By Peter Filichia —
Nightclubs are expensive and crowded and offer not-so-hot food. They were even worse when they were smoke-filled. Nevertheless, the musical theater greatly appreciates that such places exist, for they’ve played host to some of our best songs.
Musicals set in the good ol’ U.S. of A. have taken us to nightclubs from sea to shining sea. In New York, we can go back 60 years to The Hot Box where Adelaide sang “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink” in Guys and Dolls. Meanwhile, right now at the Around the Clock Café, Lucy T. Slut is still singing “Special” in Avenue Q seven full years after she started.
In The Skyland Room in Chicago, Val du Val entertained Belle Poitrine – a/k/a “Little Me” — by singing “Boom-Boom.” Chicago is also where our Pal Joey started out in an unnamed spot that was described in the script as a “cheap night club.” Still, the songs we heard there – “You Mustn’t Kick It Around” and “That Terrific Rainbow” – were choice. Once our (anti-)hero got his own club – the far more posh Chez Joey – the musical fare was equally entertaining via “The Flower Garden of My Heart” and “Plant You Now, Dig You Later.”
Way out West (way beyond West End Avenue) in San Francisco, Flower Drum Song showed us the Celestial Bar, where we learned about “Fan Tan Fanny,” who was leaving her man. Then we joined entertainer Frankie Wing as he was gliding through his memoree.
A little bit south in L.A. — the City of Angels — City of Angels took us to the Blue Note. There we heard many a blue note in what is arguably Cy Coleman’s most beautiful – but is undoubtedly his most haunting – melody “With Every Breath You Take.” (David Zippel’s lyric is terrific, too.) If popular music hadn’t gone through such an ugly change and had stayed civilized, this would be a standard that every American would know. (Everyone should.)
And let’s not forget north of the border up Canada way. St. Pierre may be a small town in the French Canadian part of the world but it’s big enough to support a nightclub where The Six Angels sang “Catch My Garter.” The six-pack ensures that Grandpere Bonnard has, as the show’s title has it, The Happy Time.
And then there’s the nightclub that was floating in the middle of the sea – alas, for a very short run. The First Class Smoking Room on the Titanic is where (at least in the 1997 musical) “Autumn” was heard for all too few spring evenings.
Musicals have taken us to foreign nightclubs, too – such as Berlin’s Kit Kat Club. The Emcee was there to “Wilkommen” us, and when he wasn’t performing with “Two Ladies” he was introducing us to two others. One was a gorilla in “If You Could See Her” while another was Sally Bowles, who insisted that we “Don’t Tell Mama” what she was doing there.
Performers from Jill Haworth in the original 1966 hit to the late lamented Natasha Richardson in the even-more-successful 1998 revival soloed in the title song. The original production (with Joel Grey) had the Emcee sing “The Money Song,” while the revival opted to have him (Alan Cumming) share the stage with Sally in “Money (makes the world go round)” – the more popular song that Kander and Ebb had written for the (almost Oscar-winning) 1972 film.
Meanwhile in St. Tropez, there’s still “La Cage aux Folles” where we hear the title tune. Shall we count Jacqueline’s, which is really a restaurant? Certainly, for it seems as if it’s a nightclub when Albin, Zaza and Mother all rolled into one sings “The Best of Times.”
And speaking of restaurants, the Harmonia Gardens once had a number that was to be performed as all the chaos was happening to all those characters. Jerry Herman originally wrote “The Man in the Moon (is a lady)” for this spot but Gower Champion thought that the “Hello, Dolly!” number would suffice in that scene. Herman conceded the point, but luckily for him and us, he remembered the song some months later when he signed on to do Mame.
Some of our mythical musical theater nightclubs sported names that immediately suggested high society. There was the Café Elysian (in Sweet Smell of Success) where Dallas Cochran sang about his “One Track Mind.” Then there was the Hotsy Totsy Club and Grill in Legs Diamond, which got a little less hotsy totsy when our title character sauntered up to the piano and sang about a woman’s breasts. (Would that he had called them breasts!) However, Legs eventually cleaned up his act when he played the Café Society Room and sang the more lofty “Long As I’m Here with You.”
Which musical theater writers were the all-time champs of setting scenes and songs in nightclubs? Easy — Betty Comden and Adolph Green. One can easily see why; the two legends started their careers in such clubs. They performed as part of a group called The Revuers along with Alvin Hammer, John Frank and Judith Tuvim, who later changed her name to Judy Holliday.
True, not every one of Comden and Green’s shows included a watering hole. Almost all of On the Twentieth Century took place on a train, which precluded anyone’s taking in a floor show. And certainly Neverland never had a nightclub, for Peter Pan and his Lost Boys would be too young to patronize one.
Nevertheless, Comden and Green did often find a way to get the nightclub experience in their musicals. Sometimes they gave these places names – such as The Pyramid Room, where Dr. Kitchell in Bells Are Ringing got to hear his song “The Midas Touch.” Sometimes C&G didn’t bother to name the nightspots; in Hallelujah, Baby! they simply indicated that “Feet, Do Yo’ Stuff” took place in “a cabaret” and that the show’s title song occurred in “a night club.”
But usually they had some fun in naming these boites. In Wonderful Town Ruth and her sister Eileen sang “The Wrong Note Rag” at the Village Vortex. Both On the Town, Comden and Green’s first show, and Do Re Mi, their 1960 effort, brought us to three different and fancifully named nightclubs.
While the sailors and their dates were “on the town,” they heard the same song — “I’m Blue” — at Diamond Eddie’s, the Congacabana and The Slam-Bang. There was, however, a different arrangement each time of Leonard Bernstein’s excellent parody of a torch song.
In Do Re Mi, we met both Hubie (Phil Silvers) and Kay Cram (Nancy Walker) in the Casacabana, where chorines sang “All You Need Is a Quarter.” Later, in the Zen Pancake Parlor (which is dayclub as well as a nightclub), Hubie discovered Tilda Mullen who sang the haunting “Cry Like the Wind.” Thanks to Hubie, however, Tilda was soon playing The Imperial Room while asking the musical question “What’s New at the Zoo?”
That one is an enticing novelty song that also would have been well-known had popular music not changed so radically. It and many of the others would have still been heard in nightclubs across the lands, and not just in their Broadway productions.
Peter Filichia also has a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia