By Peter Filichia
“But perhaps the most American part of this truly American art form is its optimism. Broadway music calls us to see the best in ourselves and in the world around us.”
So said President Obama last Monday night from the East Room during “The White House Music Series Event Saluting Broadway.” And does anyone doubt that the President and/or his speechwriters made a good point?
The way that Broadway bookwriters and lyricists have traditionally looked at life is something sort of grandish. Jerry Herman was already optimistic in his first Broadway show (“Chin Up, Ladies” in Milk and Honey) and continued right through his last (“The Best of Times” in La Cage aux Folles).
How interesting that “optimism” begins with an “O” – and so does “Oscar Hammerstein II” – for he was Broadway’s all-time champ at looking at the bright side. “You Are Love,” he wrote in 1927, and more than 30 years later, he was writing “You Are Beautiful.” Hammerstein may or may not have begun each day thinking “Oh, What a Beautful Mornin’,” but he did believe that “A Hundred Million Miracles” were happening every day, that “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and that we should “Climb ev’ry mountain, ford ev’ry stream, follow ev’ry rainbow till you find your dream.” And speaking of dreams, that brings us to Hammerstein’s best-ever expression of optimism: “You’ve got to have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”
Hammerstein may have thought that the morning was the most beautiful time of day, but Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones in 110 in the Shade believed that “Everything Beautiful Happens at Night.” The authors of Let It Ride didn’t believe that either the sun or the moon had to be in certain positions; they wrote a song simply called “Everything Beautiful.” Other musical theater writers and audience members agree: All Things Bright and Beautiful. Beautiful Girls. The Beautiful Land. Beautiful, Beautiful World. The World Is Beautiful Today. How Beautiful the Days. One More Beautiful Song.
Many of our musicals start their positive outlook with their titles: Hallelujah, Baby! The Happy Time. Hello, Dolly! Here’s Love. I Do! I Do! Wonderful Town. And speaking of “wonderful,” how about those “wonderful” songs? On a Wonderful Day Like Today. A Wonderful Guy. Wonderful Music.
There’s a reason that the most popular song from Annie begins “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.” Another Annie – Annie Oakley – more than 30 years earlier also looked heavenward for her inspiration when she decreed “I Got the Sun in the Morning (and the moon at night).”
It’s what musical theater characters – and enthusiasts — feel. Tevye, Lazar and his bar buddies aren’t the only ones who raise a glass “To Life!” Don Quixote isn’t the only one To Dream the Impossible Dream. We’ve had characters who proclaim “I Like Everybody” and detail “My Favorite Things.” The Peanuts crew had their ups and downs during You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but they all came together at the end of the show with “Happiness.”
Individuals have many positive things to say: I’m a Brass Band. I’m A-Tingle, I’m A-Glow. I’m Not Afraid. I’m Not Finished Yet. I’m on My Way to the Top. I’m the Bravest Individual. I’ll Buy You a Star. I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like. I Am Free. I Whistle a Happy Tune. I’ve Got It All. I’ve Got You to Lean On. I’ve Gotta Crow. I Can.
Some musical theater characters have optimistic feelings about others. You’re the Top. You Are Love. You Did It! You I Like.
Some know how to appreciate what they have. Oh, Happy Day! Oh, Happy We! Good Times are Here to Stay. My Cup Runneth Over.
When the entire cast of No, No Nanette sings “I Want to Be Happy,” it’s not its way of saying “I wish I could be, but I don’t know how.” No — all of them (and we) know the secret: “But I won’t be happy till I make you happy, too.” Comden and Green concurred: “Make someone happy, and you will be happy too.” Oliver Twist would have understood their point: “I’d do anything, for you, dear — anything.”
People in musicals often have an optimistic frame of mind, which is why they just burst into song. Indomitability is part of the musical theater credo, whether it’s Mr. S.L. Jacobowsky proclaiming “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow” or Carlotta Campion insisting “I’m Still Here.” Musical theater can even find a way to look at aging in a positive way; witness “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”
Hence we have the good advice that so many Broadway show songs give. Don’t Be Afraid of Anything. Don’t Dream It – Be It. Don’t Give In. Don’t Put It Down. Don’t Wait until It’s Too Late to see Paris. Expect Things to Happen. Express yourself. Open a New Window. Put on a Happy Face. You Gotta Have Heart.
Arguably best of all is the final song from a little-known 1971 musical called 70, Girls, 70. Granted, it deals with crooks, albeit rather benign ones: Little old ladies and wizened men who steal in order to adjust their fixed incomes. Despite their difficulties, their leader Ida (Mildred Natwick) decides that the best policy in life is to say “Yes” to everything. “Yes, I’ll taste; yes, I’ll touch; yes, of course” are among Fred Ebb’s enchanting lyrics from which a lot of us could learn a valuable lesson. As Jennifer Senior wrote in a recent New York magazine article, “People are far more apt to regret things they haven’t done than things they have.”
So say yes.
No wonder the traditional Broadway musical, as President Obama concluded, gets us “to believe that no matter how hopeless things may seem, the nice guy can still get the girl, the hero can still triumph over evil, and a brighter day can be waiting just around the bend.” That’s entertainment!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday an Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia