PICK A POCKET OR TWO: A TOP PICK By Peter Filichia
Well, here’s a rarity.
In an entire book devoted to musical theater, there’s only one reference to Stephen Sondheim.
This must be a first in the last half-century. Since the seventies, every book on our favorite art form has doted on Broadway’s greatest composer-lyricist.
But the index of PICK A POCKET OR TWO, Ethan Mordden’s newest achievement, only states “Sondheim, Stephen, 198.”
What’s more, when you turn to that page, you’ll find that Mordden gives the man merely a single observation, astute though it is. He maintains that a lyric from MATILDA’S “Pathetic” – “It’s just a door; you’ve seen one before” – has a “wording and vocal line that sound exactly like Stephen Sondheim.”
“And that’s IT?” you ask in utter disbelief. However, there’s good reason for what would otherwise seem a series of monumental slights. As the book’s title might suggest to you, PICK A POCKET OR TWO are the five words that follow “You’ve Got to” in the title of a song from OLIVER! It’s the musical that played an important role in, as Mordden’s subtitle states, “A History of British Musical Theatre.”
Mordden takes us all the way back in time when THE BEGGAR’S OPERA was all the rage. And on through the season he sails. He reports that Noel Coward didn’t like many recordings of his works, but he did take to COWARDY CUSTARD. We have to wonder how Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe felt about Coward’s 1963 musical THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER, considering that, as Mordden oh-so-accurately points out, it’s “reminiscent of MY FAIR LADY.”
Unlike the solo Sondheim reference, the index reveals that OLIVER! resides on twenty-one pages. That makes sense, for throughout the first six decades of the twentieth century, even the best British musicals weren’t considered on par with the great American ones. Then on June 30, 1960, Lionel Bart’s homegrown product opened and proved itself on par with Broadway’s greatest musical achievements.
Thirty months later, OLIVER! would become one. Bart also won the Tony for Best Score.
Sure, London had previously given the world THE BOY FRIEND (which gets sixteen mentions in the index), but that was a spoof, a passel of pastiche. OLIVER! was a genuine musical that made audiences laugh and cry. Thus, attention had to be paid.
Mordden tells us David Merrick, who was known for economizing (that’s a euphemism), didn’t scrimp when importing OLIVER! to the Imperial. Although London had thirteen musicians in the pit, Broadway audiences would hear double that number.
It’s just one of the many little known facts that Mordden delightfully dispenses. Chances are that you didn’t know that Danny Sewell – the original Bill Sykes in OLIVER! – “had been a boxer in his youth, even a contender.” A late case of polio ended any thoughts of a heavyweight championship, but musical theater came to the rescue.
Still, Mordden gives praise to Sandy Wilson, who wrote THE BOY FRIEND’s book, music and lyrics. “It was the first British musical since CONVERSATION PIECE to come to Broadway,” he writes. For those who are scoring with us, that means a virtual twenty-year drought, only twenty-three days shy of a full two decades.
We learn that Wilson started out by writing “an hour-long diversion” that was “an analysis of loveable twaddle, a resuscitation of the ‘20s musical to ask what it was made of.” It also followed that era’s tradition of having three acts, as did NO, NO, NANETTE, to which, Mordden maintains, THE BOY FRIEND owes a bit.
While noting that “Wilson enjoyed basing songs on earlier models” that were intent on “respecting old genres,” he adds that “old sheet music helped, but also instinct.” The result was a musical that’s “easy to stage and easy to enjoy.” The latter reason is because “the text is amusing and the next number is never more than minutes away.”
(In that way, THE BOY FRIEND could be said to be ahead of its time. Today and for the last few decades, musicals have had shorter or even absent libretti.)
If Americans would have thought that the London orchestra to OLIVER! was skimpy, what would they have felt about the mere piano accompaniment that THE BOY FRIEND had in the West End? Here too when the show came to our shores, a full orchestra awaited it. Thus the original Broadway cast album is more rewarding than the London one.
Mordden concedes that the show has “paper-thin action” but “if the actors play it with sincerity, it comes across as fond satire.” THE BOY FRIEND has “no star roles, though Polly’s Anne Rogers in London and Julie Andrews in New York went places.”
That, to be sure, is especially true of the latter – although Andrews couldn’t even nab a Tony nomination for her performance.
Of course she did for both MY FAIR LADY and CAMELOT, but lost both times. In the latter case, it was to IRMA LA DOUCE’s Elizabeth Seal, “a dancer who could really belt,” Mordden writes. The original cast album certainly validates his claim. He also reminds us that the marvelous dance music for Broadway’s IRMA was provided by a just-starting-out John Kander.
Other nifty nuggets: Frank Corsaro, a highly regarded director of grand opera, was to stage the pop opera JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR for its 1971 Broadway debut. But Corsaro endured an automobile accident, and Tom O’Horgan of HAIR fame took his place. Lloyd Webber hated the over-the-toppiest-of-tops production while Rice “was more bemused than outraged.”
For the longest time, bashing Andrew Lloyd Webber has been a Broadway pastime. Mordden will have none of it. Lloyd Webber’s “ability to compose consistently in a single voice,” he writes, “has seldom been appreciated.” Mordden goes so far as to call his music Creative (yes, with a capital “C” – and in italics, yet). For that matter, Mordden feels that “Tim Rice’s ease in ‘conversationalizing’ the bigger-than-life figures that pop opera delights in is similarly underrated, because he makes it look easy.” As for EVITA, he points out that “Once Eva gets to her tempestuous Wanting Song ‘Buenos Aires,’ we’re attracted to this immoral beast.”
People who consider themselves hard rock savants often sneer “Oh, what people who write for Broadway consider hard rock isn’t remotely hard rock.” Mordden agrees: “Except for THE WHO’S TOMMY,” he writes, “no major pop opera has built its score entirely on hard rock.”
Mordden offers opinions on THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT – THE SMELL OF THE CROWD (“a score rich in promotable numbers”) and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW (“friendly but dangerous”). Although he basically goes chronologically, he does, after discussing the 2018 London hit SIX, conclude his book by going back in time to discuss HALF A SIXPENCE with its “very tuneful David Heneker score” and star Tommy Steele, “at the time Britain’s outstanding rock and roller.” See why he feels this is the logical way to end his survey.
That PICK A POCKET OR TWO is worthwhile will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read, re-read and RE-re-read any or all of the works of this great musical theater historian. But an added bonus in each book is Mordden’s distinctively great sense of humor. His perception that may get the biggest guffaw out of you comes when he states that after her death, Gertrude Lawrence was the first person to be honored by having the lights dimmed on Broadway theaters marquees.
Mordden sees it as “The tradition of lowering the lights in memoriam back when it was reserved for the elite and not made into a participation trophy.”
And oh, how true, how true. You’ll find many more laugh-out-loud moments and incisive perceptions in this new book from Oxford University Press. Pick up Ethan Mordden’s PICK A POCKET OR TWO.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.