Harburg’s Happiest Musical
By Peter Filichia —
Now that the Olympic games have ended, let’s listen to the Broadway musical that starts at the end of the Olympic games.
It’s true! It’s true! The cover makes it clear: The Happiest Girl in the World starts with the closing ceremony of the Olympics. Granted, nothing in the 1961 musical has anything to do with the Olympics after that, but the games did remind me of this 1961 musical that was semi-based on Aristophanes’ 411 B.C. comedy hit, Lysistrata. So if you thought that last season’s Lysistrata Jones was the first Broadway attempt to musicalize this story, you were off by about 50 years.
Aristophanes told the tale of a young but ancient Greek woman who was determined to end the Peloponnesian War. What’s her plan? To get all her female friends to withhold sex from their husbands until the men banish war.
Hmmm, such a tale wouldn’t seem to cry out for a title The Happiest Girl in the World. But that was just one of the maverick ingredients of his production. It also had one of the most atypical composer and lyricist pairings in Broadway history. In this corner, lyricist E.Y. Harburg, who loved abbreviating words to make rhymes: “hellish condish” in Finian’s Rainbow; “individdle” in The Wizard of Oz, among dozens of others. He did it here, too, in the opening number, in which he told us that ancient Greece was a place where people “give you sex that’s ambi-dex,” as he referred to a more lenient and less judgmental time in sexual history.
The composer might have been scandalized to hear that line set to his music, but he wasn’t around to protest. The Happiest Girl composer had died 80 or so years before Harburg started writing “with” him.
Yes, two decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to “work” with T.S. Eliot on Cats, E.Y. Harburg chose to collaborate with Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). Certainly Harburg had a great many melodies from which to choose, for Offenbach composed nearly 100 operettas.
Working with a deceased composer has its merits. You don’t have to listen to him say, “I don’t like that line.” You can also work whenever you feel like it, and stay idle when you don’t. Your collaborator is never late or early for an appointment and never cancels on you.
But Offenbach offered more than just pliability. That Marines theme song that begins, “From the halls of Montezoo-ooo-mah to the shores of Tripoli?” Offenbach wrote that back in 1859 as “The Gendarmes’ Duet” from his 1867 revisal of his 1859 opera Geneviève de Brabant. Harburg thought it’d be great fun to write new lyrics and make it the Greek soldiers’ battle hymn. You’ll enjoy hearing a song you’ve known all your life now with different lyrics, but ones that aren’t so far afield in spirit from the ones you know. Besides, the lyrics had to change, because in 411 B.C., Montezuma was still a millennium away, and Tripoli was still being called by Oea, its original name.
Elvis Presley fans might recognize another Happiest Girl melody. Fewer than five months before the musical debuted, Presley’s G.I. Blues opened. His fans might have been surprised to hear that their idol was singing to an Offenbach melody – formally entitled “La Gioconda” but more commonly known as “Barcarolle.” But indeed he was, with a new lyric and title “Tonight Is So Right for Love.”
Harburg instead used it as the melody that Lysistrata’s husband Kinesias would sing when he got home after finishing up his most recent war. “Adrift on a Star” was his title of choice.
Lysistrata had a theme that was as valid in B.C. times as Happiest Girl’s was in the A.D. era: career vs. love. No sooner has Kinesias arrived home than he must leave again. That is what spurs Lysistrata to action; she wants to be “The happiest girl in the world,” which she defines as “the last one to kiss you goodnight.” When Kinesias prefers to leave for war, she decides “Not for king nor for crown shall we girls lay down our arms.” Nice wordplay on what “lay down” and “arms” means in this context.
Harburg decided to make the show even more interesting by bringing Bullfinch’s Mythology into the mix. So he had gods and goddesses play a part – although he chose their Roman names and not their Greek ones, probably because Diana and Pluto are more euphonious than Artemis and Hades.
Diana, the Goddess of Chastity, is the one who puts the idea into Lysistrata’s head. This doesn’t sit well with Pluto, the God of the Underworld, who is greatly invested in creating wars among humans. But, as Lysistrata points out, “If you don’t end these wars, there won’t be anyone left to worship you.” The gods see her point: “We’ve got to last until at least A.D.,” they decide.
As fast and loose as Harburg played with Bulfinch (even having a character exclaim “Oh, Bulfinch!” when she didn’t believe what she’d heard), he had a good time with Aristophanes, too. For one thing, the original play didn’t have Lysistrata married to Kinesias, but to her friend Myrrhine. Making the relationship one degree less of separation made matters more immediate. It also proved that Harburg didn’t just rhyme “Kinesias” with “Greece he is.” Aristophanes named the character Kinesias nearly 2,400 years before Harburg started adapting.
Kinesias was played by Bruce Yarnell, who sandwiched in this show between his gigs in Camelot and the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun. In the former, he was Sir Lionel, who had fair-taking ambitions for Guenevere; in the latter, he was Frank Butler and shared “An Old Fashioned Wedding” with Ethel Merman. Lord knows how much he would have accomplished had he not been killed in a plane crash at the mere age of 37.
Playing Pluto was no less than Cyril Ritchard, to whom most of us were introduced as Peter Pan’s Captain Hook. Whatever your feelings are about Pluto in astronomic or Disneyan terms, you’ll probably be delighted with this Pluto when he brings us to “the land of pottery and poetry and peace where children speak in classic Greek.” Aren’t songs with titles such as “Never Be-Devil the Devil” or “Never Trust a Virgin” perfect for that unctuous voice? Needless to say, so are such euphonious lines as “There’s no one so wholly unholy as me.”
Pluto also had some social commentary on the way men viewed women then: “Every man — I must alert you — when seeking a lady fair always gravitates to virtue while hoping it won’t be there.” But Harburg, along with bookwriters Fred Saidy and Henry Meyers, had some commentary on women’s rights and anti-war feelings that might have been more welcome 10 years later. The Happiest Girl in the World could very well have lasted more than 97 performances in 1971. It certainly remains substantially wittier than Lysistrata Jones.
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.