How Mondegreen Was My Folly
By Peter Filichia —
You learn something new every day – or you’re supposed to. And I did when “Scooterberwyn” and “BwayPassion” wrote to correct me on a lyric I’d cited. When I wrote about Damn Yankees last week, I said that the baseball widows rued that their husbands were “out praising the plays of Willie Mays.” Both readers said that the wives were actually “appraising the plays of Willie Mays.”
I’ve listened to Damn Yankees hundreds upon hundreds of times, but that’s not what I’d ever heard. Suddenly I realized what had happened. Damn Yankees was one of the first original cast albums I ever took out of the library when I was a 15-year-old. (The library’s long-playing record, incidentally, had the original green cover.) The reason I heard it as “out praising” is because at that age, I didn’t yet know there was such a word as “appraising.”
And that brings us to mondegreens. Do you know the term? An essayist named Sylvia Wright coined it in 1954, when she told about an incident from her childhood. Her mother had read her the same poem at bedtime each night, one that ended with the words, “and laid him on the green.” But little Sylvia heard it as “and Lady Mondegreen.” Eventually Wright’s term came into common usage; “mondegreen” is now included in many a dictionary.
A writer named Gavin Edwards compiled a book’s worth of mondegreens called He’s Got the Whole World in His Pants — a muff of a ‘50s pop hit called “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Edwards cites that someone thought that Henry Higgins’s big 11 o’clock number in My Fair Lady was “I’ve Thrown a Custard in Her Face.”
Over the years, readers have told of similar mistakes. Douglas Braverman recounted that “my secretary, as a seven-year-old, was taken to see the film of The Sound of Music. Because she had no knowledge of German, she assumed that ‘So long! Farewell! Auf Wiedersehen! Good-bye!’ was actually ‘So long! Farewell! Our feet all say good-bye!’ Now, when she drops me off at the airport, we always wind up singing that verse and waving good-bye at each other with our feet.”
Braverman ‘fessed up about himself, too: “In Peter Pan, Peter sings ‘I gotta crow!’ which obviously means ‘I must crow.’ But I understood it to mean ‘I’ve got a crow’ as in ‘I own a crow.’ So when Peter followed it by crowing, I thought he was simply imitating his crow. I did spend the rest of the show wondering why we didn’t see his pet.”
Ted Chapin, the president and executive director of Rodgers and Hammerstein, once told me that when Linda Rodgers was young, she told her father that she loved the hurricane song in Annie Get Your Gun. When he said that he didn’t know that she meant, she quoted the lyric: “Mighty fences are down.” The kid wasn’t quite old enough to be aware of the phrase, “My Defenses Are Down.”
Chapin also recalled a pal’s telling him that he loved “Mr. Snow” in Carousel because of The Mickey Mouse Club reference. The lad did not hear Carrie sing, “He comes home every night in his round-bottomed boat with a net full of herring from the sea,” but “He comes home every night in his round-bottomed boat with Annette Funicello from the sea.”
Ron Fassler confessed that when he first heard 1776’s “Sit Down, John,” he couldn’t understand why John Adams was singing, “I say Gorgeous! Gorgeous!” Much time would pass before he caught on that William Daniels was actually singing, “I say, ‘Vote yes! Vote yes!” Arthur Masella may have been so dazzled by “The Mirror Number” in Follies that he didn’t catch the lyric, “Whose Lothario let her down?” He thought it was, “Who’s the fairy who let her down?”
All right, I’ll confess I’ve done it dozens of times before this Damn Yankee debacle. Kiss Me, Kate was the second musical I ever saw, and when we got to “Wunderbar,” I heard, “Let us drink Liebchen wine.” I realized how much I had to learn about wine, for I’d never heard of the obviously high-class variety known as Liebchen. Years would pass before I’d learn that “liebchen” was actually a German term of endearment, and that Fred Graham was singing, “Let us drink, liebchen mine.”
In I Can Get It for You Wholesale, I heard Meyer and Blanche sing, “Have I told you lately how much your stroolie loves you?” Given that I’m Gentile and it was a Jewish show, I assumed that “stroolie” was a Yiddish term of endearment. Again, years would pass before I realized that Meyer and Blanche were actually saying, “Have I told you lately how much yours truly loves you?”
When I first heard the Hello, Dolly! cast album in 1964, I missed a point in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes”: “Get out the brilliantine and dime cigars” was what Jerry Herman had written, but I assumed that Cornelius Hackl was demanding only the best set of horses to take him to the Yonkers station where he’d catch the train to New York: “Get out the brilliant team and dime cigars.” Bill Downs and Frank Pickus later told me that they, too, made the same assumption.
A year after that, I could have sworn that Bob Dishy, in Flora, the Red Menace, was singing to Liza Minnelli in “Sign Here” – his endorsement of Communism – “Would you make Cannon father of our youth?” I didn’t know who Cannon was, but he was obviously a very important person in the 1930s, when Flora took place. Not until I read the Samuel French script many moons later did I learn that the lyric was “Would you make cannon fodder of our youth?”
Around the same time, I got the original cast album to Goldilocks. In “Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair?” I’d assumed that Elaine Stritch was singing, “I’d like to have a lappi lomi” – which I thought was a precious jewel in the lapis lazuli family. Only years later did I realize that Stritch was singing “I’d like to have a lap below me.” Marc Castle, Howard Marren and Tony Finstrom later told me that they assumed that that’s what Stritch was singing, too.
Stuart Soloway told me, “l could never understand why in Dreamgirls at the end of ‘I Am Changing,’ Effie would say, ‘I’ll change my life, and oy Gevalt, nothing’s gonna stop me now!’ Why would this black girl from Detroit be singing Yiddish? It wasn’t for years that I realized that she was singing ‘I’ll make a vow!’”
Both Brian McCabe and Rich Smreker once had problems with “America” in West Side Story; each had heard “Smoke on your pipe and go Latin” instead of ‘and put that in.’ Smreker said, “I thought that was odd, because I never really associated pipe-smoking with Hispanics.” Nikki Grillos mistook a different one from the same song: that “for a small fee in America” was “pour us coffee in America,” because newly arrived immigrants often found jobs in coffee shops.
David Mitchell informed me that his pal Geraldine Turner, the great Australian stage star, made a mistake with Company’s “The Ladies Who Lunch.” She initially heard “A matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler’s. I’ll drink to that! And one firm olive!” — thinking that the vodka stinger mentioned earlier in the sing came with an olive on a toothpick. Before she began rehearsals for the show, though, she discovered that the line was, ‘And one for Mahler!’”
Mark Rinis decided that “in the title song of Camelot, I didn’t hear, ‘And exits March the second on the dot’ but ‘And exes mark the second on the clock.’ Well, Mark, divorced husbands who don’t pay their alimony on time DO find that their exes mark the seconds on the clock.
Josh Ellis recalled that when his sister heard “Rothschild and Sons” during the Philadelphia tryout of The Rothschilds, she thought the lyric was “drawers will drop” and only later learned that “jaws will drop.” Said Ellis, “I wondered what the folks in Frankfurt would have said if the Rothschild sons started dropping their drawers.” (Perhaps they’d toss a coin.)
Alan Gomberg related the story of a man watching the 1951 film of Show Boat, in which there’s a lyric, “You don’ dast make de mean boss frown.” The listener didn’t understand why Joe didn’t want his meatball brown. Perhaps he was a Do I Hear a Waltz? fan who knew that “Anything that is brown is meat.”
Professionals have made such mistakes. In the May, 1949 edition of Theatre Arts magazine, a feature on Mary Martin said that “she sang and danced a riotous patter song, ‘A Hundred and One Towns of Fun.’” Well, to be fair, the show had only opened a month before, so the lyric hadn’t yet become famous.
I wonder if anyone ever thought a certain Rodgers and Hart song from the first Garrick Gaities started, “In our mondegreenery, where God paints the scenery.’” That would be my favorite mondegreen of all. But until then, I’ll settle for one from a reader who begged not to be named. He couldn’t discern that in Evita, Peron said to his dying wife, “This talk of death is chilling,” but assumed that Peron was saying, “This taco tastes of chili.”
Said the reader, “I thought Peron was a real boor for eating at such an emotional moment.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.