Whenever May 12th approaches, I think of THE SNAKE PIT.
I don’t mean an actual abyss of vipers that you might encounter on a stroll through northern India, southern China or on an Arizona desert. I’m talking about the 1948 film in which Virginia Stuart Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) goes crazy every time May 12 rolls around.
The date unnerves her so much that she’s confined in, to use the term the film employs, a madhouse.
The irony is that one of THE SNAKE PITs screenwriters was Arthur Laurents – who, by many accounts, drove many people crazy.
So did Jerome Robbins, who joined forces with him on GYPSY. And before that landmark musical reached Broadway, Robbins and Sondheim holed themselves in a room and cobbled together the bits and pieces that made up “Rose’s Turn.” It’s a musical scene in itself, in which Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother could be said to have gone crazy, too.
Did Sondheim ever consider musicalizing THE SNAKE PIT? To quote the title of a song that he wrote for the 1963 musical HOT SPOT when its score needed boosting: “Don’t laugh.” Throughout his long and illustrious career, Sondheim was drawn to both fictional characters and real-life people whom we might judge as unglued.
We won’t count Leona Samish in DO I HEAR A WALTZ? for she only goes slightly cuckoo in this musical version of THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO. But what of the inmates who apparently left their asylum and strolled into Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper’s town in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE? Or were they not so crazy when compared with the citizens who lived oh-so-conventional lives there?
That question isn’t easily answered, which suggests why Sondheim needed a full 13 minutes in the not-at-all simple “Simple” to grapple with the matter. It was by far the longest cut on any original cast album up to that time; precious few have since surpassed it in length.
Certainly, COMPANY’s April, Kathy and Marta believe Bobby “could drive a person crazy.” Although they sometimes do seem bonkers, can we hold Bobby responsible?
(I almost wrote “they sometimes do seem as mad as a hatter” but hatter is a virtually extinct profession, and understandably so. I mean, does anyone still wear a hat?)
FOLLIES’ Sally Durant Plummer sings in Sondheim’s bolt-of-lightning showpiece that she’s “Losing My Mind.” W. Somerset Maugham once observed, “The only love that lasts is unrequited love.” Alas, there’s a profound downside to that, which Sally has been experiencing since the sun came up each day right down to each sleepless night when she thinks about Ben (who isn’t worth thinking about).
And then there’s ASSASSINS. Notice that the titles of the songs that are devoted to John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz and Charles Guiteau start with the three words “The Ballad of.” So, did Sondheim opt for the dictionary’s first definition of “ballad”: “a slow, sentimental or romantic song”? Or the second definition: “a song that narrates a story”? No, he wasn’t out to find much romance in these guys.
Nevertheless, because the assassins basically had a grudge against one person, they weren’t the craziest people that Sondheim brought to the musical stage. That distinction goes to two characters in the show subtitled THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.
Sweeney Todd was out for revenge because of an unjust incarceration and a loss of his family. But losing the chance to kill his enemy really set him off. Soon he was victimizing perfect strangers who’d done him no harm.
Mrs. Lovett was worse, for she’d had no such horrible backstory, and yet came up with the idea of popping people into pies. Her theme song could just as easily have been “Think Big Rich” (from THE GRASS HARP) or, perhaps more accurately when one considers her feelings for Sweeney, “What I Did for Love.”
Sondheim wasn’t the only one who brought unhinged characters into musicals. Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green had the entire cast of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY evaluate Mrs. Primrose and reiterate no fewer than 42 times that “She’s a Nut.”
Indeed, she was, which made producer-director-mentor Oscar Jaffee worry that he might wind up in the gutter as “Crazy Oscar.” Hear him moan about this in the verse of “The Legacy” before rallying and turning it into a genuine eleven o’clock number.
In THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, we don’t need to judge Jimmy and the speakeasy denizens as nuts despite their song “The Nuttycracker Sweet.” Their singing “Za da da da doo da badoodle a da d bwah da da da za ba ba bwah bwah bwah bwah bwah bwah doo dat” isn’t crazy talk; it’s scatting.
Don’t blame me for calling The Countess Aurelia “The Madwoman of Chaillot”; that’s the name playwright Jean Giraudoux gave her. In DEAR WORLD – Jerry Herman’s most ambitious score – he reinforced the playwright’s belief that she wasn’t so loopy. Such songs as “Each Tomorrow Morning” and “Kiss Her Now” prove that Herman never wrote so tender a score before or after this one.
Let’s call Kate’s action in HOW NOW, DOW JONES temporary insanity rather that outright craziness. Her job was to broadcast the Dow Jones Industrial Average every hour of the business day. It was circling 900 when the show opened in late 1967 – but Kate’s beau Herbert said that he’d only feel secure enough to marry her when the Dow hit 1,000. Considering that four years had to pass for it to go from 800 to 900, the prospect of such a long wait was enough to send Kate into another man’s arms (played by Tony Roberts, by the way).
The one-night stand left Kate pregnant, so – here comes the temporary insanity – she said that the Dow did indeed hit 1,000 when it hadn’t. When asked to explain, she sang that she’d just had “One of Those Moments.” Lyricist Carolyn Leigh had Kate justify herself by comparing herself to Lizzie Borden. Was that a good line of defense? Maybe she was crazy, after all.
Phil Connors thought he was going crazy in GROUNDHOG DAY, but he was actually “Stuck,” as the song goes. However, Edward Kleban did do genuine time in a mental institution, as we learned from A CLASS ACT. Give authors Lonny Price and Linda Kline credit for not whitewashing this situation; less honest writers would have entirely avoided the subject. How good for the musical (and, needless to say, Kleban himself) that he was eventually released, for someone else might not have written lyrics nearly as good as he gave for A CHORUS LINE. And there was much more he accomplished, setting his own words to his own music, too, in this wonderful 2001 musical.
The title characters – yes, plural – of JEKYLL & HYDE flipped out (and did a lot of hair-flipping, too). But that’s what comes from drinking pungent potions. LADY IN THE DARK had Liza Elliott worry that she might be unbalanced, but with a lyric as fine as “The Saga of Jenny,” she proved otherwise. Is the MAN OF LA MANCHA crazy – or is there craziness in one’s not having an impossible dream?
And does Ken Page’s character in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ qualify as loony? Really, what do you make of some lovelorn guy who’s driven to “sit right down and write myself a letter – and make believe it came from you”?
At least GIRL CRAZY doesn’t involve genuine madness; just an obsession with the female sex. As long as it offers such great songs as “Embraceable You,” “But Not for Me” and, of course, “I Got Rhythm,” who could ask for anything more?
And how about that song in THE GIRL IN PINK TIGHTS that starts “You’ve got to be a little crazy to want to produce a play. Your heart must have a lot of ham in it. Your head? Somebody should examine it!”
(I see lyricist Leo Robin’s point.)
Finally, Sondheim did contribute “The Boy from …” to a revue that he would serve well as the title of a SNAKE PIT musical.
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 can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.