By Peter Filichia
Fifty years ago this week, Wildcat opened with one of the most beloved stars of the era: Lucille Ball. Composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh certainly gave her a honey of a number to tell just what her character Wildcat Jackson was made of: “Hey, Look Me Over!”
The irony is that the song came relatively late in the process. Ball’s biographer Kathleen Brady recounted the well-told tale in Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball. Coleman just couldn’t come up with the right melody because he was so intimidated with the thought that he was writing for the Nation’s Reigning Star. Then Leigh said, “If you were doing it for someone like Lucille Ball, what would you write?” The suggestion made all the difference, and “Hey, Look Me Over!” was born.
Anyone listening to the original cast album — which will soon celebrate its golden anniversary, too – would probably be astonished that “Hey, Look Me Over!” wasn’t an important building block from Day One and perhaps one of the first Wildcat songs written. But plenty of songs have come in late in the game – after rehearsals started, during pre-Broadway tryouts or in previews. Some of those turned out be wonderful songs, too. Among the best:
1. “I’m Still Here” (Follies). As I wrote two weeks ago, when I heard during the Boston tryout that Sondheim was replacing “Can That Boy Fox-Trot,” I couldn’t understand why he’d drop something that was working so splendidly. But thank the Lord he did, for we otherwise wouldn’t have this ultimate survival anthem.
2. “Oklahoma!” (Oklahoma!). So good, they had to re-name Away We Go! so this could be the title tune. The funny thing is that it wasn’t written with harmony until Celeste Holm suggested that it should be. They couldn’t say no to her.
3. “Neverland” (Peter Pan). Of course, once Styne, Comden, and Green joined the show in California, everything they added was superb, but this was especially wonderful.
4. “Getting to Know You” (The King and I). See South Pacific now, and you’ll feel the moment when Lieutenant Joe Cable once came forward and sang “Suddenly Lucky.” Lucky for The King and I, though, that it was dropped, that Mary Martin remembered it and suggested it and that Oscar Hammerstein knew precisely what lyric to write to Rodgers’ felicitous tune.
5. “Comedy Tonight” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Could one song have made so much difference? Both Stephen Sondheim and co-author Larry Gelbart have gone on record to say that this song was all it took to change the show from flop to hit.
6. “Edelweiss” (The Sound of Music). Not just because it’s Oscar Hammerstein II’s final lyric. Richard Rodgers’ beautiful waltz also happens to be perfect for the moment. It gives Captain Von Trapp something all his own and reiterated what was in his psyche long before Maria changed so much of him.
7. “I’m Goin’ Back” (Bells Are Ringing). Impossible to believe, isn’t it, that the show went to New Haven without this great 11 o’clock number. Styne, Comden, and Green just didn’t have their big finish, and star Judy Holliday was not amused. After many a false start, Styne noticed that Ella’s first-act line — “I might as well be back at the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company” — could spur a song. He wrote the opening phrase, both music and lyric, and played it for his collaborators. “Yes!” screamed Green, and by day’s end, they had their closer.
8. “Before the Parade Passes By” (Hello, Dolly!). Jerry Herman got the job done, though we’ll never really, really know if he did it with or without a little help from his friends.
9. “So Long, Dearie” (Hello, Dolly!). To think that the smash-to-be went out-of-town without its eventual first- and second-act closers.
10. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Promises, Promises). Take it from one who saw the Boston tryout before this was added: As wonderful as the song is, perfect for the mood and moment, the already-terrific show didn’t need it. But we’re all very glad that it’s there.
11. “Younger Than Springtime” (South Pacific). This more than made up for Cable’s losing “Suddenly Lucky.”
12. “The Rhythm of Life” (Sweet Charity). Opening night in New York the audience burst into applause when those “Doobie-doobies” came in. The reason? At the time, there was a wildly popular group called The Swingle Singers who took that precise non-verbal approach with classical music. Not, however, any more felicitously than displayed here.
13. “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” (Damn Yankees). Richard Adler remembers that “Mr. Abbott ordered Jerry (Ross) and me to write a song that would introduce the character of Lola with a bang. We wrote it overnight, and were very disappointed when Gwen (Verdon) didn’t immediately like it. After a long pause, she told us, ‘King’ and ‘Siam’ don’t rhyme.’ It took her a while before she saw the interior rhymes. Once she did, though, she was on her way.”
14. “Children and Art” (Sunday in the Park with George). A nice rebuttal to all those who say that Sondheim doesn’t write with emotion.
15. “Where You Are” (Kiss of the Spider Woman). And to think that the smart Broadway money had this show dead after its unsuccessful tryout in Purchase. Once Chita Rivera joined the production, Kander and Ebb knew what they had to write.
16. “The Late Late Show” (Do Re Mi). What a great idea: our not-so-grand anti-hero must convince his partners that he’s threatening his nemesis. So by quoting Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney’s on-screen browbeating warnings, he appears to be getting tough with him.
17. “Grand Hotel” (Grand Hotel). Most title tunes are celebratory, but when Maury Yeston joined the show in Boston, he knew that he had to come up with something broodingly evocative. Indeed he did.
18. “Honest Man” (Bajour). Sure, a tad tawdry, but right in the 11 o’clock tradition.
19. “I’m Past My Prime” (L’il Abner). To paraphrase Irene O’Dare, Daisy Mae got the daisiest song when she got to express what it’s like to be an old maid teenager.
20. “100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man” (Wonderful Town). Comden and Green liked to say that Rosalind Russell wanted a song with not much vocal range, but with a joke at the end of each sequence. They gave her just that. (I’d rank this one higher, but, as a lifelong baseball fan, I must say Ruth’s explanation of the bunt and the triple play makes no sense.)
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com