Musical Theater AdvicE
By Peter Filichia
Did you know that February 18 is National Advice Day?
Probably not. But someone decided it is.
Perhaps a musical theater lyricist invented the “holiday.” When you think of it, many of these craftsmen have been dispensing good advice for quite some time. Put on a happy face. You gotta have heart. The sun’ll come out tomorrow. Make someone happy. Climb ev’ry mountain, ford ev’ry stream; follow ev’ry rainbow till you find your dream. You’ve got to have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?
But you know all these, because they either come from some of the most popular shows of all time or became much-recorded songs. What about some of the lesser-known musical theater songs that give good advice?
I don’t necessarily mean Moonface Martin’s entreaty in Anything Goes that we “Be Like the Bluebird.” Cole Porter was obviously using this song for comic effect. There’s little chance that anyone’s life was ever improved by singing “Tweet tweet, tra lalla-la-lalla.”
Nevertheless, we might all have better lives or at least be better people if we took the advice that was sincerely given in such songs as:
“Why Can’t We All Be Nice?” (Goodtime Charley) – My favorite question from any musical. Although it speaks for itself, I’ll have more to say about this song in two weeks, when the show marks the fortieth anniversary of its Broadway opening. In the meantime:
“Don’t Be Cruel” (All Shook Up) – Or as Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck of The Rhythm of Life Church in Sweet Charity said, “Thou shalt dig thy neighbor as he would dig thee.” And this doesn’t just apply to friends. See:
“Be Kind to Your Parents” (Fanny) – Here’s a musical way of citing what some religions call the Fourth Commandment and others dub the Fifth. Harold Rome’s eleven o’clock number was originally sung by Florence Henderson, who would become a household name in fifteen years thanks to a TV show that had her being kind to her children. Fanny, in fact, was the first sole production of David Merrick, who’d soon become the terror of Broadway for decades to come. Who’d expect that he’d have anything to do with a show that included the word “kind?”
“Yes” (70, Girls, 70) – My favorite show song of all time (and I’ve heard quite a few of them). Fred Ebb (to an intoxicating John Kander melody) tells us to embrace life instead of worrying and being overly cautious. It’s second cousin to a song that Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers wrote for Do I Hear a Waltz? called “Take the Moment.”
“Don’t Be Afraid” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) – The actual title should be “Don’t Be Afraid of Anyone,” for that’s what Johnny Nolan (the estimable Johnny Johnson) is telling his young daughter Francie (the tone-deaf Nomi Mitty). This musical, with a top-notch must-be-heard-at-all-costs score by composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Dorothy Fields, has always been compared to a musical that had arrived six years earlier – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel — for indeed there is a plot similarity: caring wife; irresponsible husband who dies; deprived daughter. And wouldn’t you know that this song debuted on Broadway a mere nineteen days after R&H introduced the similarly themed “I Whistle a Happy Tune” in The King and I?
“Don’t Be the Bunny” (Urinetown) – This is not advice to young women to stay away from employment in Playboy clubs; to be frank, those dens of iniquity are close to extinct. No, what Caldwell B. Cladwell (John Cullum) is urging is that you not allow yourself to be taken advantage of by others.
“Take a Job”(Do Re Mi) – I remember once reading that having any job is better than staying home and watching daytime TV. Truth to tell, however, this point was made in the days when we had only three network and two UHF channels. It may not be quite as true now (especially with Turner Classic Movies). But, really, Kay Cram (the always funny Nancy Walker) wasn’t wrong to tell her husband Hubie (the at least equally as funny Phil Silvers) that he should find some employment, even if it were only to help his self-respect. When she urges him to join her father in his dry-cleaning establishment, note the way that she sings “It’s a very healthy business” – for it has the subtext of “He really does better than you think” or, to keep the imagery constant, “He really cleans up.”
“Don’t Be Afraid of Romance” (Mr. President) – If you spent your Valentine’s Day without someone – again – start the ball rolling so that by our next National Advice Day you’ll be sending other lonely hearts to take out this cast album and begin this Irving Berlin beguine.
On the other hand, not every romance should be now and forever. See: “Don’t Marry Me” (Flower Drum Song) – Really, even if you’ve been seriously dating for a while, that doesn’t mean you should tie the knot – which Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady thinks of as “the knot around my neck” — if you really haven’t found the right one:
“Take Him” (Pal Joey) – Here’s a masterpiece of both conception and writing. Two women who’d loved and lusted over the same man finally realize that Joey’s not worth a torn ticket stub to Kelly. They do everything but flip a coin and ensure that the loser gets him. It’s good advice from Rodgers and Hart, and an idea that was borrowed nine years later by Irving Berlin in:
“You Can Have Him” (Miss Liberty) – Yes, Berlin had already stated in “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” (Annie Get Your Gun) that you can’t make anyone love you if the person’s not so inclined. Here, in his next musical, he showed us two women who’d loved and lusted over the same man finally realize that he’s not worth a torn ticket stub to Moose Murders. Granted, as Fran sings in Promises, Promises, “Knowing when to leave can be the hardest thing thatanyone can learn.” But to everyone out there who has been with the wrong person for too long but has carefully avoided breaking it off, perhaps these songs will provide you with the courage you’ve needed to say, as Luisa Contini says in Nine, “Be on Your Own” – or, Rhetta Cupp puts it more bluntly in Pump Boys and Dinettes, “Be Good or Be Gone.”
“Wait” (Sweeney Todd) – A reminder that slow and steady often wins the race. And while Sweeney Todd is a singular-minded man who appears not to be even listening to Mrs. Lovett, he does seem to take her advice when he has Judge Turpin in his barber’s chair. Notice that he doesn’t immediately cut the guy’s throat but instead waits. And waits. And waits while he sings a duet with him – giving Anthony enough time to rush in and interrupt him.
Wait – if Sweeney had cut the Judge’s throat right away, we wouldn’t have heard “Pretty Women” – or the ten masterpieces that followed. As usual, Stephen Sondheim knew what he was doing. He doesn’t need advice from any of us.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order at www.amazon.com.