It’s the Little Things, the Little Things …
By Peter Filichia —
I received a nice e-mail from Elliot J. Cohen, who’d read my “A Tale of Three Dollys” a few weeks ago. In it, I wondered why Carol Channing on the original Broadway cast album of Hello, Dolly! sings, “Ambrose, let me hear that tonic chord” in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes”– but that Mary Martin and Pearl Bailey on subsequent recordings sing “We haven’t missed the train, thank the Lord!”
“It happened for one reason and one reason only,” wrote Cohen. “The first line referred to the plan for Ermengarde and Ambrose to get jobs at the Harmonia Gardens — she dancing in the floor show and he as a singer — and to show her Uncle Horace that they meant business about getting married and earning their own way in the world.
“But after the show opened, Gower Champion took out the floor show number – ‘Come and Be My Butterfly’ — and replaced it with a polka contest. That led into the chase through the restaurant and the transition to the night court scene.
“I saw the show in its original form. The floor show was a charming bit of period color. It also provided a button to the transition and gave David Burns a BIG LAUGH when everyone ended up crowded into the court room’s witness box and he stepped out and said ‘Hey, Miss; watch those feelers!’ to one of the girls dressed as a butterfly.
“When I asked Jerry Herman why Gower Champion made the change and added another big dance and length to what was already a long and thorough enjoyable hunk of Act Two, he said that it was a case of Gower’s tinkering with success.
“So that is why the line in ‘Sunday Clothes’ was changed. As I have learned over and over, in theatrical history, when something seems strange or inexplicable, there’s usually a story behind it.”
Thanks, Elliot! Now I know!
Needless to say, the subsequent Dolly albums aren’t the only ones that reflect changes made in shows. Plenty of subsequent cast albums have added and subtracted a line or two – or many more.
For example, if you have the 1947 original cast album of Finian’s Rainbow, you’ll hear during the hit song “If This Isn’t Love” a reference to Carmen Miranda. Get the 1960 revival cast album, and you’ll see that the lady in question has been changed to Zsa Zsa Gabor. The reason is a simple one: Ms. Miranda died in 1955.
Back in 1973, when Sondheim: A Musical Tribute was released, many of us found our mouths watering at all the obscure material that we were about to hear. Here’s “Love Is in the Air” that had been dropped from Forum! Look — “Silly People” that had been cut from Night Music! And wow, “Happily Ever After,” the original 11 o’clock number from Company!
But why, oh, why was “We’re Gonna Be All Right” from Do I Hear a Waltz? included? On the original cast album, that song, about a married couple who felt the worst was behind them, was at best a throwaway.
Ah, but what we heard here was one of the most pleasant surprises in all of cast album history. For one thing, A Musical Tribute offered a long verse that was nowhere to be found either musically or lyrically on the original cast album. Better still, we heard for the first time some insouciant Stephen Sondheim lyrics.
We’ve since been told that Waltz composer Richard Rodgers didn’t think an audience should hear such scandalous facts about a married couple: “Sometimes she drinks in bed; sometimes he’s homosexual.” Yeah, that was a bit much for 1965, but have you noticed that productions of Do I Hear a Waltz? now routinely include this full version of the song?
Around the same time that A Musical Tribute was happening, Sondheim was asked to work on a new version of Candide, the troubled 1956 musical that had had three major but disappointing productions. As it turned out, this revisal would sport one of Sondheim’s most felicitous achievements: a reworking of “Venice Gavotte.”
Sondheim’s “Life Is Happiness Indeed” is a far better lyric than the one that Wilbur and Dorothy Parker wrote for “Venice Gavotte.” The latter lyricist wrote the headache-inducing “Lady Frilly, Lady Silly, Pretty Lady, Willy Nilly, Lady Lightly, Lady Brightly, Charming Lady Fly-by-Nightly.” No one can say for sure, but for this penultimate song of the show, one can envision theatergoers in 1956 grabbing their coats and saying, “We’ve had enough.” (That would have been a shame, for they would have missed the glorious finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” one of the most superb show songs.)
However, Sondheim took Leonard Bernstein’s nifty music for that section of “Venice Gavotte” and gave it to a vainglorious youth named Maximillian who’s consulting his mirror as he sings, “Life is absolute perfection, as is true of my complexion. Ev’ry time I look and see me, I’m reminded life is dreamy.” The rest of the number is just as intoxicating, and it alone is worth the price of the two-disc set.
My friend Alan Gomberg was the one to tell me that this 1974 Candide also reinstated a previously dropped lyric by John Latouche for “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” Yes, what wound up in the 1956 production was a song by that name, but with a lyric by Richard Wilbur. Latouche had Dr. Pangloss teach his students lessons in zoology (“Camels are mammals”), ethics (“As you’d have done, do unto others”) and Latin (“Amo, amas, amat, amamus”). As for me, ego amare.
Then there’s the instance of a lyric that was originally in a musical, dropped and not heard on the original cast album, but then reinstated for both the movie soundtrack the revival cast album.
Have you already guessed that we’re talking about Cabaret?
When Cabaret had its world premiere in Boston on Oct. 8, 1966, emcee Joel Grey sang about his gorilla dance partner that “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Many people from many different faiths thought this a particularly offensive line, and director-producer Harold Prince urged his lyricist Fred Ebb to change it. He reluctantly did, to “she isn’t a meeskite at all.”
“Meeskite,” as we’d learned earlier in the show by way of a song that Herr Schultz sang, was a Jewish word that meant “ugly” or “funny-looking.”
Joel Grey has since told me that he thought that the original line was vastly superior – and he is, after all, a Jew. The original line also makes more sense for the character: with the Nazis taking hold in Germany, would a cabaret emcee even dare to use a Jewish word in his act? Wouldn’t he try to pretend that he wasn’t even familiar with a word that Jews knew, for in those witch-hunting times, he might be judged guilty by association?
Nevertheless, when the time came to record the original cast album, Grey was heard singing, “She isn’t a meeskite at all.”
When Bob Fosse did the 1972 film version and Sam Mendes the 1998 revival, they both returned to “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Many commended them for their courage, while others chalked it up to our living in a more frank era.
But there was another and arguably more basic reason for the switch: both Fosse and Mendes had dropped “Meeskite” from the score. Thus, there was no frame of reference for “She isn’t a meeskite at all.”
We’re living in an age of political correctness, which is all for the best, but sometimes the world of the musical itself must be taken into consideration, too.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.