Get Ready for March Madness
And here it comes: that annual sporting event that’s unashamedly come to be known as “March Madness.”
Much of the country will be watching to see which college basketball teams will be part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s 65-team tournament. Then fans will watch almost non-stop to see which “Cinderella teams” will do well at “The Big Dance.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that men’s sports often use feminine images? “Cinderella.” “The Big Dance.” In football, there’s also the “Hail Mary” pass, and in one of the most rugged sports – boxing — the amount of money one wins is called a “purse.”
But I digress. If sports fans can have “March Madness,” so can musical theater fans. I’ll spend the month making suggestions for your listening pleasure for each of March’s thirty-one days.
March 1 marks the 34th anniversary of the opening of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, an appropriate start to any month that involves madness.
For those with a good deal of time on their hands, there’s the two-disc set that includes almost every note of music. If you’re one of the busy people who runs around as if he was, as the British like to say, “mad as a March hare,” there’s a Sweeney Todd: Highlights.
Whoever had the assignment of pruning down Sweeney Todd into a highlights album certainly had a formidable task. What gems had to be cut! Poor thing!
Indeed, “Poor Thing” is the first selection eliminated, followed by “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and “Ah, Miss,” which many will miss.
One has to wonder, however: were some subsequent directors of Sweeney Todd inspired by this highlights album? The editor dropped “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “The Contest,” and many who have since staged the show have abridged or dropped some or all of the two.
On the other hand, many directors now add Judge Turpin’s “Johanna,” in which His Honor flagellates himself. This was the song that original director Harold Prince dropped after the show’s first preview, but one that Sondheim wanted on the recording. A good guess is that if it hadn’t been recorded, it wouldn’t have subsequently shown up in revivals. Nevertheless, given that it wasn’t part of the original Broadway production, there’s no surprise that the editor omitted it from the highlights disc.
The editor dropped “His Hands Were Quick, His Fingers Strong,” but certainly kept “Epiphany,” a euphemistic and obfuscating title if there ever was one. The logical title would be “They All Deserve To Die!” If we have to center on one song to be the theme for March Madness, this would have to be it.
I’ve given many a musical theater enthusiast this scenario: you were scheduled to visit a composer and/or lyricist, who said upon opening the door, “I just finished a song; would you like to hear it?” Here’s my question: which song would you most like it to be?
Of course, the answers have been all over the musical theater map, but many have agreed with my choice: “A Little Priest” with its more than four dozen clever rhymes. Needless to say, this one wasn’t dropped from Sweeney Todd’s highlights album.
Summing up: the highlights album also eliminates “Wigmaker Sequence,” “Sweeney Waited Too Long Before,” “The Letter,” “Parlor Songs” and “City on Fire.” Only you can decide if you’ll attend the tale of Sweeney Todd on one disc or two.
On March 2, celebrate the birthdays of three musical theater artists. John Cullum won Tonys® for both Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century, and received nominations for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Urinetown and 110 in the Shade. All five are well worth hearing, but in the spirit of madness, check out both “I Rise Again” and “The Legacy” from On the Twentieth Century. Here Cullum plays Oscar Jaffee, once the king of Broadway, and now so impoverished that he wouldn’t be able to buy a second balcony seat even at the prices that were charged in the early ‘30s (when this Cy Coleman-Betty-Comden-Adolph Green musical takes place).
Speaking of Betty and Adolph, the second of March also marks the ninety-fourth birthday of Eddie Lawrence, who introduced one of their most inspired songs in their 1956 smash Bells Are Ringing.
Lawrence plays Sandor, the bookie who’s pretending to be the president of Titanic Records. (If he’d stayed in business, would he have recorded the original cast album of Titanic?)
Sandor is supposed to be in love with Ella’s cousin Sue (Jean Stapleton, who’d be famous in fifteen years, thanks to the character of Edith Bunker in All in the Family). Sue owns the eponymous Susanswerphone, an answering service that will nicely serve Sandor’s needs: bettors can place their wagers through a code system. We learn the whole ruse in “It’s a Simple Little System,” where classical musicians’ names substitute for racetracks: Beethoven is Belmont Park; Puccini is Pimlico; Rachmaninoff is Rockingham.
What luck for Comden, Green and composer Jule Styne that the man who wrote “Hallelujah Chorus” had a name that started with “H.” Otherwise one of the great lyric jokes of all time — “What is Handel? Hialeah! Hialeah!” — wouldn’t have worked. And can’t you just picture a work session where Styne, Comden and Green are discussing what the song must be and someone jumps off the chair with the “Hialeah/Hallelujah” joke? (No one can prove me right or wrong, but I’ll bet Green came up with it.)
Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto had opened in February, 1956, only nine months before Bells Are Ringing debuted. If it had been more established, perhaps Sandor would have asked his constituents “What is Weill?” and heard in response “Woodbine.” And yes, it would have been Weill-as-in-While, and not Weill-as-in-Vile. True, Kurt’s last name was pronounced as “Vile” when he lived in Germany, but after emigrating to avoid the Nazis in 1933, he wanted a fresh start in every way; that included the way he’d pronounce his name.
And why bring up Weill? March 2 marks the 113th anniversary of his birth, too. Celebrate by listening to both The Threepenny Opera, his long-running masterpiece, and Street Scene, his short-running masterpiece.
March 3 represents the thirty-eighth anniversary of the opening of Goodtime Charley. Tony-winner Joel Grey starred as the Dauphin of France who was highly influenced by this Joan (Ann Reinking) who shows up at his digs and expects to run France’s army.
Perhaps by now you’d like a respite from madness; if so, embrace Charley’s “Why Can’t We All Be Nice?” (Indeed, it’s a very good question.) Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady are among Broadway’s most underrated composer-lyricist teams, and this song is only one in the solid score that shows their depth.
Charley first states “As I used to say to mother / when we spoke to one another, ‘Why can’t we all be nice?’” He follows this with “As I once remarked to father / whom I disappointed rather, ‘Why can’t we all be nice?’” before leading to a terrific direct-address payoff: “I keep saying to my pages, ‘Hist’ry gives us nice clean pages, pages. Why must we soil each page?’”
Finally, it was twenty years ago today (if you’re reading on March 4th) that The Goodbye Girl opened. Frankly, the look of the show was cheap, and many are still convinced that it was a major reason for the show’s too-short five-month run.
Or perhaps expectations were too high, what with three Tony-winning creators: Neil Simon wrote the book based on his Oscar-nominated screenplay; Marvin (A Chorus Line) Hamlisch penned the music, and David (City of Angels) Zippel provided the lyrics. Add in another Tony-winner: Bernadette Peters, who played Paula, the dumped dancer whose boyfriend left town and rented the apartment under her to struggling actor Elliot Garfield (TV star Martin Short). How could it miss?
The album will make you believe it didn’t and that it had to have run plenty more than 188 performances. Hamlisch was great at creating feel-good, bouncy music, and here it is, even when exhausted dancer Paula finds that she’s “A Beat Behind.” As the two fall in love, they croon “Good News/Bad News.” Even when Paula cautions her tween daughter Lucy “Don’t Follow in My Footsteps,” the melody is effervescent.
But if it’s madness you want, listen to Short sing “Elliot Garfield Grant.” Here he tells Paula that because he has title to the apartment, he’s doing her a big favor in letting her and Lucy live with him. In fact, Elliot even threatens that “if you have to leave your razor on the sink, you run the risk I’ll turn into Sweeney Todd.”
And that reference brings us full circle – at least for this week. We’ll continue our March Madness next week by citing openings and birthdays from March 5 through 11.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.