By Peter Filichia
After I’d finished a recent lecture to a group of young musical theater students, one of them approached me and said “I’ve got a question. In ‘Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love’ in A Chorus Line, when that singer says that he was ‘Locked in the bathroom with Peyton Place,’ do you think Peyton was a girl or a boy?”
“Excuse me?” I said, thoroughly befuddled.
“Well,” he continued, “there’s that actress Peyton List who was on that Disney Channel series Jessie. And then there’s that football player Peyton Manning — I know, because I come from Colorado and my brother keeps talking about him. So what do you think?” he said, adding a mischievous grin. “Is it a boy or a girl in that bathroom?”
There was a time when every American knew that Peyton Place was a small town in which big sins were routinely committed. Many had read about the fictional burg in Grace Metalious’ 1956 potboiler that wound up selling 12 million copies. But even then, everyone predicted that this non-literary achievement would last through the ages. And the young question-asker proved that point rather decisively by not knowing Peyton Place from Ms. Lift or Mr. Manning.
Yeah, the times, they do a-change, don’t they? Because they do, some lyrics age poorly and aren’t understood by subsequent generations. So I’ll do many young ‘uns a service by explaining what Marta means when she says “My service will explain” in Company’s “Another Hundred People” (a song which, by the way, was originally in the second act when it began its Boston tryout).
Before the advent of telephone answering machines, you paid a company to answer your phone and take messages. To learn more about this (and to be tremendously entertained), give a listen to Bells Are Ringing, whose entire plot revolves around such a service. One of its clients is Sandor, a self-proclaimed classical record producer who’s really a bookie who uses the service to place bets: Beethoven is Belmont Park; Puccini is Pimlico, etc. as he explains in one of the show’s best songs, “It’s a Simple Little System.” Has a comedy song ever had a greater capper than Sandor’s asking “What is Handel?” to which his fellow gamblers respond “Hialeah! Hialeah!” to the tune of “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” — the most famous passage of “The Hallelujah Chorus.”
Sandor’s best line doesn’t come in a song, however. It occurs while he’s calling in a bet and then, to indicate “Win, place and show,” he adds in a low voice, “All three speeds.” That too will take some explanation for those born after 1980. When Bells Are Ringing was produced in 1956, one could buy records that spun on a turntable at either 33 1/3, 45 and 78 revolutions per minute. Some of the machines on which these records were played were referenced in Do Re Mi – not the famous Sound of Music song, but the 1960 musical of that name. “Please turn off the Victrola” Hubie Cram (Phil Silvers) asks wife Kay (Nancy Walker) in “Take a Job.” The title of the song tells you that Hubie isn’t requesting that Kay literally shut off the phonograph; he’s metaphorically responding to her constant harping about his unemployment.
Do you think that the Victor allusion in Victrola is one reason why RCA Victor bought the cast album rights for Do Re Mi? Probably a more likely reason is that it’s a very good score.
Lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green just got in under the wire with both jokes. 78s were gone within four years of Bells Are Ringing’s opening and Victrolas a year after Do Re Mi’s. Carolyn Leigh’s lyric in How Now, Dow Jones’ “A-B-C” dated almost as quickly. “The market is a ticker, a slender piece of tape” – referring to the long yellow ribbon which gave the current stock prices – is the lyric with which the show began on Dec. 7, 1967. But fewer than two years later, ticker tape had given way to television monitors.
No matter what John Wilkes Booth says in Assassins (in the show’s last brilliant scene, wonderfully captured on the cast album), fame is indeed fleeting, After Oscar Hammerstein II had Madame Liang mention Clara Bow in “Chop Suey” in Flower Drum Song, he had the chorus ask “Who?” Hammerstein was implying that this silent film superstar who had made fifty-two films in ‘20s was beginning to be forgotten. Now Bow is unquestionably extinct in this era where younger generations won’t even consider watching black-and-white movies, let alone silents.
Brenda Frazier, the society lass famous for her 1938 $75,000 debutante ball, was immortalized in Follies when Stephen Sondheim mentioned her in “I’m Still Here.” (Never mind Yvonne DeCarlo’s truncated version on the cast album; Nancy Walker’s full rendition on Sondheim: A Musical Tribute is the best.) But as Frazier faded, Sondheim eventually decided to replace her with Shirley Temple. The song is so magnificent that it’ll outlive her, too.
Prices cited in lyrics become quickly obsolete. “Penny Candy” was already on its way out when New Faces of ’52 opened. Herman in The Most Happy Fella mourns in “Standing on the Corner” that he “couldn’t buy a girl a nickel Coke.” Today he couldn’t, either — albeit for a different reason. Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises says of his “Upstairs” Manhattan apartment “for $86.50 a month, it’s fine.” You bet it is, Chuck. Today many New Yorkers pay that each month for a storage locker. Smitty in How to Succeed could no longer tell Pierrepont and Rosemary about a yummy Friday special at Stouffer’s, be it $1.90 for one or $3.58 for two. The restaurant branch of the company went out of business in 1983.
Many other companies have, too. In “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” (Ain’t Misbehavin’), a suitor tells his girlfriend he’d like to buy her “Diamond bracelets Woolworth’s doesn’t sell.” Woolworth’s hasn’t sold anything since 1997, when it closed its last “five and dime,” as each one was affectionately called (and, for decades, inaccurately).
In “What I’ve Always Wanted” (It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman) Lois Lane informs us of her ideal suburban existence, which would include “Green stamps in a book.” She’s referring to S(perry) & H(utchinson) Green Stamps, which housewives would get with purchases at participating stores. If they collected enough of them, they’d be able to redeem them for enough items to be “furnishing a nurs’ry” – another goal Lois expresses in the song.
In Sweet Charity’s “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” Helene expresses a desire to be “a hat-check girl at Sardi’s East.” Indeed, from 1958 to 1968, there was a second branch of Sardi’s at 123 East 54th St. — until patrons ate that famous lukewarm cannelloni and muttered “There’s gotta be something better than this.”
In On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’s “Come Back to Me,”Mark Bruckner mentions Korvettes, the famous discount store which had a 1948-1980 run. So much for that belief that it was named for Eight Jewish Korean veterans; the store’s founding date squelches that urban legend, doesn’t it?
Some companies are still with us, but have changed names. In “Initials,” Hair’s pseudo-elegant gavotte, we’re told that “LBJ (meaning then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson) took the IRT.” In 1968, New York’s subway lines still had names as well as numbers or letters; the IRT was Interborough Rapid Transit with the 1 through 7 lines to its credit. There’s also mention of “The IRT” in “When Gemini Meets Capricorn” sung by future Tony-winner Marilyn Cooper and future Barbra Streisand husband Elliott Gould in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Note that here the May 21-June 21 astrological sign is pronounced “Gemin-ee” and not “Gemin-eye;” in the ‘30s, when Wholesale took place, that was the pronunciation preferred by the average man and woman.
“But then the Washington Senators take over my place in his heart,” mourns Meg Boyd about her baseball-crazy husband Joe. But five and a half years after Damn Yankees had opened, Joe would have suffered even more when his beloved Washington Senators moved to Minneapolis to start the 1961 season as the Minnesota Twins. Oh, well – at least major league baseball replaced them with a new version of the Washington Senators.
Fewer than five years later, those Minnesota Twins indeed won the pennant that the Yankees lost. Washingtonians fumed — because their new Senators’ team had finished in eighth place. If the original team has stayed put, the Nation’s Capital would have had its first pennant after nearly a third-of-a-century drought. At least Joe’s hated Yankees didn’t do much better that season; they finished sixth.
Perhaps the saddest lyric now obsolete occurs in Kiss Me, Kate, when actor-producer Fred Graham announces that “No Theatre Guild attraction are we” in “We Open in Venice.” There’s no Theatre Guild now, which seemed impossible when Kiss Me, Kate opened in 1948. The Guild (est. 1919) had already produced 156 shows by the time Cole Porter wrote this lyric. And what of his opening line for Kiss Me, Kate? “Another op’nin’, another show in Philly, Boston or Baltimo'” then meant the world premiere of a tryout. “Pre-Broadway break-ins,” as they were once known, are as endangered as the giant panda and hyacinth macaw. True, shows still open in those three cities, but now mostly national tours that are part of a “Broadway Series.” It’s not the same.
But at least tryouts aren’t as unquestionably gone as the Edsel (“Just an Honest Mistake” – Let It Ride!) or the Automat (“Push de Button” – Jamaica). May they never, ever become 100% obsolete.
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.