A GREAT TURN OF PHRASE by Peter Filichia
By Peter Filichia
One of the great ingredients of the musicals from The Golden Age of Broadway was its lyrics. Wordsmiths gave much attention and care to finding j-u-s-t the right word, the perfect rhyme and the ideal scansion. And every now and then, they’d give us a little lagniappe by taking a phrase that had one meaning and later turning it around and using it in an entirely different context.
You must have your favorite turns of phrases in lyrics. Here are mine.
“Good Thing Going” (Merrily We Roll Along) – Shall we start with a Sondheim? Well, who else? For composer Franklin Shepard and lyricist Charley Kringas, he came up with this song which they intended for their musical Take a Left. Once that one didn’t get on, they adhered to the Broadway practice of recycling (paging Charles Strouse!) and inserting it in Musical Husbands. That turned out to be “Funny Girl, Fiddler and Dolly combined.” A song as strong as this had to be one of the reasons why. Charley (Lonny Price), while auditioning the song for would-be backers, plays a character whose relationship “started out like a song.” “We had a good thing going,” he insists. But as he saw it, he “wanted too much” while (s)he “never wanted enough.” As a result, the “good thing” was soon “going, going – gone.” That may have been tragedy for the parties concerned, but not for us listeners, who swooned at that terrific turn of phrase.
“All the Time” (Oh, Captain!) – Captain Henry St. James has a good thing going – Maud is his wife in London and Bobo his lover in Paris. Of course St. James (Tony Randall, who hardly seemed the adulterous type) gets caught. Only then does he realize that Maud should be his one and only. “I want you with me all the time,” he sings. “Sunrise and sunset and all the time” before coming to the conclusion “But I needed someone all the time, and all the time it was you.” So the phrase first means “constantly” and then “in the past.”
“All the Time” got a cover recording that got as high as Number 21 on Billboard’s Singles Chart – which was nothing compared to its performance on Billboard’s Albums Chart. As part of a collection of twelve songs, the album debuted at Number One and stayed on the charts for 480 weeks over nine years.
Hard to believe, but that’s how long Mr. Mathis’ Johnny’s Greatest Hits lasted on these surveys. As a result, of all the songs listed here, “All the Time” is easily the one that sold the most copies, even if some of Mathis’ other “greatest hits” were really the ones to do the heavy lifting.
And what about the time cited in “It’s High Time?” Many musical theater newbies may only know Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from its 1953 film version. That, however, uses very little of the original score and cuts some marvelous songs while only compensating with a couple of lesser numbers. (But truth to tell, I’ve yet to hear any musical theater enthusiast complain about how “Ain’t Anyone Here for Love?” looks on screen). Still, if you don’t know the entire Jule Styne-Leo Robin score fromthe 1949 Broadway smash, you must rectify that, either through the original cast album that reveals why the show made a star of Carol Channing or through the Megan Hilty Encores! recording. And while this may be heresy, I’ll admit that as great as the Styne music is — as it always was in his prime — Robin’s lyrics are arguably better.
As for “It’s High Time,” everyone in those days of Prohibition can’t wait until the Ile de France has sailed far enough from the U.S.A. shore. “It’s High Time” doesn’t only mean that it’s time to get high on liquor; it also says that an event that’s been much anticipated will finally happen.
“Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy) — Didn’t take us long to get back to Sondheim, did it? Rose reminisces on all the efforts she made for her daughters. “It wasn’t for me, Herbie” she notes, before adding, “and if it wasn’t for me, where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?” The first phrase means that “My efforts weren’t for me and me alone” while the second means “I’m responsible for your success.”
Rose, I’m afraid you’ve made a grammatical error – which of course lyricist Sondheim knew. Had he used the subjunctive – “If it weren’t for me” — he would have lost a good turn of phrase. But as Carolyn Quinn details in Mama Rose’s Turn — her excellent biography of the real Rose – young Rose skipped a good deal of school so she would be no stranger to grammatical errors.
“Shy” (Once upon a Mattress) – The big joke of this song is Princess Winnifred’s claiming that she’s terribly withdrawn while Mary Rodgers’ brassy Broadway melody suggests otherwise. Lyricist Marshall Barer has a topper in store at song’s end: Winnifred said that in matters of love, she’s “one man shy” – meaning “deficient.”
“So Long, Dearie” (Hello, Dolly!). “So long” means “farewell,” as Oscar Hammerstein most famously displayed when he linked all three words in a Sound of Music song. But “so long” is also used as a measure of time. Thus Dolly Gallagher Levi tells Vandergelder “I should have said ‘So long,’ so long ago.” I’d like to think that one reason that Vandergelder changes his mind on marrying her is because he was impressed with her command of the language.
“Matchmaker” (Fiddler on the Roof) – Not long after we had a smash-hit musical that centered on a matchmaker – i.e., Dolly Gallagher Levi (Jan. 16, 1964), we had another smash-hit musical (Fiddler, Sept. 22, 1964) in which a matchmaker was featured: Yenta, whose territory was Anatevka, and whose job was to see young men and women matched and married. Tzietel, Hodel and Chava are now of the age when they dream of romance, marriage and “a perfect match.” Although the three are daughters of a milkman, they won’t get the cream of Anatevka’s crop. Once they realize this, they’re not in such a hurry to be matched because, as lyricist Sheldon Harnick wisely noted, “playing with matches a girl can get burned.”
“When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” (Finian’s Rainbow) — Here’s the unquestioned champ of them all. E.Y. Harburg had Og, that lovable leprechaun, sing “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.” And if that had been the song’s one and only clever lyric, we all would have been satisfied. But Harburg was just getting going – because he had a good thing going. He then had Og sing “When I’m not close to the kiss that I cling to, I cling to the kiss that’s close” and “When I’m not facing the face that I fancy, I fancy the face I face” before ending with his ace trump: “When I can’t fondle the hand I’m fond of, I fondle the hand at hand” – for “at hand” means “near,” too, doesn’t it?
And now onto a completely different type of turn-of-phrase from Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, the TV special that Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett did in 1962. “You’re So London,” written by composer Ken Welch and lyricist Mike Nichols (yes – that Mike Nichols) is a real honey, one of the best-ever swirling waltzes. It’s so good that Columbia Records’ powers-that-be even released it on a 45 rpm record. (Not that it sold as well that year as “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” “The Loco-motion” or “The Stripper,” but if you wanted it on 45, you could get it.)
The song addresses the issue that many stage and TV watchers had at the time: Julie Andrews, the elegant lady, would seem to have nothing in common with Carol Burnett, the down-home girl who was constantly and unapologetically clearing her throat in a most unsubtle and unladylike fashion.
Ah, but that these two are strange bedfellows is the point of the song. “You’re so London,” Burnett starts, “I’m so San Antoine.” Each woman gives her own wan assessment of herself and aggrandizes the other. Andrews graciously points out that Burnett’s down-to-earth qualities are refreshing: “You’re so ‘Hey, bub, where’s the ladies’ room?’ and I’m so ‘May I wash?’” Burnett in turn laments “You’re so Shakespeare, so Bernard Shaw, and I’m so Fannie Hurst!” To which Andrews asks “Fannie who?”
Ms. Andrews, Fannie Hurst (1889-1968) was a novelist best remembered for Imitation of Life — although its two film versions are what really have kept the property alive. But that’s not the point, my friends. Andrews keeps saying “Fannie? Fannie?” in a most confused voice. The reason may well be that “fannie” means something quite different to Brits from what it means to Americans. ‘Nuff said.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.