We’ve often heard the expression variously attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Aby Warburg and Gustave Flaubert. But whichever of these men was the first to say it had a point.
“God is in the details.”
God has often blessed the Broadway musical, for (S)He has allowed many of its performers to leave their own distinctively detailed mark on lyrics.
Yes, what the wordsmiths gave the following musical theater actors and actresses was choice and detailed material. Still, how these performers enhanced the words made them extra-special. These people knew the truth in the line that Stephen Sondheim gave Elaine Stritch (who’ll never be confused with God): “It’s the little things.”
These can be as simple as the unique way that Nell Carter says the word “Waldorf” in Ain’t Misbehavin’ – really, have you ever heard anyone else sing it so deliciously? – or the way Richard Burton trails off after answering “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” in Camelot after his wife has stopped singing and he’s embarrassed that he’s continued.
Take another listen to the 1966 revival cast album of Annie Get Your Gun and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” The shouting match is becoming more and more heated. Two complete choruses have been sung, and now Frank Butler and Annie Oakley are arguing who’d look better in clothes. After comparing how each would look “in my coat,” “in your vest” and “in my shoes,” Merman snarls “In your hat!” — actually abbreviating a vulgar expression of the age. Far be it from me to tell you what it is; this is a family blog. But The Merm makes clear from her no-nonsense-at-all delivery that she’s delivering that snide insult.
On the original cast album of Cabaret, after our Emcee Joel Grey bids us “Willkommen” in German (as well as “Bienvenue” in French and “Welcome” in English), he segues into such pleasantries as the German “Wie geht’s” and the French “comment ça va” before tackling the English “Do you feel good?” The halting way that Grey says the line reveals that English is (at best) a second language for him. That’s an effective way of letting us know a bit more about this enigmatic man.
When Zero Mostel left Fiddler on the Roof, management wasn’t so sorry because the star often improvised to the detriment of Tevye, the modest milkman he was portraying. Many felt that the show itself improved once he’d left, but I’ll maintain that one little thing didn’t. In “If I Were a Rich Man,” when Tevye makes the sounds of chicks, turkeys, ducks and geese squawking noisily, no one I’ve ever heard play Tevye or sing this song in concert has ever been able to approach Mostel’s mastery of these sounds.
When the peasant Ti Moune (in Once on This Island) tells her parents that she has fallen in love with the crown prince of the high and very mighty Beauxhommes, Mama Euralie must bring her back to reality. “They will not want you, Ti Moune,” Sheila Gibbs says in heartbreakingly mournful fashion. She doesn’t really want to say this, but she has the motivation that all parents have: to keep their children from being hurt. And yet, Gibbs’ voice also conveys “I’m afraid that you’ll have to listen to me because I’m right and know from bitter experience.” All this is conveyed in seven, God-detailed words.
By now, the number of women who have recorded “I’m Still Here” must rival the number of performances that Follies has played on Broadway (including its two revivals). We all have our preferences, but for my money, Nancy Walker’s rendition, found on Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, is the best. It’s worth millions more than what Carlotta Campion got for dancing in her scanties — partly because of all the emotion Walker brings to the line “Three bucks a night was the pay.” Listen to that tiny but distinctive bitter laugh on “was.” It says “Can you believe that I worked for such little money? I can’t. But I had to — and that’s all there is to that. It’s what we survivors do when we have to.”
Follies in Concert, the show’s 1985 return to New York after a thirteen-year absence, has a great many of these little Godlike details. The dour way that Elaine Stritch has her Weismann Girl say “I haven’t danced in thirty years” makes you have no doubt that indeed she hasn’t and that she isn’t looking forward to tapping her toes in the near future. But my favorite moment on this recording comes from George Hearn, playing the jaded Ben, who looks back on the follies of his youth. The way his voice breaks on the line “Everybody has to go through stages like that” shows a wealth of knowledge and maturity that only comes from living life.
In the revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, we hear something quite lovely at the end of Snoopy’s song, “Not Bad at All.” Was it director Michael Mayer’s idea? Actor Roger Bart’s? Even composer-lyricist Clark Gesner’s? Whatever the case, Bart goes high at near the end of the song on his penultimate “all.” It shows that Snoopy has been understating the case all along: his life is quite nice indeed. Michael Gibson’s sensitive orchestration – along with six pieces in the orchestra (as opposed to the original two) — makes a detailed difference, too.
In Merrily We Roll Along, Franklin Shepard and Charley Kringas are auditioning singers for their upcoming revue Frankly Frank. (An aside: given that the revue features just as much Kringas as Shepard, why isn’t Charley’s name included in the title?)
The first auditionee is terrible. “Who wants to live in New York?” she warbles and struggles to the consternation of the songwriters. Yes, they’ve written the umpteenth million song about New York, but they still want to see it delivered with justice.
Another aside: wouldn’t you expect that the NEXT auditionee would be terrible, too, before we got to the good one? After all, aren’t most jokes structured in threes? (A priest, a minister and a rabbi are … An Irishman, a Scotsman and a Jew are …) But Sondheim knows his audience is a smart one and will get the point after hearing just one terrible singer. (God has certainly been in Sondheim’s details.)
So the second singer — Beth — is more than the songwriters could have hoped for, right from the initial “Who wants to live in New York?” But by the time Beth gets to the line “You gotta have a real taste for maniacs,” she’s feeling the lyric, imbuing it with the frustration that only those who live in the city can understand. You know she’s editorializing in the precise way that Charley meant. No wonder she got the part — and no wonder that Frank fell in love with her (well, at least for a while).
But no one was better in getting in the details than the brave, courageous alpha male Alfred Drake. Recall his playing the cocksure Petruchio of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – albeit in Cole Porter’s musical version Kiss Me, Kate. Here he sings “Where Is the Life That Late I Led” in which he fondly remembers his many girlfriends-slash-sexual conquests. While singing to a robust tarantella, after remembering such lost loves as Momo and Carolina, he asks “Where are you, Alice?”
His voice is so puerile and mocking on “Alice” that you’d swear that someone else came in to spell Drake for a couple of syllables (just as Harold Arlen subbed for Diahann Carroll on the last note of “A Sleeping Bee” in House of Flowers). It’s totally unexpected, but it also lets us see exactly who Alice was and why Petruchio thought of her in less than favorable terms.
That was the great thing about Drake. He could let his rarefied hair down and get not only down and dirty, but also self-mocking. Listen to him play The Poet in Kismet, in which he insists “Rhymes Have I” for each and every word thrown at him. Throughout the spirited song, he’s seemingly unstumpable, giving us the impression that if his daughter Marsinah even offered him “film” or “orange,” he’d rise to the rhyme. How confident he sounds when she challenges him with “Dromedary!” and he responds “Very hairy!” You can almost hear Doretta Morrow on the original cast album — and Lee Venora on the revival cast album — blink before they ask in astonishment “Very hairy?!?” A contrite Drake takes on a mewing tone that acknowledges that he’s done less than his best work here; he apologizes with “Very sorry.”
You may know those two by Drake, but do you know Kean, written by Kismet’s songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest? For this 1961 musical, they actually wrote the music as well as the lyrics, and didn’t just adapt most of their score from a classical composer such as Borodin. (It is, by the way, a magnificent score.)
Edmund Kean is the “King of London” as one song goes – not because he actually sits on the throne, but because he’s the biggest star of the British stage. Having that cachet can get you a great many women – and as a result can get you in a great deal of trouble.
Anna and Elena are just about to have a lion-like catfight, but the high-toned Kean tells them to be “Civilized People.” They’re not easily convinced, as they disparage each other’s looks, sexual habits and youth (or lack of it). That’s when Drake reminds them that “Civilized people don’t come out hissing like Egyptian asps.” But the way that Drake says “asps” makes the word last seconds longer than usual, as he makes a genuine second syllable from the “ps” – as if to say, “Make no mistake: I am NOT calling each of you an ass – although Lord knows that you’re each acting as one.”
You’ll undoubtedly have your own examples of performers enhancing their lyrics and lines by finding God in the details. As for me, I’ll quote The Emcee in Cabaret one more time: “Auf wiedersehen! A bientôt! Goodnight!”