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An Ode to Annie's Lyricist

WHAT’S IN A NAME? WHAT’S IN A RHYME? By Peter Filichia

On October 3rd, I listened to Annie to celebrate a 41st anniversary.

For on that date in 1976 I saw the closing performance of the tryout at the Goodspeed Opera House.

I was 100% certain that I wasn’t seeing the last of this Meehan-Strouse-Charnin musical. A show that I’d expected to have no heart possessed plenty of it. Okay, Annie wasn’t quite ready for Broadway, but it was well on its way and I knew it’d wind up a smash.

Last week, as I listened to its Grammy-winning original cast album, I once again smiled broadly when the B-section of “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” came around.

In it, Oliver Warbucks’ secretary Grace Farrell tells Annie of what her life will now be in the manse: “When you wake, ring for Drake. Drake will bring your tray. When you’re through Mrs. Pugh comes to take it away.”

Ya think these two minor characters didn’t have those names until lyricist Martin Charnin started writing the song?

If so, Charnin wouldn’t be the first or last to name a character after a rhyme. Writing lyrics is so hard that creating a rhyme out of an out-of-the-air arbitrary name is certainly understandable.

In a world where so many people ask, “Which came first: the music or the lyrics?” we’re entitled to be at least a little curious if the name of the character came first or if the rhyme did.

(Not that any of these examples I’m about to give would hold up in court.)

In “What If?” the opening number of If/Then, Elizabeth muses, “Do I go with Lucas or stay here with Kate? Oh, God, why do I do this – obsess and debate?”

Did Brian Yorkey obsess and debate with himself whether or not to rename the character Kate? He wouldn’t have to consult with the bookwriter for approval, for he was doing that job, too.

In “Soliloquy” from Carousel, Oscar Hammerstein could have named Billy Bigelow’s son-to-be any name at all. Did he choose “Bill” because (according to www.rhymezone.com) there are thirty-seven perfect rhymes for that moniker?

My guess? No. Billy was more intent on seeing that his son “is named after me” in an era when Juniors were the norm. More to the point, Hammerstein only used one rhyme – “will” – so we can’t really accuse him of making life easier for himself.

Hair’s main hippie insists that “God believes in Claude.” S/he well might, but Claude was the 715th most popular name for boys in 1948 — when Claude could have arguably been born. That low ranking would suggest that James Rado and Gerome Ragni were simply going for the rhyme.

In My Fair Lady’s “You Did It,” Henry Higgins quotes (supposed) expert linguist Zoltan Karpathy: “Her English is too good,” he said, “which clearly indicates she’s foreign. Whereas others are instructed in their native language, English people aren’.”

“Aren’?” What’s Aren’? To be fair, “foreign” is a word that’s awfully hard to rhyme. Lerner did better in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’s “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn.” There he had Daisy’s friends ask her, “You were with someone else but Warren? Was he bashful or was he foreign?”

While Henry Higgins, Doolittles pere and fille all appear in PygmalionMy Fair Lady’s source — Zoltan Karpathy doesn’t; thus, all things being equal, Lerner could have named him Warren to get in a better rhyme.

But all things aren’t equal. Eliza’s judge-and-jury needed someone who indeed did sound foreign, and the name Warren doesn’t. Clear Day was set in New York (at least on stage) where Warren is a perfectly decent name for a character who could have been named anything, given that Clear Day was an original musical.

Or was it? As time has gone on, people have noticed that the 1965 show (with a phenomenal score, by the way) bears a great similarity to a 1929 play called Berkeley Square. Guess Lerner didn’t want to give its author John L. Balderston any more credit than he wanted to bestow on Friedrich Wilhelm Gerstäcker, who wrote Germelshausen. That’s an 1860 story about a man who comes across a long-lost village only to awake the next morning and find that it’s gone.

And while we’re speaking of Brigadoon, let’s point out that the “Jean” in Lerner’s “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” rhymes with “green,” which the lyricist used four times.

Frank Loesser may have played the arbitrary name game twice in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For while Shepherd Mead’s original book mentions J. Pierrepont Finch and J.B. Biggley, there’s no Bud Frump. But by naming him as such, Loesser could write in “The Company Way,” “We know the company may like or lump any man. And if they choose to, the company may dump any man. But they will never dump Frump the comp-any man. Frump will play it the cump, Frump will play it the cump, Frump will play it the comp-any way!”

In the very next song, we learn the fate of a sexual harasser: “It happened to Charlie McCoy. Boy, we fired him like a shot the day the fella forgot a secretary is not a toy.” I’d say that after Loesser locked in his title, only then did he put a not-so-real McCoy in the lyric.

It’s a Bird, It’s Plane, It’s Superman had Max Mencken, a Daily Planet columnist, hot for Lois Lane. In trying to woo her, he proclaimed that she was “The Woman for the Man (Who Has Everything).” His advice? “So relax, kid! This is Max, kid!”

Those who only know Superman from the comic strip and comic books can tell you that no Max Mencken was ever in them; indeed, he was created for the musical. But was he named by Lee Adams’ choice of words?

While we’re at it, let’s ask if six years earlier Adams said to Bye Bye Birdie bookwriter Michael Stewart, “Mike, the girl from Sweet Apple, Ohio is now Kim” after he’d written, “He’s in love with Kim; Kim’s in love with him”?

What do Oklahoma! and Take Me Along have in common? In the former, Will Parker in “All ‘Er Nothin’” proclaims, “I cut out all shenanigans. I save my money, don’t gamble or drink in the back room down at Flannigan’s.”

In the latter show, Sid, in “Sid, Ol’ Kid,” tells his pals about Waterbury, Connecticut: “Well, the liveliest spot in town’s a place called Flanigan’s where I showed those hicks my bag of tricks — and they never saw such hooligans or shenanigans.”

Oklahoma! takes place in 1906, and Take Me Along in 1910. Could it be that long before McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell started franchising, Mr. Flanigan had already begun the practice?

Finally, Follies has Buddy, which leads to one of Sondheim’s most clever rhymes (of his hundreds of clever rhymes). “Buddy’s Blues” has the character sing, “She says that anybody,” leading to Showgirl Sally’s commenting, “Buddy!” before pretending to vomit with a “Bleah!”

I once asked Sondheim if the character originally had another name but to accommodate this rhyme, he asked bookwriter James Goldman to rechristen him. Sondheim not only told me that Buddy was always Buddy, but also added that he’d never change a character’s name just for the sake of a joke.

In addition, he seemed insulted that I’d ever come to such a conclusion.  But at least he didn’t pretend to vomit and go “Bleah!”

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.