Happy Fortieth Anniversary, Goodtime Charley
By Peter Filichia
Long before we turned our attentions to Elphaba and away from Dorothy Gale, bookwriter Sidney Michaels, composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Hal Hackady had the same general idea for a completely different story.
The result was Goodtime Charley, which opened on Broadway at the Palace forty years ago this week.
While the three collaborators were taken with Joan of Arc, they knew that she’d already been memorialized by Shakespeare, Voltaire, Schiller, Twain, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Shaw, Brecht and Anouilh.
So they instead centered on Charles, the Dauphin (meaning “heir to the throne”) of France. His coronation as Charles VII, however, wouldn’t have happened at all had Joan not come on the scene.
Michaels described Charley as “the only man who spends fourteen hours a day in the fetal position and is still inconceivable.” It’s a terrific line, and does lead to a lovely little title song in which Charles – Joel Grey, who’d already possessed a Tony and an Oscar for the stage and screen Cabaret – bragged about how he was living la douceur de vivre.
(That’s French for la dolce vita).
“Time’s too short to pass up. Fill my glass up,” he sings, but to a Grossman melody that has a good deal of wistfulness about it – for by its end, Charley reveals that he’s not merely a pretender to the throne, but one who’s been pretending he’s content. He knows that pleasure can only bring a kind of happiness, and that achievements bring substantially more. “There isn’t a coin with my face on it,” he rues. Yes, Charley knows way down deep – and way up top – that he doesn’t have the stuff.
Joan (Ann Reinking) does, but a mere teenage girl will have to prove it to a most skeptical Charley, General and Archbishop. She claims to be able to communicate with the saints, but, as Archbishop says, “God-sightings by peasants have been plentiful. God knows I believe in miracles – but not in our time.”
In the great theatrical tradition of a song moving the action forward, we have “Voices and Visions,” in which Joan is asked to prove her alleged connection with heaven by knowing which man is the Dauphin from the bevy of court members. We hear her internal logic as she eliminates candidates and does pick the right man: “The shabbiest, sorriest, nothingest, neediest, seediest, wretchedest, pauperish person I see.”
See why thirty-nine and a quarter years ago this week Goodtime Charley closed? For the rest of the show, Joan will make things happen while Charley keeps telling her she cannot. The best musicals concern big characters and big events, and while we have those events – France and England fight the Hundred Years War – the big character is Joan. We can’t be more interested in Charley than we are in her, especially when he does nothing to keep her from being burned at the stake when he’s politically pressured.
But shed of its book, Goodtime Charley is a terrifically entertaining original cast album. Hackady didn’t settle for matter-of-fact ideas. Take “Bits and Pieces,” in which Charley and Joan each don a suit of armor. (“Breast-plate ‘A’ should be buckled to back-plate ‘B.’”) A quarter century before Sweet Smell of Success included a song in a confessional (alas, it’s not on the album), Hackady had General telling his sins to Archbishop. While it’s a comic song that deals with the boiler-plate way that sinners confess –“I did it and I’m sorry but forgive me and I promise that I’ll never ever do it any more” – Hackady included an underbelly of seriousness, for we find that General has betrayed Joan because she’s made him look bad.
Joan got some fine songs, too. More than one woman will relate to her wistful “To Make the Boy a Man” and “I Am Going to Love (the Man You’re Going to Be).” Alas, Charley doesn’t measure up, which leads to her angry “You Still Have a Long Way to Go.”
Actually, Joel Grey joins in on that song, too. Given that his name was billed above the title, he got his share of the score. One highlight was added during the Boston tryout: “Born Lover,” in which he metaphorically flexes his sexual muscles. (“I’m something else unlocking chastity belts.”)
My personal favorite is “Why Can’t We All Be Nice?” thanks to Hackady’s deft wordplay. Note the progression: “As I used to say to mother when we spoke to one another, ‘Mother, why can’t we all be nice?’” leads to “As I once remarked to father whom I disappointed rather, ‘Father, why can’t we all be nice?’” to thepiece de resistance: “I keep saying to my pages, ‘History gives us nice clean pages, pages, why must we soil each page?’”
Patter songs aren’t especially noted for melody, but Grossman provided a delectable one here – and for the others. One other salient point that proves the worth of Grossman’s music: Jonathan Tunick did the orchestrations. He’d already done COMPANY, which made Sondheim retain him for FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. At this point in his career, Tunick didn’t have to take just any job that came his way, so he must have thought a good deal of Grossman’s music.
By the way, if you already have a CD of Goodtime Charley, see if the disc itself says Goodtime Charlie. Indeed, the first batch that went out misspelled the hero’s name on the embossing. Oh, we won’t compare this to that postage stamp with the upside-down airplane or the penny with the blurry surface, but it IS worth noting. Let’s just say it’s another indignity the show suffered – and perhaps another reason why the writers should have concentrated on Joan of Arc.
Finally, I’m not the only Goodtime Charley fan. A few weeks ago, when I hinted that I’d be writing a column on this disc, Rick Thompson wrote and cautioned “Don’t forget to mention a lyric of ‘I Am Going to Love (the Man You’re Going to Be)’ – ‘When you’re braving the sun, when you’re no longer afraid, standing in your shadow, I’ll be basking in your shade.’”
Yeah, that Hal Hackady is a helluva lyricist.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday atwww.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming bookThe Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order atwww.amazon.com.