REMEMBERING MICKI GRANT By Peter Filichia
In 1977, when Stephen Schwartz had the idea of musicalizing Studs Terkel’s WORKING – subtitled “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” – he eventually decided not to take a business-as-usual approach.
Because the series of oral histories dealt with so many varied occupations – mason, waitress and firefighter among three dozen others – Schwartz eventually concluded that he alone shouldn’t write the score. A musical about people from all walks of life should have songs written by composers and lyricists with different backgrounds, too.
By this time, Schwartz had already had three smash-hit shows to his credit: GODSPELL, PIPPIN and THE MAGIC SHOW; the last two had cracked the list of Broadway’s Top Ten Longest-Running Musicals. As a result, he’d obviously been to enough parties, events and Tony ceremonies to become well acquainted with dozens who had written the scores for many acclaimed musicals. Imagine the unlisted phone numbers he had in his Rolodex.
“The first person I called,” he said last Monday night, “was Micki Grant.”
The hundreds who were sitting in the pews of Riverside Church in Morningside Heights nodded in understanding and grunted with appreciation. Grant, who had died on August 21st, was remembered and celebrated for her long and distinguished career.
She was the first black woman to have speaking roles in TV commercials as well as a recurring role on a soap opera – ANOTHER WORLD. How recurring? From 1962 to 1975, she appeared in 463 episodes.
On Broadway, Grant was also the first woman of any color to write the book, music and lyrics to a musical: DON’T BOTHER ME, I CAN’T COPE, which, starting in 1972, ran two-and-a-half years. Its original cast album won the Grammy Award in 1973.
Schwartz didn’t say whether he’d attended that year’s Grammys, but he well might have, for he’d won that prize for GODSPELL the year before. He did tell the assembled that when thinking about WORKING, Grant came to mind because he’d seen her long-running hit as well as her next one: YOUR ARMS TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD, the 1976 musical for which she had provided six songs.
There was another reason that he didn’t mention but one that Carol de Giere detailed in DEFYING GRAVITY, her excellent biography of the three-time Oscar-winner. While Schwartz was attempting to write a song for Al, an African-American parking lot attendant, he wasn’t coming up with anything that pleased him. “Why am I sitting here trying to write a Micki Grant song?” he asked himself. “Why don’t I just call Micki Grant?”
They met, and Grant was most enthusiastic about writing for Al. Unlike many others in Terkel’s book, Al loved his job and took pride in how well he could maneuver even the largest vans into tight spaces.
That was the difference between him and Maggie Holmes, a black cleaning woman. Maggie’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had all worked in the same capacity. But, Maggie vowed, her daughter would not suffer the same fate. The chain would break in the next generation, and not a moment too soon.
When she asked to do that one, too, Schwartz gave her the go-ahead and assumed the meeting was over. Then Grant said, “I have another song that you might like that I think would be right for this show.”
When she sang “If I Could’ve Been,” Schwartz experienced Love at First Hear.
How many songs simply repeat the first line? The number must be in the thousands, if not tens of thousands: “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right outa My Hair.” “I Could Have Danced All Night.” “Let the Sunshine In.” “Ease on down the Road” …
Well, you get the point. Even “Poppa’s Blues” in STARLIGHT EXPRESS references the practice when Poppa sings “Oh, the first line of the blues always gets sung a second time” before adding “The first line of the blues always gets sung a second time.”
In all these songs and probably all others, the second line has no real function; it’s just a songwriting convention at work. However, Grant wrote “If I could’ve been what I could’ve been, I could’ve been something.”
Here the important phrase is repeated twice, but each time it has a new meaning: “If I, as a young person, were then allowed and encouraged to reach my full potential, I would have turned out to be far more than I am now.”
Schwartz enlisted four other songwriters to fill out the score. He, Grant and they would each receive a Tony nomination. Note, though, that of all the spots in the show, he decided that “If I Could’ve Been” would be WORKING’s first-act closer – one of the most coveted spots in any musical.
Sometime later, when Grant played her songs for Al and Maggie, Schwartz knew where to put them “Lovin’ Al (the Wizard)” would occupy the second spot in the show – often considered to be one of the most important. A good opening number inspires an audience’s confidence, but a second straight impressive song – two in a row – makes theatergoers even more secure in believing that the rest of the show will be as good.
As if that weren’t honor enough, after Schwartz heard Grant’s “Cleanin’ Women,” he immediately earmarked it for the show’s eleven o’clock number – also one of the most coveted spots in any musical.
At the memorial, Schwartz also made the point that the fine melody that Grant gave Maggie wasn’t the only factor in making the song extraordinary. He added that if someone who didn’t know English could hear her music, he’d somehow know the subject of the song.
Oh, one other note, which has nothing to do with Micki Grant. After the ceremony, I asked Schwartz “Hey! Do you have a London cast album of CHILDREN OF EDEN that WORKS?!”
I don’t, and you probably don’t, either. The CD of Schwartz’s 1991 musical only played for a few months and then just lay in the tray as mum as Susan the Silent in FINIAN’S RAINBOW. Talk to anyone who has one, and you’ll hear the same thing.
Schwartz, well aware of the difficulties that everyone’s had with these defective discs, laughed through his mask. “No, I actually don’t,” he said.
You’d think he would, until you realized that because Bill Rosenfield recorded the 1997 Paper Mill Playhouse production – giving it a far more complete recording on two discs – it’s no wonder that Schwartz has never bothered to replace his London cast album. We’re lucky to have that – as well as the original cast album of WORKING.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.