By Peter Filichia —
When friends start discussing musical theater “charm songs” — and believe me, in my circle, we do — the usual masterpieces are mentioned. “Getting to Know You” from The King and I and “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance” from The Most Happy Fella often head the list.
But I always mention “I Could Get Married Today” from Seventeen.
Don’t know the show? The 1951 musical was librettist Sally Benson’s take on Booth Tarkington’s 1916 novel – which, believe it or not, was that year’s Number One Best-Seller. Tarkington nostalgically looked back at teens who were growing up in a sleepy part of Indianapolis in 1907.
The hero is Willie Baxter, whose interest in the so-called fairer sex reaches its zenith this summer. Late in the musical, Willie is astonished to meet the father of his family’s handyman, Genesis. Willie always thought that Genesis was so old that his father had to have died long ago. But Genesis’ father, he learns, is alive and well. He’d sired his son when he was seventeen — the same age that Willie is now.
That spurs Willie to muse, “If I only had some money put aside — enough to buy a wedding ring and if I had the bride, I could get married today.” Soon Genesis and Dad join in.
And soon a smile would have to appear on any listener’s face. Composer Walter Kent and lyricist Kim Gannon really scored a bull’s eye on this one.
Now you can join the smiles, for Seventeen has been reissued on CD and via digital download.
Kent and Gannon also provided me with an excellent couplet, which comes in “Ode to Lola.” The subject of the song – one seventeen-year-old Lola Pratt — has been visiting Indianapolis, a guest of her boarding school friend May Parcher. Being the new kid on the block, Lola gets plenty of attention from Willie and all his friends. Indeed, when May’s boyfriend Joe shows up at her house with a box of candy, May’s thrilled – until she learns that he’d brought it for Lola. Joe assures May, “She’ll give you a piece of it.”
The other girls find that their beaus are just as transfixed. May’s explanation for her friendship with Lola doesn’t assuage them: “There weren’t any boys at Miss Chapin’s Finishing School.” Hence, the girls sing that terrific couplet: “She’s taken our boys ‘nd / she oughta be poisoned.”
The young ladies have a point, for Lola is truly insufferable. She refers to herself in the third person (“Lola’s lost a button on her dress”), and speaks in that so-called adorable fashion that passes for uber-feminine: “My doodness! My gwacious!” When boy after boy offers her a token of his esteem, she says, “I’ll take them all so no one’s feelings will be hurt.” What a humanitarian! Lola collects boys the way we collect original cast albums. But she rationalizes her feelings in song: “If a fella feels romantic, it’s romantic you should be. It’s only fair to do your share. It’s reciprocity.”
When Lola talks, it’s all saccharine-sweet: “Here’s ickle boy Baxter in his booful, booful suit.” But when she sings, she’s mostly devoid of those affectations, no matter if she’s expressing internal thoughts or interacting with the kids. Technically, this is a flaw in the writing, but believe me, you wouldn’t want an album full of songs in which Lola sings such lines as “I’ll be on that drate big nassy ol’ choo-choo train” – which she actually says in Act Two, Scene One.
Willie is the most smitten with this big city cosmopolitan. As he tells his father, “She wouldn’t live here. She’d only visit here.” Drawls his father drolly, “That’s very gracious of her.” And although Mr. Baxter must thank Lola for one thing — Willie has actually bathed in her honor – he is literally driven to drink when Willie says that Lola is “one of the noblest girls in the United States of America!” (This being Indianapolis in 1907, Mr. Baxter only reaches for hard cider.)
May’s father isn’t happy with Lola, either. “I can’t sit down anywhere in the house without sitting on a boy!” he roars. But then George Crooper arrives in town – “the rich one with a car who’s been to college,” May notes. George believes he’s modest by wearing his Yale sweater inside out. But the “Y” can still be seen, and a backward “Y” still reads as a “Y,” doesn’t it?
Nevertheless, the girls now have their own masculine version of Lola Pratt. Do you feel a sentence coming with the words “good,” “gander” and “goose”?
Crooper is so rich and well-traveled that he’s even been to the newest Broadway sensation: The Ziegfeld Follies. That allows him to replicate a number he saw: “Ooh, Ooh, Ooh, What You Do to Me!” Gannon and Kent nail the sound of this one, too.
But George’s superior feelings about New York eventually anger the girls: “You think Indiana is just dirt,” snarls May, unaware that what she’s just said is funny. “Indianapolis is the largest city in the world not on navigable waters!”
Willie gets the chance to tell off George, too. “You don’t own that car! It’s your father’s!” he roars. “And that ‘Y’ you wear on your sweater? You played for thirty seconds as the last substitute against Harvard on the soccer team!” (How Willie learned this in the pre-Google age is never explained.) But eventually both Lola and George must return home, and the Hoosier boys and girls are all happily re-matched.
Seventeen wasn’t a Broadway hit, despite its having a household name attached to it: Milton Berle, then such a king of the airwaves that he was known as “Mr. Television.” Unfortunately, Berle wasn’t in the cast, but was instead the show’s lead producer.
One wonders if Berle plugged the show incessantly, occasionally or – my guess — not at all during the musical’s June 21-Nov. 24 run. In those days, conflict-of interest was taken more seriously, and marketing was far less sophisticated. Thus, Seventeen had to be satisfied with 182 performances.
Its original cast album stayed in print for only 23 months. In Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion! , Seventeen is actually cited as a collector’s item. Buzz, the most enthusiastic about musicals in his circle of friends, sniffs and brags, “I have Seventeen.”
Yes, but if he’d found the hard-to-get original 1951 LP, it was probably a second-hand copy with a number of nicks, scratches and skips. If he’d waited for the LP reissue in 1976, he had to endure the revised frou-frou artwork that humiliatingly adorned the cover.
Now here’s Buzz’s chance — and yours — to get the original logo and superior sound. In other words, you could get “I Could Get Married Today” today.
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.