By Peter Filichia
Fifty years ago this week, after the lights went down at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, the audience may well have recognized the first twenty-three notes of the Overture to The Roar of the Greasepaint — the Smell of the Crowd.
They offered a preview of the song that had already been established as the musical’s Big Hit Ballad: “Who Can I Turn To?” Tony Bennett had already recorded it, and it would be so well-received that it was destined for his Greatest Hits, Volume Three.
Then the Overture segued into the spritely “Where Would You Be without Me?” for all of eighteen seconds before it returned to a thorough rendition of “Who Can I Turn To?” No one could say that the Overture didn’t give the song its due, for it was played from stem to stern, one full chorus’ worth.
Then came a song that the audience would become thoroughly familiar with at a later date: “The Joker,” recorded by a now-forgotten group called Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. The sextet was named for the year it was founded, proving that Mendes didn’t realize that nothing dates more quickly than a name that includes a specific year.
Unfortunately, Roar / Smell, as it became chummily known, opened in late spring ‘65 and couldn’t make it to ’66. Thus Mendes’ hit single didn’t help the Broadway production at all – a fate shared by “I’ve Gotta Be Me” and “Send in the Clowns.”
The Overture then moved to “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” This one never became a hit in the sense that it had a representative recording that many bought as a 45 rpm record. But in 1965, it was performed on a multitude of TV variety shows, often as the opening number, and became thoroughly familiar to millions.
What next? When you got a Big Hit Ballad, you’ve got a Big Hit Ballad. So there was a twenty-three note reprise of “Who Can I Turn To?” before the Overture wrapped up. Putting it another way: of the three-minute, twenty-two second Overture, the three visits of “Who Can I Turn To?” constituted one minute and thirty-one seconds of it – a full forty-five percent.
Recording artists rushed to record it, be they middle-of-the-roaders (Andy Williams), jazz artists (Nancy Wilson) or current pop sensations (Dusty Springfield; The Temptations). Even in the recent past, Bennett has reprised it with Queen Latifah. Van Morrison and Harry Connick, Jr. have added their interpretations to the roster, too.
Back in 1965, Anthony Newley made a pop recording of it, which was fitting, for he co-wrote it with frequent collaborator Leslie Bricusse and would sing it in Roar / Smell — as would co-star Cyril Ritchard. Its first eleven notes were the final ones heard after the last song (the glorious “Sweet Beginning”). But now, a half-century later “Who Can I Turn To?” can’t lay claim as the show’s Most Enduring Hit. That distinction goes to a song that wasn’t even included in the Overture and at the time got far fewer recordings.
The reason for its longevity? To be frank, it’s a natural as a theme song for a commercial. Many products, from chocolate bars to airlines, have used the song to indicate that anyone using their wares would indeed be “Feeling Good.” Chances are if you turn on network TV in the next week, you’ll hear it in a current commercial.
Nevertheless, four hits in one score is pretty impressive, and Roar / Smell was the last traditional-sounding Broadway musical to yield that many standards.
Such an odd title wouldn’t suggest this much pop success. During the show’s Boston tryout (which I saw and adored), absolutely everyone to whom I mentioned the show’s name shook his head and indulgently said, “You mean The Smell of the Greasepaint — the Roar of the Crowd.” No – the title, which was roared out by Cyril Ritchard as a type of motto, a watchcry – was said incorrectly to indicate that Sir (Ritchard’s character) was a pseudo-intellectual. However, he could talk enough of a good ballgame to victimize Cocky (Newley), a pathetic soul who was quite misnamed. Cocky made Kansas’ “Dorothy the small and meek” seem like Miles Gloriosus.
Sir and Cocky were respectively a new version of Waiting for Godot’s Pozzo and Lucky – at least the Act One version. Sir said of Cocky, “It’s ‘aooow’ and ‘garn’ that keeps him in his place, not his dirty clothes and dirty face” before deciding, “But that’s another story.” Cocky fully believed his de facto boss knew what he was doing. To say that he had the Stockholm Syndrome wouldn’t do justice to his submissiveness; call it the Whole of Sweden Syndrome. That was established in Sir’s snazzy vaudeville pastiche “Where Would You Be without Me?” – which led to Cocky’s agreeing (for most of the song) “Where would I be without you?”
Whether or not Cocky could break away from this tyrant was the crux of the show. One fascinating dynamic came late in the show: Gilbert Price, who played, if you’ll pardon the expression, “The Negro” (Newley and Bricusse’s name for him, not mine) came on and was as victimized by Cocky in the same manner that Sir had victimized him. There’s truth in that; scratch any slave’s surface and underneath you’ll find a hell-on-wheels master. (Actually, in this era when there’s been a new awareness of bullying, perhaps the time is right for a revival.)
Roar / Smell may indeed be unique in that the original British production closed before braving London, and yet was then resuscitated for Broadway. Originally Norman Wisdom was playing Cocky and Willoughby Goddard (Broadway’s original Mr. Bumble in Oliver!) was Sir. Elaine Paige – nee Elaine Bickerstaff – got her first professional assignment as one of the urchins (read: ensemble members). As she told me a few years ago, “I can still remember what I felt on closing night when we were all singing ‘A Wonderful Day Like Today’ and ‘Nothing Can Stop Me Now’ — when we knew that this was not a wonderful day and that the show was stopping. My reaction was beyond poignant. How I wept!”
“Nothing Can Stop Me Now” – Cocky’s cry of victory over Sir — could even be considered the fifth hit from the score, for it too was much heard on ‘60s variety shows. And while the five aforementioned songs deserve all the praise that one can give, the rest of the score doesn’t have a single dud. “The Beautiful Land” has to be the only show song to mention all the “ROY G. BIV” colors of the spectrum, and in order yet. Don’t miss the syncopated Dixieland dance music in “Put It in the Book,” either.
David Merrick, who’d produced Newley and Bricusse’s first musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off to great success, loved the score to their second show. (Who didn’t?) He agreed to bring Roar / Smell to Broadway if Newley would play Cocky. How could he say no? Once rehearsals began, Merrick was so keen on the score that he arranged for the original cast album to be recorded during the Philadelphia tryout so that it would be out before the planned May 16 opening.
I cannot say precisely when it was released, but I DO know that I knew the cast album inside out by the time I saw the tryout at Boston’s Shubert on April 7, 1965. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have noticed that a significant portion of “A Wonderful Day Like Today” was missing from the recording – when the melody switched to a minor key and Cocky sang “On a mis’rable day like today, when the sun is as cold as an elephant’s nose. One half of me’s freezin’, the other half’s froze; on a mis’rable day like today.”
In those days the general public was quite interested in any new Broadway musical, but Roar / Smell’s pop hit exposure helped it sell over 100,000 copies by the time the show had arrived on Broadway. How ubiquitous was it? Take a look at the 1965 film version of the 1962 Broadway comedy smash Never Too Late. There’s a scene that takes place in front of a record store, and prominently displayed in the window is, yes, the My Fair Lady soundtrack, which is understandable, but also there is the original cast album of Roar / Smell.
One of the reasons that the score excels is that Newley and Bricusse employed great craft. Most every word is accented correctly and most everything rhymes perfectly. All right, “Dracula” doesn’t quite rhyme with “spectacular” (in “Look at That Face”), but it sounded right to us Bostonians, given we do have a tendency to make a word ending in “r” sound as if it ends with “a.”
Those who know their astrology will, when perusing the cast list, say “Hmmm, could that Joyce Jillson, playing The Girl for whom Sir and Cocky battled, be the same Joyce Jillson who became a syndicated astrology columnist?” Indeed. She was also hired to make predictions for The Ford Motor Company, The Los Angeles Dodgers and Twentieth Century-Fox. (For the last-named, she predicted the best day on which to open Star Wars — which no one could say didn’t work out.)
Roar / Smell did pay back investors $1.75 for every buck they’d put in, but its 231 performances were far fewer than many (especially Merrick) had anticipated. A score of this sterling quality deserved to have more of a run, but what looked like a musical version of Waiting for Godot was a bit too weird for the theatergoing public.
Too bad that Jillson hadn’t yet embarked on her astrological career, for she could have told the cast and crew in advance that they should start looking for jobs before January ‘66. Maybe some of them would have been just in time to join Sergio Mendes’ group.
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.