A thread on Facebook’s All Things Broadway recently asked for The Best Reprise of a Musical Theater Song.
Easy: “Staying Young” from the 1959 musical Take Me Along.
Two years before that, Bob Merrill showed us his score for New Girl in Town, a musicalization of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 Pulitzer Prize- winner Anna Christie. Adapting that most serious play would seem to be an impossibility in a time when there were few unsmiling musicals, and yet Merrill found a way for the show to sing and sing very well.
So wouldn’t he do even better in adapting a comedy, even if it were by the same Eugene O’Neill?
Indeed, Ah, Wilderness! provided Merrill with the opportunity to write an even better score when detailing the good, bad but never quite ugly events that Nat Miller’s family experienced on Independence Day, 1906 in their small Connecticut town.
Newspaper owner-publisher-editor Miller is the type of father we all wished we’d had, for when David Macomber, his biggest advertiser, complains that his daughter Muriel is being corrupted by Nat’s son Richard, Nat tells him off, even if it means losing his business.
So what that Richard shared a play by Dumas and a poem by Omar Khayyam with Muriel? Let Macomber view them with the same distrust and disgust as the female River Citians regard Chaucer, Rabelais and Balzac. Nat knows better.
Before you can have a reprise, you must of course have the song itself. So “Staying Young,” as essayed by Walter Pidgeon (in his Best Musical Actor Tony-nominated performance), establishes Nat’s frustration with his advertiser in a long verse that’s a minor-league soliloquy from Carousel.
Nat’s philosophy: “As they say in Christian Science, ‘Rise above it!’” He won’t be upset by “a miserable son of a –.”
He interrupts himself. It’s 1906, after all, and people didn’t say such things back them, even to themselves.
Nat’s bottom line? “My son Richard doesn’t know the score yet,” he says. “I’ll bet Richard doesn’t even know what girls are for yet.”
Then Nat ruminates on his own situation: “I’m glad I’m not getting old like that. And wind up losing my hold like that.”
Macomber, he insists, “is over the hill lookin’ back — and his hindsight’s all out of whack.”
Now we get to Merrill’s beautiful melody with equally lovely lyrics:
The moon has a few new wrinkles.
It shines a bit more silver now than gold.
I’m staying young! I’m staying young!
But ev’ryone around me’s growin’ old.
Nat goes on to maintain “My story’s in the tellin’, not the told!” while asserting “Evr’ything surrounding me has grown so old.”
That’s Pidgeon’s first-act aria. In the second comes the spectacular reprise:
The house has the creaks and trembles
And winter leaves her shiverin’ from cold.
I’m staying young! I’m staying young!
It’s wonderful the way I hold my own
When evr’ything surroundin’ me has grown so old.
In a way, what comes next is not a reprise, for we get a melody that wasn’t in the earlier song. But it’s well worth hearing:
My wife! She’s gettin’ old.
I watch her when she walks
And I feel a little ache.
It really is amazing the changes time can make.
She asks me every day
“Is my hair getting gray?”
And I look — but just a bit beyond
And I say “Huh! Not gray, dear —
What a nice way of telling us that he still loves her.
Now Merrill gives us yet another new melody – a tango, which suggests passion and fire:
I seek not for praise
But I have some days
When I look so young and sporty
I get looks from girls
From sweet things in curls
Some of them as young as forty!
(Even at the tender age of fifteen, when I first heard this song as a neophyte Broadway observer, I knew the word “forty” was coming after hearing “sporty.” Still, the joke is too good to lose.)
When I meet some friend or neighbor,
I say it out of common decency
I always say
“Why, you ain’t changed a day!”
And then I have to laugh if they agree
‘Cause everybody else is growing old –
And then he pauses and gives out a little sigh before admitting:
How wonderful! So many times throughout Broadway history, reprises were employed simply to remind audiences that the song they’d heard in Act One was worth hearing again. Often the lyrics were simply repeated, for one goal was to establish the melody. Another was to make theatergoers like the song so much that they’d immediately leave the theater, head out to a store and buy its sheet music and/or a pop recording. Most reprises, in fact, were of songs that were earmarked to step out of the show and have a life in nightclubs, concerts and as single records.
Not here. We’ve been told that the best show songs take you to a different place by song’s end than you were at the beginning. But how often does that happen in reprises? Merrill has Nat Miller change from a man in denial about his age to a man who acknowledges it. This doesn’t negate what he essentially said earlier – that he’s young at heart – but we can’t deny that whatever youthful beliefs we keep in our heads suffer from what happens to our bodies below.
By the way, in that All Things Broadway poll, I was the only person out of 273 who cited this reprise. Ones from Rent, Wicked, Hamilton and other current hits ruled the thread. So be it. But I’m intent on remembering this old one while, to paraphrase Nat, everything around me is growing young.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.