And now for a very different homage to a 50th anniversary.
Much has been made here in recent weeks of some great 1973 events in musical theater.
Two involved a certain composer-lyricist whose first name is Stephen. His A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opened 50 years ago last month, and SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE was celebrated a half-century ago this month.
But earlier in the 2022-2023 theatrical season, we had an opening number that was very specific about 1973.
It was, in fact, called “1973” – the first song in the 2022 Broadway musical ALMOST FAMOUS.
Here, teenager William Miller takes stock of his life in that year. He’s in a fatherless home where his mother Elaine and sister Anita endlessly battle over contemporary music. Mom feels that “it’s all about drugs and promiscuous sex” while Anita insists that “Simon and Garfunkel are poetry.”
What also comes out in “1973” is that William wasn’t born in 1956, as Elaine had misinformed him, but 1958, all to get him in school earlier. No wonder he seems immature compared to his classmates.
That may be, but he’ll soon outpace them by getting a job that his classmates will envy. Rolling Stone gives him the chance to follow and write about the band Stillwater on their tour.
Although Elaine can’t shake her grave misgiving about the rock scene, she does understand that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that could jump-start William’s writing career. So, she lets him do it.
Cameron Crowe, in writing the (Oscar-winning) screenplay for his 2000 film, was pretty much telling his own story about his adolescence when he followed The Allman Brothers Band. For the stage musical, he collaborated with composer Tom (IF/THEN) Kitt.
Both wrote the lyrics, so – as is the case with Comden and Green and Adler and Ross – we’ll never know who was responsible for certain words and concepts. Whichever of them thought of having William say in “1973” that his mother was a combination of “Socrates and Kojak” was doing his homework, for Kojak, about a keen detective, was a popular TV series, finishing in seventh place for the year.
William soon meets – and insults – Penny Lane (not, as you’d suspect, her real name). His mistake is referring to her and her ilk as groupies. In “Who Are You With?” Penny unequivocally states, “We are here for the music.”
So will be fans of the movie, the musical and this recording. Plenty of listeners will muse about the short-running stage show and say, “I shoulda been there” or “I shoulda gone again.”
A listen to the new songs verifies that: “Morocco,” Penny’s want-song about the place she’d most like to visit; “It’s All Happening,” which William learns from Penny that it indeed is in this den of iniquity. (Elaine would be apoplectic to learn that her worst fears weren’t nearly bad enough.)
What’s a musical without seduction song? Stillwater’s front man Russell turns on the charm to turn on Penny in “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You.” (Penny lets him know the feeling is mutual.)
William’s “No Friends” may seem from its title that it’s a comment on his loneliness at school. No, Crowe and Kitt aimed higher than that. They have William realize that as much as he’d like the Stillwater crew to be his friends, professional demands on both sides make that impossible.
As it turns out, Russell does want to know “Something Real” about him. ALMOST FAMOUS continually poses the question of where a line can be drawn between a professional relationship and a personal one in the entertainment industry. The cast album reveals the dichotomy early and often.
Of the 17 songs heard in the film, Crowe has retained “Fever Dog,” “Tiny Dancer” (which gives Elton John his sixth Broadway credit) and “The Wind” by Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens. But he hasn’t stinted on rock songs: T. Rex’s “Twentieth Century Boy,” Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” David Bowie’s “It Ain’t Easy” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” are all here. So is Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” supplanting the group’s “That’s the Way.”
Funny; there was a time when performances on new original cast albums spurred pop artists to do cover versions of the songs: Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt) saw her rendition of THE PAJAMA GAME’S “Hey, There” reach Number One on the charts and stay in the top position for five solid weeks. Now instead you’ll hear Broadway performers covering rock classics.
Who knows? Even the staunchest rock fans might be surprised at how pleased they are on new takes of vintage hits. Back in 1962, many people preferred Sammy Davis, Jr.’s rendition of “What Kind of Fool Am I?” to the performance that Anthony Newley gave on the original cast album of STOP THE WORLD – I WANT TO GET OFF. As AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ taught us, “One never knows, do one?”
Another sign of the times: CDs used to be the recording medium that offered bonus tracks. FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’s compact disc showed that the second section of “Tradition” was originally part of another song; Jack Gilford and Ruby Keeler were finally heard in “Only a Moment Ago” on the NO, NO, NANETTE CD, for there was no room for it on the so-called long-playing record. And the ALMOST FAMOUS CD gives you Elaine’s observation that “He Knows Too Little (And I Know Too Much),” which only survived in part as the run at the Jacobs continued.
As Cole Porter taught us in the title song of ANYTHING GOES, “Times have changed.” Now CDs only have so much space while streaming is limitless. So, stream/download ALMOST FAMOUS, and you’ll hear “Anything’s Possible,” which would have given Penny yet another showcase, as well as the cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” which is performed in the show but cut from the CD because of time limits.
And anything is possible, including the possibility that we’ll see more productions of ALMOST FAMOUS as a result of regional directors hearing this original cast album.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.