THANKS TO OUR MUSICAL THEATER TEACHERS By Peter Filichia
So, as I was stuck in utterly unmoving traffic in midtown Manhattan, I kept saying to myself, “Don’t get upset at the United Nations for having these meetings that make taxi meters come up with numbers that are as high as an elephant’s eye.
“After all,” my brain told me, “remember what that UNESCO did.”
That’s the acronym for The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. In 1994, the august body decided that each October 5 would be World Teachers’ Day to “mobilize support for teachers and ensure that their needs are met.” World Teachers’ Day would focus on “appreciating, assessing and improving the educators of the world.”
We who care about musical theater should take time to celebrate our grammar, middle and high school teachers who first brought this marvelous art form to our attention. Most of us had our first roles in school, when we were Randolph in BYE BYE BIRDIE or Winthrop in THE MUSIC MAN.
While we’re at it, let’s celebrate the wonderful teachers we’ve met in musicals, too. The one who’ll come first to most minds is Anna Leonowens in THE KING AND I. We admire her in “Getting to Know You” when she tells her students “By your pupils, you’ll be taught.” Such a frank admission from one so learned made the kids feel good.
It’s such a vital song that you may be surprised to hear that it wasn’t in place for the first leg of the Broadway tryout. Hammerstein had to head to his New Haven hotel room and struggle to come up with the right words; Rodgers, meanwhile, was probably in his room watching a show on that new-fangled TV set. He wasn’t required to go to the piano and work, for the melody was one he’d already written for SOUTH PACIFIC, when Lieutenant Cable believed that he was “Suddenly Lucky” to have met Liat.
What THE KING AND I had from Day One was another song in which Miss Anna did some teaching: “Shall We Dance?” When I saw a Japanese-language production in Tokyo, I was surprised to hear the actress singing the three words “Shall We Dance” in English before returning to Japanese for the rest of the show. They were the only English words in the show. (Don’t ask me why.)
A musical theater teacher not nearly as well-known is Rose Hoffman in WORKING. She was in her sixties when Studs Terkel interviewed her for his collection of oral histories, but she hadn’t yet retired. Yet Rose was having trouble adjusting to the new curriculum – especially such courses as “modeling and clay.” She said her bigger problem, established in Susan Birkenhead’s lyric, was that “Nobody Shows Me How” to adapt. The music was composed by Mary Rodgers, who’s been much in the news lately for her tell-much (if not tell-all) memoir.
At WORKING’s first preview, the audience sat soberly during “Nobody Shows Me How” and felt great sympathy for the teacher. Three days later when I attended again, that audience thought it was a comedy song and laughed heartily all the way through. Listen and see which way it strikes you.
Dr. Pangloss in CANDIDE teaches his students that they live in “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” Hear the way the not-so-good doctor rebuts his pupils’ concerns about marriage and divorce. The spin he puts on them may make your head spin.
Don’t just check out the 1956 cast album to hear this ditty. Get the 1974 recording, for no less than Stephen Sondheim did new lyrics for the song. See what unexpected thing he did for the seven notes that were set to “a brilliant explanation!” in the original
And speaking of Sondheim, in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, when Anne is worried that Desiree will steal her husband, Charlotte, her longtime friend from school, pooh-poohs the young miss’s fears and reminds her that youth will be a dish served cold to the middle-aged Desiree. Charlotte teaches, “Wear your hair down, and a flower, don’t use makeup, dress in white” and eventually reaches my all-time favorite internal Sondheim rhyme when predicting that Desiree will “be hopelessly SHATTERED on SATURD-ay night.”
WONDERFUL TOWN’s Ruth Sherwood didn’t get anywhere trying to teach her date that he’d “made a grammatical error. It’s not ‘to who’ I give my heart, but ‘to whom’” as she pointed out in “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” in WONDERFUL TOWN.
Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC is more successful when she gets the kids to understand the “Do-Re-Mi”s of music. If we get downright historical about it, those von Trapp kids were singing long before Maria came into their lives. “Do-Re-Mi” is so clever that we’ll allow both poetic and lyrical license.
Four recordings of HELLO, DOLLY! give you a choice: Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey and Bette Midler have all taught “Dancing” to Barnaby and Cornelius. It’s a waltz, although Dolly lets it be known that she could give polka and tango lessons as well. What’s surprising is that she doesn’t pull out business cards saying such.
Alas, Dolly lived decades too early and nowhere near the Frankenstein place, so the Narrator in THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW had to teach Brad and Janet “The Time Warp.” In case you’ve forgotten, “It’s just a jump to the left and then a step to the right; put your hands on your hips and pull your knees in tight.” However, those who went repeatedly to the film versions will never forget. (And frankly, imagining those four aforementioned stars teaching “The Time Warp” is one I like to savor.)
In The Rothschilds, paterfamilias Meyer is about to teach his son Nathan, already established as impetuous, about selling wares. “When a shopper says,” Meyer begins his advice, causing Nathan to repeat “When a shopper says” in what seems to be the start of a time-honored convention of a musical round. Not at all. Meyer must interrupt both himself and his son to caution, “Nathan – listen.” The best jokes are the unexpected ones, and Sheldon Harnick gave us one here from the teacher.
THE PROM has Broadway personality Angie teach Indiana schoolgirl Emma to have some “Zazz” – which we can think of as style to the third or fourth power. Not long after she finishes, Juilliard grad Trent gives a lesson to Emma’s school chums on how to “Love Thy Neighbor.” Trent pries open their minds and has them realize that everything they’ve read is not necessarily to be taken literally.
“Show You a Thing or Two” showed us that BAT BOY wasn’t just going to be a silly, campy hoot. Here housewife Meredith Parker wants to make something of the lad, so she’ll spend endless hours teaching the kid. It’s also the scene where we fall in love with Bat Boy himself, because he tries so hard to learn and gets so angry with himself when he misses a question that he feels he should have easily answered. We want to tell Bat Boy that he should be nicer to himself, because he’s actually learning with the speed of, well, a bat out of hell.
Not all teachers in musicals are successful. “Masculinity” in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES has George trying to get Albin to act more butch, all to please his impending in-laws. Actually, if the show took place in New Orleans instead of San Tropez (as it was supposed when Jay Presson Allen, Maury Yeston, Mike Nichols and Tommy Tune were planning to adapt the French film into THE QUEEN OF BASIN STREET), perhaps that Albin (or whatever his name would have been) might have known and rebutted with that song from OH CAPTAIN! – namely “Femininity.”
And not all teachers are admired by their students. In “Nothing,” Diana Morales has nothing good to say about Mr. Karp, who demanded improvisations that seemed ridiculous to her. After you listen to her complaint, try to find a copy of the 1982 revue UPSTAIRS AT O’NEILL’S. A song called “Something” has Mr. Karp give his side of the story. It may make you see the situation quite differently from the way that Diana painted it.
As much fun as listening to cast albums is, if we’re really to observe World Teachers’ Day, we’ll take a good deal of time from listening to honoring our mentors. They fed students at the universities, colleges and conservatories with the knowledge they took with them to stages around the country and the world. Most every day, these authorities improve the theater world, so let’s make World Teachers’ Day more than just an annual event.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements – is now available on Amazon.