A LIST OF LIST SONGS
By Peter Filichia
In The Mikado, KoKo sings “I’ve Got a Little List,” a song that premiered in 1885 and opened the floodgates for 130 years of “list songs” that would be written for the musical theater.
I’ve got a little list, too – one that cites the list songs that I find the best. But let me warn you that I’m not choosing Ira Gershwin’s “Tschaikowsky” from Lady in the Dark, for I find that more a vehicle for Danny Kaye’s tongue-twisting abilities (although Adolph Green does well by it in the 1963 studio version).
I prefer list songs that don’t merely catalogue one item after another but have another point to make. Thus, despite the fun found in Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” (Anything Goes) and “Cherry Pies Ought to Be You” (Out of This World), there’s little to nothing of substance in them but good rhymes. The list songs with some subtext — or at least a little incisive humor – are the ones for me.
Three months ago (on April 7), I spent almost an entire column on a great list song: “A Patriotic Finale” from When Pigs Fly. I’ll let that blog do the talking for this column. But my other favorites include:
“The Prince is Giving a Ball” (Cinderella) so announces The Lord Chancellor to the peasants. It comes courtesy of the King, Queen and Prince. And because so-called royal individuals seem to have more names than Anyone Can Whistle ever had Broadway performances, Oscar Hammerstein II gave them plenty, too. But he knew that a litany of regal-sounding monikers would ultimately bore, so in the middle of each list, he threw a curve ball.
To wit: “His royal highness Christopher Rupert Windemier Vladimir Carl Alexander Francois Reginald Lancelot Herman” – to which a peasant boy interrupts in astonishment “HERMAN?!?!?!” Hammerstein had two other low-rent and hilarious name surprises for His and Her Majesty, too.
“My Favorite Things” (The Sound of Music). It’s probably the most famous list song of all; anything from The Sound of Music often is. But how did this morph into a Christmas song? Do the “favorite things” pass for Christmas presents? If so, I don’t want to witness the fury of children who on the morning of Dec. 25th see under their Christmas tree raindrops on roses or even warm woolen mittens. There’d better be some good stuff in those brown paper packages tied up in strings.
Aside from that, however, the song scores because Fraulein Maria, by listing some of life’s most simple pleasures, shows us the appreciative type of person she is.
“Happiness Is” (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown). Clark Gesner has each Peanuts character give his own definition. Most, appropriately enough, are those that would be of concern to young kids, so there’s telling the time, learning to whistle, tying your shoe, catching a firefly and climbing a tree. But Gesner saved the best for last: “Happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you.” And if that sounds beyond the kids’ ken, well, Charles Schulz did create an awfully sophisticated group of children, didn’t he?
“Here’s Love” (Here’s Love). It’s a jaunty song about peaceful coexistence between enemies. But a long fifty-two years have passed since 1963, and many of the references that Meredith Willson included have since faded. Oh, some have remained constant (“From the high and the mighty to the meek who inherit the earth; Miami to Los Angeles, and Dallas to Fort-Worth”). But if someone were writing an analogous song today, he or she would never think to include “L&M to Lucky Strike” in these no-smoking times. There’d be a new movie star in place of “Elizabeth Taylor,” too, who was cited for her “husbands in review.” And to think that back then she was only on husband number three of her eventual seven (albeit with eight marriages; she married Richard Burton twice).
Young ‘uns might also not know the identity of “Jolly Nikita,” meaning Soviet Union premier Khrushchev (1894-1971) whose reign of power ended a mere eighty-one days after Here’s Love closed. But for better or worse, the reference to President Fidel Castro is still relevant today. And saddest of all, one lyric had to be amended seven weeks after the show opened: “JFK to U.S. Steel” was hastily changed the morning after President Kennedy’s assassination to “CIA to U.S. Steel.”
“Drop That Name” (Bells Are Ringing). For the record, when the show opened in New Haven, this song was called “The Name-Dropping Gavotte.” Poor switchboard operator Ella Peterson feels out of her league when brought to a party thrown by a swank producer. She’s told she can get by if she simply mentions important names – be they from the world of entertainment (Fred Astaire), literature (Evelyn Waugh), sports (Sammy Snead) and so-called royalty (King Farouk).
Now if Willson’s 1963 names are dated, imagine the ones from a show that had opened seven years earlier. Of the more than three dozen names mentioned, only Doris Day (93) and Debbie Reynolds (83) are still with us. But the latter didn’t survive the song. For the movie version filmed four years later, “Debbie and Eddie,” concerning lovebirds Reynolds and Fisher, was changed to “Lizzie and Eddie” after Fisher became one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands in review.
What makes this a superior list song is Comden and Green’s having Ella valiantly try her best to keep up. For a while, the best she can do is offer canine movie star Rin-Tin-Tin (1918-1932) after Anthony Quinn is mentioned (and requires a rhyme). The song gets a bit dada when Ella matches Rin-Tin-Toon with Rory Calhoun, Ron-Tong-Tong with Anna May Wong, Ren-Ten-Ten with Edmund Gwenn and Rhan-Tahn-Tahnn with Ali Kahn. But when put to the test with a name she can’t possible rhyme with any form of Rin-Tin-Tin – “Raymond Massey” – she comes right back a great joke: “Lassie!”
“Hurry! It’s Lovely up Here” (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). Daisy Gamble’s love song to her beloved flowers counts as a charm song, too, in that it reveals her delightful character. Alan Jay Lerner included the posy, geranium, peony and azalea – rhyming the last-named with “(Don’t be a) failure!” This little lyrical cheat — “a” and “r” rhymes are so-near-yet-so-far from perfect (except in my native Boston, where we pronounce them identically) – must have rankled the meticulous Lerner when he settled for it. So when he had a chance to rewrite for the film version, he changed it to “Come, give us least a / preview of Easter” – which took the same lyrical liberty.
“Show You a Thing or Two” (Bat Boy). Here’s the song that makes us officially fall in love with Bat Boy, for we see him working so, SO hard to learn. And did we ever think we could care about this fictional character as we entered the theater?
“Nobody Makes a Pass at Me” (Pins and Needles). Here’s a silver anniversary recording in which Streisand, between her two Broadway appearances, contributed. She plays a woman whose face would not launch a thousand ships, but one who doesn’t view herself as unattractive. Although she’s bemoaning her lack of love, she does deserve credit for looking in the mirror and not being discouraged by what she sees.
Truth to tell, only the C-section of the song is a list, a catalogue of beauty and medicinal products that she’s bought which she assumes will solve the problem — from “Ex-Lax to Playtex.” Yes, part of the fun is hearing early Streisand before she lost — nay, threw away – her sense of humor.
“I’m Still Here” (Follies). Many list songs don’t have any particular character, but you know Stephen “Mr. Specific” Sondheim. In between faded star Carlotta Campion’s detailing people (The Dionne Quintuplets), places (Beverly Hills) and things (mahjongg), she also reveals a good deal about herself in the two B-sections. Has there ever been a better song about a has-been?
”Dead End” (Hair). Don’t walk. Keep out. Mad dog. Hands off. All trespassers will be shot. Here the list of commands reminds us that we’re subject to so many, MANY little rules in our daily lives. Lyricists Ragni and Rado suggested there were far too many; by seemingly having no problem coming up with one after another, they convince us.
Oh, and if none of these strikes your fancy, perhaps you’d enjoy “I’ve Got a Little List” from The Mikado, thanks to Groucho Marx and the recording made of the 1960 TV production.
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.