Sweet Music, Lyrics — and Star
By Peter Filichia —
Once The Small World of Charity was announced in early 1965, all Broadway was looking forward to this new Bob Fosse musical that would star Gwen Verdon. But there was never anything small about any Bob Fosse musical, so the name of this Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musicalization of Fellini’s Cabiria was changed to Sweet Charity.
Late summer of 1965 brought even more exciting news. The book would be written by Broadway’s hottest playwright: Neil Simon, who’d just had two consecutive smashes with Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. Now Sweet Charity was surely the show to beat in the 1965–1966 season.
In autumn, producers Fryer, Carr, and Harris announced that Sweet Charity would not only open on January 29, 1966, but also that it would reopen the dormant Palace Theatre. What could be more exciting for Broadway?
In fact, Man of La Mancha. It had opened two months before Charity could get to town. Then Charity lost more luster four months later when Mame debuted to better reviews. In the annual horse race that is the Broadway theater season, La Mancha (2,328 performances) would win, Mame (1,508) would place, and Charity (608) would show.
And yet, the musical that opened forty-five years ago this week has turned out to be surprisingly resilient. While it hasn’t seen as many Broadway revivals as La Mancha, it’s had twice as many — two — as Mame. Each of Charity‘s revisits was markedly longer than Mame’s 41-performance outing in 1983. And can you find anyone in the world who doesn’t believe that Sweet Charity‘s movie version is substantially better than La Mancha‘s or Mame‘s?
Because of Fosse and Verdon, Sweet Charity‘s trump card was its dancing. Best Choreography would be the only one of its eight Tony® nominations that it would win. But the original cast album has never, ever been out of print and it still shows a marvelous score. Composer Coleman experienced his first hit and lyricist Fields enjoyed her eighth.
Charity’s score was arresting right from the now-famous seven-note “Big Spender” vamp that started the overture. It included songs that would insinuate their way into people’s consciousness over the years. True, one of them, “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” could only do it by morphing into a TV commercial for a magazine — “Have a great, great Woman’s Day!” – but it still counts.
Once the overture concluded, we were introduced to Verdon’s Charity Hope Valentine. (Out of town in Detroit and Philadelphia, there was an Agnes thrown in there, too.) For her opening number, Verdon sang a style of song not often heard on Broadway and even less frequently as an opener: a jazz waltz. It was an easy fit for Coleman, who had had an extensive jazz background before he braved writing for the theater. He also had a terrific pop sound, as was proved by his “Rich Man’s Frug,” easily one of the best orchestral pieces ever recorded on a cast album.
“You Should See Yourself” Charity sang to her boyfriend Charlie — although Simon’s script simply referred to him as “Dark Glasses.” The implication was that Simon felt the guy was such a bum that he didn’t even deserve a name. We agreed after we saw Dark Glasses push Charity into a Central Park lake.
So Charity was late for work, and missed the line-up of taxi dancers at the Fan-Dango Ballroom where her colleagues sang the sultry “Big Spender.” It stopped the show — which is pretty remarkable considering that the dancers did virtually no dancing in it.
“Charity’s Soliloquy” had our heroine spell out her life story and her uncanny knack of picking the wrong man every time. Two subsequent recordings of the score omitted “Charity’s Soliloquy,” which was a shame in each case.
Ever wonder why, after Charity cited one of her boyfriend’s desires – “The bum wants to go to Florida” – she shouted, “Come on down!”? Here’s the explanation: each winter in the early ‘60s, now-defunct Eastern Airlines would air many TV commercials that showed sunbathers in swimsuits luxuriating by a Miami pool. “Come on down!” the airline’s spokesperson would tell and taunt those freezing up north. (How fitting, for the night Charity opened at the Palace was one of the coldest days on record.)
Here’s another period reference that today’s listeners might not catch. In “The Rhythm of Life,” the mock-new age church to which Oscar, Charity’s new beau, brought her, the hippie chorus began singing a bunch of “doobee-doobee-doos.” Do not assume that Fields was getting lazy; the section was meant to homage a then-popular group called The Swingle Singers that took classical music, never sang lyrics, but scatted to them.
Actually, Fields did make a lyrical misstep in this song. One can forgive her for it, however, because it’s one of those so-near-yet-so-far-isms: “With the Pie-Eyed Piper blowing,” the hippies sang. It was a nice play on the expression “The Pied Piper” and it did suggest someone drunk. But hippies wouldn’t have used so antiquated an adjective.
Nobody’s perfect. Otherwise, Fields did extraordinarily well in matching words to Coleman’s quirky melodies. (You try setting a lyric to the angular melody of what became “I’m the Bravest Individual” and see how far you get.)
In “I’m a Brass Band,” Fields detailed “all kinds of music,” contrasting not only the Philadelphia Orchestra with the Modern Jazz Quartet but also the rarefied “bells of St. Peter’s in Rome” to “tissue paper on a comb.” Yes, that’s music, too. And in “I Love To Cry at Weddings,” Fields wrote one of the slyest internal rhymes in the entire Broadway canon: “I could marry Herman and be perman-ently sorry.” (Good, you got it.)
Fields got strong emotion out of her characters, too. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” had Charity and her two dance hall friends Nickie and Helene angrily wish for a better life set to a rollicking Coleman melody. Fields’ lyric, however, suggested that you could take Nickie and Helene out of the rent-a-body business, but you could not take the penchant for body-renting out of the girl.
Later Nickie and Helene sang “Baby, Dream Your Dream” in which they predicted doom for Charity’s romance: it won’t last, not at all. Then they fell silent for a few beats as they had to face reality and admit, “But come to think of it, how happy I would be if I could find the kind of guy who’d say to me, ‘Baby, dream your dream’ … brother, would I buy it.” And we bought Verdon’s pain when she sang her plaintive “Where Am I Going?”
Back on Sunday, Jan. 30, 1966, Walter Kerr began his New York Herald Tribune review with “There are at least six things that will interest you in Sweet Charity — the dances, the scenery, the songs, Gwen Verdon, Gwen Verdon, Gwen Verdon.” Forty-five years later, four of those six are still readily available.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.