The Mothers and Fathers of Musical Theater Invention By Peter Filichia
You’re pardoned if you’ve never known it, but since 1983, February 11th has been celebrated as National Inventors’ Day.
Those who have been aware of the mini-holiday have honored such geniuses as Charles Babbage (who invented the computer), Karl Benz (the automobile), Willis Carrier (air-conditioner) and Hyman Kirsch (diet soda).
Most honor Thomas Edison for the lightbulb, but we who love musicals also thank him for the phonograph. Without him, there would have never been original cast albums. And then where would we be?
So on this February 11th, celebrate those creators who “invented” the most inventive musical theater songs. I don’t mean funny songs (“He Had Refinement” / A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), happy songs (“Come Follow the Band” / Barnum), stirring songs (“Back to Before” / Ragtime) or beautiful songs (“Blame It on the Summer Night” / Rags). I’m talking about songs with truly clever ideas behind them.
Of course, we may never know if the bookwriter, composer or lyricist came up with the brilliant idea, so we’ll just credit them all:
Robert Wright, George Forrest and Peter Stone: “Apology” (Kean) – Edmund Kean, the superstar of the 19th-century London stage, has P.O’d the prince. His semi-highness has demanded that Kean apologize on-stage in front of everyone. He does, but uses relevant quotations from Shakespeare to do the job for him.
Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (Show Boat) – Julie sings a song that seems to be known only by the African-American community. So how did this white woman learn it in this era when blacks and whites didn’t fraternize? It’s our first clue that Julie is actually a light-skinned black who’s been passing for white.
Noël Coward: “The Coconut Girl” (The Girl Who Came to Supper) – Being a teenaged king isn’t easy, for no one will let you rule until you’re of age. So “King” Nicolas is under the thumb of his father, The Prince Regent, who treats him as an utter child and won’t even let him out of the palace to see that new hit musical The Coconut Girl. Luckily, chorine Mary Morgan, who’s being romanced by the prince, meets Nicolas and performs for him a mini-version of the entire musical all by herself.
Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green: “Conversation Piece” (Wonderful Town) – We’ve all been at dinner parties where there are more awkward pauses than courses. So had our three writers who created a painful evening for their characters. Remember, too, that they had to come up with this in a hurry, because they had a mere three weeks to write this show after another team had been fired.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe: “The Contract” (Gigi) – This seemingly light-hearted story really concerns the outright selling of a young girl to an older man. This nine-minute sequence wasn’t in the original film, for 1958 was still a prurient time. Fifteen years later, however, our inventors could say what was really on the characters’ minds.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein: “Intermission Talk” (Me and Juliet) – So what does the average audience think about a below-average musical? This song spends many of the fifteen minutes showing and telling us audience members’ reactions. Despite their misgivings, leave it to Hammerstein to have them come to an optimistic conclusion about the theater in general.
Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein: “A Little More Mascara” (La Cage aux Folles) – Neither Jean Poiret in his original play nor he and his three co-screenwriters showed Albin’s transformation into Zaza. To be fair, it would have been mighty boring to watch him apply his war-and-peace paint. But in a musical, Albin can sing to himself during the transformation, which makes for a fabulous five minutes.
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler: “A Little Priest” (Sweeney Todd) – Let’s face it: we’re talking about murders, but the trick is to make them seem mirthful rather than macabre. That this song becomes a game of words in which each of these crazies tries to one-up the other adds to the fun. In a show that was turning increasingly operatic, this ol’-fashioned musical comedy number hit the spot and gave everyone some fascinating intermission talk.
Comden, Green and Jule Styne: “Simple Little System” (Bells Are Ringing) – And a seemingly foolproof system it is: “The composers’ names, we list ‘em with the race tracks in the land.” So Beethoven’s Belmont Park, Puccini’s Pimlico and – hallelujah! – weren’t they lucky that Handel begins with the same letter as Hialeah?
Rodgers and Hammerstein: “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” (The King and I) – Now that Mrs. Anna has had her students read that big best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tuptim decides to write her own take on the book but with an Asian sensibility. Buddha sure made a miracle with this one.
Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock: “The Tailor Motel Kamzoil” (Fiddler on the Roof) – Dream ballets had had their day by 1964, and Jerome Robbins knew it. But what if Harnick would add lyrics to this pseudo-nightmare? The result was a dream for the actors, audience and every character except Lazar Wolf.
Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman: “Who’s That Woman?” (Follies) – Sure, at any reunion of showgirls, one of them is going to suggest that they all do their favorite number from way-back-when. (Do see Life after Tomorrow, the documentary about kids who played Annie until they aged out, and you’ll see them at their reunion doing “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.”) But to have these old showgirls mirrored by the ghosts of their beautiful-girl former selves was brilliant. And if that wasn’t enough – and it was – Sondheim was smart to have his lyric reflect (pun intended) a mirror, too.
Walter Marks and Ernest Kinoy: “Words, Words, Words” (Bajour) – Eliza Doolittle says she’s sick of them, but Emily Kirsten enjoys giving The King of the Gypsies – namely Cockeye Johnny Dembo — a word- association test. It’ll ultimately reveal more about Emily than Johnny.
Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire: “Another Wedding Song” (Closer Than Ever) – Here comes the bride – again. Well, considering that the median age for second marriages is thirty-four for men and thirty-two for women, we do have a need for a song that celebrates the next trip to the altar.
Noël Coward: “Useful Phrases” (Cowardy Custard) — We’ve all seen and used guidebooks for foreign travel that have the pithy sentences that could aid us at any given moment. But Coward noticed that plenty of these “helpful” tomes were offering sentences that no one would ever use. Listen to his hilarious ones.
Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry: “Come Up to My Office” (Parade) – All show long, we’ve seen Leo Frank (Brent Carver) be so meek and mild that he makes Clark Kent look like – well, Superman. But now, when a witness testifies falsely against Leo, she makes him out to be a sexual predator. Suddenly Leo takes on a completely different (and fictitious) persona, and the result is chilling.
Maltby and Shire: “Crossword Puzzle” (Starting Here, Starting Now) –Maltby certainly knows the territory, for he’s designed crossword puzzles for Harper’s and New York magazines over the decades. Here he imagines a young woman who used to do the Sunday Times behemoth with her beau every week – until he dumped her for someone else for whom “across” meant getting her charms across and “down” meant a downfall for our crossword wizard.
“A Patriotic Finale” (When Pigs Fly) – The real title should be “You Need Us to Make the USA” – “us” being gays. “You can’t take the ‘color’ out of Colorado” is just the start of some terrific wordplay (“And you can’t have New York City without Queens”). And you do need the letters “u” and “s” to make “USA,” don’t you?
And finally, there’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Do-Re-Mi” (The Sound of Music) – Yeah, yeah, I can hear you moaning now about this choice. But is any more inventive number in the Broadway canon so taken for granted? Really, what could have been a better teaching tool to learn the scale than a description of each note with a visual image? Give credit where it’s due and stop mocking it. In fact, that’s why I saved it for last – because I was afraid you’d stop reading if I’d listed it earlier.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.