I’m in the Middle on This by Peter Filichia
“Don’t you find it pretentious that so many writers, directors and performers today use their middle names?”
This was the question not asked by Gilbert Gottfried, who does an entire five-minute routine complaining about “The Land of the Three-Named People. It was by a buddy whose anonymity I’ll protect by calling him John.
And John went on. “I know people in the entertainment industry who in decades past would have only used their first and last names,” he said. “But for the last 10 or 20 or so years they’ve added their middle names. It’s the au courant thing to do. It makes the person seem more substantial and more important. Jason Robert Brown!” he sneered.
I defended Brown, and not merely because he’s one of Broadway’s most valuable songwriters. (I also think that his “Just One Step” from Songs from a New World is one of the greatest pieces of special material that I’ve ever heard.)
“Don’t you think,” I asked, “that there are so many Jason Browns around that our Jason Brown needed to distinguish himself from Jason Brown the novelist, Jason Brown the football player, Jason Brown the figure skater — ”
I could have gone on, but John interrupted me. “Brooke Sunny Moriber?” he rebutted, citing an actress who, coincidentally, had appeared in Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. “Are you going to tell me that she worried that there were so many Brooke Moribers before her that people would confuse her with someone else?”
“In fact,” I said calmly, “in recent years, Ms. Moriber has actually dropped the ‘Sunny’ from her name.” John was quieted for a second, so I had enough time to say, “Let’s hope it’s not because Brooke hasn’t been experiencing sunny times.”
“Ricky Ian Gordon!” John challenged.
I ignored that for I had another piece of fine evidence. “And for that matter,” I said, “remember that The Secret Garden and Carousel featured Audra ANN McDonald, but she was simply Audra McDonald by the time she did her next musical: Ragtime.”
“David Hyde Pierce!” John said, starting to scream a little. “Neil Patrick Harris! Norbert Leo Butz!” And before he could get to James Monroe Igelhart and Renee Elise Goldberry, I thought I’d better change to another line of reasoning.
“Besides,” I said, before cupping my hands and pretending to be absent-mindedly examining my fingernails, “three-name musical theater artists are nothing new.”
“Name one from the past!” he challenged.
“Certainly,” I said, licking my lips. “Paul Francis Webster.”
“He was a movie man,” sneered my opponent, who did have a point. Webster – excuse me, Paul Francis Webster — had an astonishing career as a Hollywood lyricist, what with sixteen Oscar nominations that resulted in three wins for “Secret Love” (1953) “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955) and “The Shadow of Your Smile” (1965).
(The Plaids perform one of those Oscar-winners in Forever Plaid. Can you guess which one?)
“Yes,” I conceded, “but Paul Francis Webster did write the lyrics for an entire Broadway score: Christine, which – granted – didn’t last long in 1960. Still, it was a Broadway musical and got a cast album that’s still available today.”
My opponent threw up his hands in frustration. “What in the world made you think of Paul Francis Webster and Christine?”
“Frankly,” I replied, “I’m currently reading the book on which Christine was based: My Indian Family, by one Hilda Wernher. This April I plan to write about it in conjunction with the fifty-sixth anniversary of Christine’s opening.” (Now, dear reader, you have a Preview of at least one Coming Attraction.)
“All right, I’ll give you Paul Francis Webster,” said my adversary before following it with a truly vindictive smile. “Name another three-named person who really worked on Broadway.”
“Charles Nelson Reilly,” I responded. John sneered, so to lighten matters, I added, “You know, there can’t be too many performers whose first three Broadway jobs involved originating roles in three Tony-winning Best Musicals.”
“How to Succeed,” John acknowledged, referring to the 1961-62 Tony-winner in which Reilly played Bud Frump, the nasty, vindictive and jealous boss’ nephew who was out to short-circuit J. Pierrepont Finch’s career. “And then there was Hello, Dolly!” John recalled, citing the 1963-64 Tony-winner in which Reilly portrayed Cornelius Hackl and introduced one of the greatest show songs of all time: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.”
“Reilly was also in the original cast of Bye Bye Birdie, the 1960-61 Tony-winner,” I said, “originating the role of Mr. Henkel.
John snapped his fingers to let me know he knew whom I meant. “Penelope Ann’s father!”
This John is one smart cookie; not everyone could pull out that name from Birdie’s “The Telephone Hour,” one of the first Broadway numbers to acknowledge the existence of what was then called rock ‘n’ roll.
“Yes, Harvey Johnson’s potential father-in-law,” I said. “And when Dick Van Dyke was out, Reilly played Albert Peterson.”
“Who else you got?” John asked dryly, now expecting that I’d have a hundred million more.
“Well, there was Robert Russell Bennett,” I said, referring to the music man who was once considered the Dean of Broadway Orchestrators.
“Every now and then he called himself Russell Bennett,” John noted.
“Sure, but he was — ” John joined me – “Robert Russell Bennett most of the time.”
We both took the opportunity to marvel at Bennett’s career. He is one of only two people to be twice awarded a Special Tony – once when he was alive (in 1957) and once after his death (in 2008, seventeen years after he’d died). The latter prize was “in recognition of his historic contribution to American musical theatre in the field of orchestrations, as represented on Broadway this season by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.”
No argument, but as John and I marveled, his 1957 Tony had to be in acknowledgement of that show and his orchestrations and/or arrangements for most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals — as well as Of Thee I Sing, Anything Goes, Finian’s Rainbow, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Bells Are Ringing, My Fair Lady, and Kiss Me, Kate.
Truth to tell, Bennett farmed out many a song to subordinates, as did all Broadway orchestrators. Steven Suskin’s The Sound of Broadway Music – an incomparable and astonishing study of orchestrators — certainly has made us aware of that.
“Although,” I said, “Suskin does state that Bennett did The Sound of Music all by his lonesome.”
“Don’t you love those flutes in ‘Do-Re-Mi’?” John asked.
“I certainly do,” I replied, “and I love them in ‘Ding Dong, Yum Yum Yum,’ the hellishly clever parody of ‘Do-Re-Mi’ on Julie (Andrews) and Carol (Burnett) at Carnegie Hall.
In fact, when I got home, I checked Suskin’s book and found that Bennett had also ghost-orchestrated some songs we know and love well (or at the very least should) that have been officially attributed to other orchestrators: “Bad Companions” and “Lazy Moon” from Goldilocks; “Paris Wakes Up and Smiles” from Miss Liberty; “Hand Me down that Can o’Beans” from Paint Your Wagon and the marvelous overture for The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Listen to them all, and you’ll hear the lush touch that was his trademark.
“Anybody else?” John asked, and when he saw I couldn’t come up with another name, he taunted me with “Why haven’t you mentioned Alan Jay Lerner?”
I smote my forehead with the same force that Arthur Laurents did when Stephen Sondheim asked him “Who’s doing the lyrics to West Side Story?” How could I forget one of our greatest bookwriter-lyricists who once gave Broadway its longest-running musical (My Fair Lady) as well as a show that became synonymous with John F. Kennedy’s Era-of-Good-Feeling administration (Camelot)? What a disgrace for Peter Joseph Filichia!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.