Second-Acting Show Music
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “There are no second acts in American lives.” For many of us, there are no second acts when we listen to original cast albums.
We get up in the morning and put on a favorite recording. Chances are that if it’s from The Golden Age, we’ll hear a rousing overture that gets our blood flowing. Some of us then take to the bathroom, some to the kitchen, and by the time we’re done in each room, we switch off the recording and head to work.
Usually that means that we’ve only heard half of the score. What’s more, the next morning we usually start with something new and only experience the first half of that album, too.
Old-timers talk fondly about their younger days when they enjoyed the venerable practice of “second-acting” shows – meaning that they snuck into a Broadway theater during intermission, found an empty seat and watched the Act Two. Those who invaded the musical 42nd Street at halftime liked to joke that what they’d actually seen was 21st Street. Still, even seeing that much was one more indication that “There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation.”
Today the various managers at Broadway theaters are far more stringent in keeping out second-acters; sneaking in is now nearly-impossible. But we can second-act our original cast albums.
Here’s what I’ve been doing lately which has brought me a peck of pleasure. I pick an album but I don’t start at the very beginning (although that is a very good place to start). Instead, I begin where Act Two commences. As a result, I’m hearing a lot of wonderful songs I haven’t heard in years because I eat too quickly and shave quite speedily.
By starting an album at Act Two, you do occasionally get an overture anyway – well, a mini-one called an “Entr’acte.” Cabaret offers one on its original, London and revival albums. The underrated one for The Goodbye Girl, with all that marvelous Marvin Hamlisch music, is a honey, too. “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman” has a nifty one as well, which, unlike its overture, features the show’s hit song “You’ve Got Possibilities.”
But there are many other possibilities. To start your work week, perhaps the first thing you should play on Monday morning is “First Thing Monday Mornin’” (Purlie). It’s a rugged, no-nonsense song that will remind you that many people work harder than you.
Start the days on which baseball playoffs and World Series games are scheduled with “The Game” (Damn Yankees) and all its testosterone. On a loftier plane, save “He Come Down This Mornin’” (Raisin), a genuine spiritual, for your own personal holy days.
“Intermission Talk” (Me and Juliet) wittily shows theatergoers freed from their seats and in the lounge, drinking lemonade (freshly made), a bottle of ice cold Coke and smoking. Well, it was 1953, after all. However, Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric shows that one thing hasn’t changed: theatergoers are still saying “the theater is dying, the theater is practically dead” – until they start to remember the recent great times they’ve had.
Barnum has one of the best second-act openers: “Come Follow the Band.” Not only will this Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart winner awaken you, but you’ll also feel your heart boom-booming along with the big bass drum that punctuates so many of the lyrics. Coleman’s Sweet Charity has a just-as-potent second-act opener: “The Rhythm of Life,” a “church” headed by Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck. His relationship to Dave Brubeck of jazz fame is never established, but he just might be a relative, given his innate feeling for good music.
A Class Act opened its classy second act with the cheerful “Better,” a song that’s optimistic, but not in the “A Cockeyed Optimist” way. Instead, songwriter Edward Kleban admitted “I’ve been naughty, I’ve been nice. I’ve been naughty once or twice. Twice is better.”
In actuality, “Better” was conceived as a pop song, but Lonny Price and Linda Kline, who created A Class Act, wisely turned it into a genuine production number, in which Kleban and his friends could celebrate all the good fortune that had recently come their way. Kleban, in fact, had particularly good news: “Barbra Streisand is recording one of my songs!”
This actually happened. Streisand did record one of Kleban’s songs – “Better,” in fact. Alas, then she decided not to release it – which was not better for Kleban.
Act Two of A Class Act also gives us one of musical theater’s most beautiful ballads. Sophie is Ed’s former lover who has remained his friend, which means that they have “The Next Best Thing to Love.” As nice a sentiment as that is, Sophie comes to the conclusion that “the next best thing to love is love.” No, they’re no longer physically intimate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still love each other.
We go the other way during “You Walk with Me” (The Full Monty). Ethan must attend the funeral of the mother of his friend Malcolm. Although Malcolm sings alone at the beginning, Ethan soon joins him. We know that these two who have been heading for a relationship since they met are now officially on the road to romance.
We associate Elaine Stritch with earthy songs a la “The Ladies Who Lunch” (Company). But in Goldilocks, we learned that if you give the lady a torch song, she’ll carry the torch as staunchly as the Statue of Liberty. “I Never Know When (to say when)” is an eleven o’clock number of a different kind: it’s not a barn-burner a la “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” or “The Brotherhood of Man.” Instead, it’s a woman summing up her life, giving an introspective look at where she’s gone wrong. But, oh, does Elaine Stritch get it right.
Other great eleven o’clock numbers? Judy Holliday’s “I’m Going Back” (Bells Are Ringing) is probably the second-best song ever written during a pre-Broadway tryout. (The best, of course, is “I’m Still Here” – but it comes early in Follies.) I’m not sure if I’d put “Sing Happy” from Flora, the Red Menace in third place, but the new team of Kander and Ebb certainly showed in Boston that they could write under pressure. Relative newcomer Liza Minnelli displayed too that she could learn a new song in, to quote a Stephen Schwartz lyric, just no time at all.
Schwartz gave us a great second-act opener in his first show — “Turn Back, O Man” in Godspell – but I’d say “It’s an Art” (Working) is an even greater achievement. Here’s Dolores Dante, a waitress who doesn’t complain; on the contrary, she’s still in love with her job. “So I zoom through the room with a flair no one else has — an air no one else has — I swear no one else has my lilt when I say ‘a la carte.’” Now that’s good lyric-writing – and the melody is just as fine.
Second acts don’t scrimp on charm songs. How nice that composer Lee Pockriss and lyricist Anne Croswell, when writing Ernest in Love – their Importance of Being Earnest musical — thought to give a song to Lane, Algernon’s butler. It’s a duet with Effie, a character not found in Oscar Wilde’s play, but one the adaptors invented. “You Can’t Make Love,” each insists, but in a song so bouncy that we hope they’ll soon contradict themselves.
There is a belief – maybe even an unwritten rule – that the title song of a show is its best song. Certainly by starting your listening at the second act you’ll soon hear such standards as “Hello, Dolly!” but let’s concentrate on the lesser-known ones. “Do I Hear a Waltz?” was written by Broadway’s master of waltzes – Richard Rodgers – who did such a nice job here that you’ll be waltzing in your flat, waltzing with your cat, to paraphrase a Stephen Sondheim lyric. “Irma La Douce” may give a hint why Elizabeth Seal bested Julie Andrews in Camelot for the Best Musical Actress Tony. Seal, playing a joie de fille, has been pretending that she’s had a good life, but in this song, she takes a long, hard look at it and doesn’t like what she sees.
“Too Darn Hot” (Kiss Me, Kate) doesn’t make much sense on stage: why is everyone dancing so frenetically if it’s 110 in the shade? Solely listening to it, however, frees it from that context. Similarly, just listening to “You Did It” (My Fair Lady) allows us to savor Alan Jay Lerner’s extraordinary lyrics without having to see the disappointment on Eliza’s face that no one’s making much of her accomplishment.
Depending on which recording of Chicago you choose, you’ll have a different second-act starter. On the original cast album, recorded in 1975 when so-called long-playing records actually weren’t that long, the second-act of this disc started with “Me and My Baby” because there was no room for “I Know a Girl.” That cost us hearing Chita Rivera do the song, but our consolation came twenty-one years later in 1996, when Bebe Neuwirth recorded it on truly long-playing CDs.
So there you have it. Second-act enough show music, and you might just come away saying, “God, That’s Good!” – even if you haven’t yet got around to Sweeney Todd.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.