Did you miss it on Dec. 11, 1966?
Whether you were busy that night or unborn, you probably did (as did I).
But on this May 16 – nearly fifty-five years after it had aired for the first and only time on CBS – Buzzr let us catch up to that Sunday’s episode of the game show PASSWORD.
Lest you don’t know how it worked, a game player would be given a word (say, “rainbow”) and would then give a one-word clue (say, “Finian’s”) that would cue the partner to guess the word.
On this episode in question, Lee Remick was the celebrity guest, looking much the same as she appeared on the formal portrait that graces the original cast album of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. She introduced her partner as “a wonderful game player, a wonderful man with words, a great composer and lyricist: Mr. Stephen Sondheim.”
They’d met during WHISTLE, for which he had written the adventurous score. According to Sondheim biographer Meryle Secrest, he and Remick had a very special friendship. As Edward Kleban wrote in a song that wound up in A CLASS ACT, they had “the next best thing to love” which he defined as – yes – “love.”
Note that Remick knew enough to mention that Sondheim was “a great composer.” Although at this point he’d had more hits as a lyricist (WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY) than a composer-lyricist (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED …), Remick knew that Sondheim prided himself as much if not more for his music than his words.
During the requisite patter, host Allen Ludden asked if Sondheim was working on a new musical. “It’s called THE GIRLS UPSTAIRS with a book by James Goldman.” Need I tell you that that one morphed into FOLLIES?
The other team’s celebrity was Peter Lawford, who you may know from the GOOD NEWS film. When he told us that his partner would be Mrs. Bob Six, I thought “Whoa! Ethel Merman?!”
No – The Merm and Six, who’d married in 1953, had split six (!) years earlier. The new Mrs. Six was Audrey Meadows, best known as Alice Kramden on THE HONEYMOONERS. Their marriage in 1961 lasted until his death in 1986. After twenty-five years, it’s nice to know that they were a couple until the end.
The first password was “squirm.” Remick offered “wriggle,” and Sondheim guessed it within a second. Neither she nor he knew it at the time, but nineteen years later, Remick would sing a variation of that word in one of Sondheim’s songs during FOLLIES IN CONCERT. It’s the song that includes the musical’s original title, for in “Waiting around for the Girls Upstairs,” Phyllis has the lyric “Giggling, wriggling out of our tights.”
From the mere clues “drawing,” “sketch” and “picture,” would you have guessed “etching”? Sondheim did. Combined with other triumphs, he and Remick won the right to play “the lightning round,” in which she would feed him five words that had to be guessed in a minute’s time.
He did it in forty-three seconds.
The most intriguing word was “parade.” “Dress!” Remick exclaimed; Sondheim said “Pattern!” That made her switch gears to “Thanksgiving!” which got him to say “Marchers!” She didn’t need to give another clue for Sondheim to then guess “parade.”
A PASSWORD contestant wasn’t allowed to give two- or three-word clues, but during this lightning round, players were allowed to say one word after another as quickly as they occurred to them. Wouldn’t it have been something if Remick had said “There’s!” “a!” “In!” “Town!” which Sondheim would have immediately recognized as one of his ANYONE CAN WHISTLE songs?
Had Remick forgotten “A Parade in Town” in the close-to-three years since the musical had (abruptly) closed? To be fair, Remick didn’t hear the song all that many times, for it was a late addition to the score and it was Angela Lansbury’s number to boot. Had it been Remick’s, she might have thought to use the words that would have immediately spurred Sondheim to say “Parade!”
One might wonder, though, if the PASSWORD word-chooser was someone who’d truly been paying attention to Broadway and purposely chose “parade” because it was part of a Sondheim song title. True, there weren’t many Sondheim fans in 1966 – COMPANY, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and the other masterpieces were yet to come.
No, in terms of being appreciated, these were the Dark Ages for Sondheim. Brooks Atkinson, who reviewed WEST SIDE STORY for The New York Times, didn’t even mention Sondheim in his review.
Even today, when people speak of GYPSY, they’re inclined to first and foremost mention its Overture. Needless to say, Sondheim had nothing to do with that.
Further discussions usually result in whether Merman, Lansbury, Daly, Peters or LuPone gave the superior performance. Sondheim’s lyrics? Everyone likes or loves them, but few ever mention them.
Sondheim didn’t get Tony-nominated for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM although a show that would run one thirteenth as long – BRAVO GIOVANNI – received a Best Score nomination instead. FORUM has had two Broadway revivals and would have had another in 2015 if James Corden hadn’t received a better offer. BRAVO GIOVANNI, whose cast album certainly delivers some pleasures, has not been seen since its 1962 closing. Has any licensing house ever picked it up for stock and amateur rights? Certainly Music Theatre International offers FORUM, which gets done all the time.
Before this episode of PASSWORD, Sondheim’s most recent Broadway credit had been DO I HEAR A WALTZ? It has a tragically underrated score, to be sure, but by this episode, it had been closed for fifteen months and wasn’t much discussed by Broadway observers.
But what might have happened if PASSWORD’S word-chooser had been a fan of Sondheim’s lyrics? What if he’d selected off-the-beaten-path words that had appeared in his songs?
Proper nouns were never chosen as passwords, but perhaps the word-chooser might have made an exception and selected “Manhattan.” If Remick were a WEST SIDE STORY fan – and which of us is not? – she could have exclaimed “Smoke!” “On!” “Pipe! “Put!” “That!” and “In!”
For that is one of the most remarkable lyrics ever written by a Broadway first-timer who was twenty-six or twenty-seven at the most. “Smoke on your pipe and put that in” is a thoroughly believable take on the famous put-down “Put that in your pipe and smoke it” as said by someone for whom English is a second language. Whenever Sondheim next complains about “It’s alarming how charming I feel” (which he’s done with alarming regularity), let’s bring this up as the ultimate counterargument.
Here’s another: “Cannonballing” which Tony sings in WEST SIDE STORY’s “Something’s Coming.” Leave it to Sondheim to take a noun and turn it into a dynamic verb.
Do you know the story of how Sondheim expected to be “the first fifteen-year-old to ever have a musical on Broadway” when he showed his first effort to mentor Oscar Hammerstein? Although that didn’t happen, getting there in a mere more dozen years was quite the accomplishment.
Would Remick have known GYPSY well enough to say “ginger” as a clue for “peachy”? Although Rose uses “ginger-peachy” as a noun that proclaims her delight in meeting “Mr. Goldstone,” Sondheim was wise to tie in these two foodstuffs that make up the expression, for they dovetail nicely with eggroll, spare rib, fish, pork, lychee, kumquat, fried rice and cookie.
But “Danubey” would be too much to ask, wouldn’t it? It’s in the title tune of DO I HEAR A WALTZ? as Leona sings that she’s finally hearing “such lovely Blue Danubey music” before deciding “How can you be / still?” It’s a terrific and clever rhyme, and certainly a harbinger of ones that Sondheim would dispense in his long career.
In conquering the lighting round with the speed of summer lightning, Sondheim won $500. An inflation calculator reveals that that’s $4,076.08 in today’s money. That’s quite good for fewer than his four minutes of work on the show.
For that matter, it’s probably not all that much less than he had earned from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE – at least as of 1966. But with an original cast album and a Carnegie Hall concert album – each of which has never been out of print – glory, hallelu! The man got his due! (And thank you, Lord!)
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.