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion, is the one she’ll miss most of all). Thus even those who didn’t get to see All American could get the feeling of a Big Star returning to Broadway after more than a decade’s absence.

Charles Strouse didn’t just write the music for Annie; he also co-produced the recording (with Larry Morton). So perhaps in a nod to his collaborators – be it librettist Tom Meehan or lyricist Martin Charnin – he included Grace Farrell’s order to Oliver Warbucks’ servants “And get that Don Budge fellow” so that Annie can properly learn to play tennis.

The joke is that Warbucks is so rich and powerful that he can get a world-renowned tennis champion to give lessons to a little kid. But maybe this is a line that should have been dropped for a different reason.

Don Budge didn’t win his first title and start on the road to superstar status until 1937. In 1933, the year Annie starts, he was still in college. Let’s just rationalize the line by saying that while Budge was perfecting his game he was teaching on the side and that Grace wanted to help him out by throwing a little work his way.

You won’t hear “I Know a Girl” on the original 1975 Broadway cast album of Chicago, for in the days of so-called long-playing records, there simply wasn’t room for it. It did, however, make both Jay David Saks’ 1996 Broadway and Thomas Z. Shepard’s 1998 London revival cast albums – as did some salient dialogue.

The song has Velma Kelly lament that she didn’t think of the oh-so-smart ruse that Roxie Hart had just pulled to call attention to herself – that she’s pregnant. But is foxy Roxie Hart really with child? Summoned to examine her is a doctor who confirms that, yes, a little one is on the way. A reporter then asks “Hey, Doc – will you swear to that statement in court?” to which he answers “Oh, yeah.”

On the Broadway revival album Michael Kubala says the line convincingly, but I prefer Cavin Cornwall’s delivery on the London disc. The way he draws out the “Oh, yeahhhhhh!” in utterly exhausted fashion tells me that he and Roxie have just concluded what Laurette Harrington in What Makes Sammy Run? calls “The friendliest thing two people can do.”

We’re indebted to Jay David Saks, though, for including the tender dialogue expertly delivered by Evan Pappas’ Benjy Stone (née Steinberg) in “My Favorite Year,” one of the best title songs of the last third of a century.

As an older Benjamin is looking back on 1954 – when he was a freshman writer for The King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade – he says of his time there “Maybe it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to you, but it was for me. Anyway,” he starts to concede, “I probably remember it better than it actually was.”

But then he recalls in a quick flashback that swashbuckling movie star Alan Swann – both his boyhood hero and semi-surrogate father –– said to him “Benjamin, take care of this sword for me a while, would you?”

“Sure!” Benjy responds before turning to us as the adult Benjamin. “Or maybe I remember it as exactly as the way it was!” Magnificent as the song is, Joseph Dougherty’s dialogue gives it even more emotion.

Hugo Winterhalter, Joe Carlton and E.O. Welker are credited as the producers of the 1955 Damn Yankees original Broadway cast album. We must wonder which of them made an atypical decision on “Goodbye Old Girl.”

It’s one of the best songs to realize that musical theater goal of moving the action forward. The early part has middle-aged Joe Boyd writing a fond farewell to his wife, for Mr. Applegate (read: The Devil) has promised him the chance to become a superstar for the Washington Senators.

Applegate says “We’ll call you Hardy: Joe Hardy. You’ll be twenty-two years old. They’ll put a new wing on that baseball museum at Cooperstown dedicated to you: The Hardy Shrine.”

He then laughs the way devils always do and transforms broad-in-the-beam Boyd into the young golden-piped Joltin’ Joe Hardy (a/k/a “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.”).

Applegate’s spoken section in the actual show, however, was said before the song started. Still, on record it had to help listeners who didn’t quite know the Damn Yankees story (because they were too lazy to read the liner notes).

Back to Lieberson, who omitted two dialogue exchanges that I wish he hadn’t. You simply hear music in the middle of the big songs in Bells Are Ringing and Camelot; in the shows, the lead characters actually had something to say there.

From now on when you play these two glorious cast albums, you can insert these exchanges.

In Bells Are Ringing, Jeff (Sydney Chaplin) takes Ella (Judy Holliday) away from a party, for he wants to tell her how important she’s become to him since she found him “Just in Time.” Mid-song, guests from the party happen to notice them outside and come to see what they’re up to. Jeff and Ella aren’t above entertaining them with a little soft-shoe:

Jeff: Shall we do that little number we used to do in Chicago?

Ella: Where?

Jeff: In the stockyards. Are you ready, partner?

Ella: Let’s slaughter ‘em!

In the latter musical, after Arthur (Richard Burton) explains to Guenevere (Julie Andrews) Camelot’s anomalies – e.g., winter in this kingdom ceases to exist twenty days before spring springs up everywhere else. After hearing a few of such unexpected situations, the queen-to-be has a comment:

Guenevere: And I supposed the autumn leaves fall in neat little piles.

Arthur: Oh, no, milady. They blow away completely. At night, of course.

Guenevere: Of course.

No one in real life would ever mind if fallen leaves were to blow away completely. But such delicious dialogue did not deserve to be blown off.

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