While listening to the splendid original cast album of LITTLE ME – in honor of the show’s fifth-eighth anniversary on Nov. 17 – I started thinking about a certain occupation that’s made its mark on Broadway.
That may seem to be a strange thing to take away from LITTLE ME, given that anyone listening to the excellent score by composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh would instead concentrate on the on the many wonderful songs: “I’ve Got Your Number,” sensually delivered by Swen Swenson; “Deep Down Inside,” a showstopper if there ever was one; “Real Live Girl,” a tender waltz that’s so nice, they did it twice. As good as Coleman and Leigh’s previous score for WILDCAT is, LITTLE ME is even better.
But a lyric about a butler once again caught my ear. It comes from the show’s leading lady, one Belle Poitrine, who was more a film personality than actual actress (and certainly not a star). As she dictates her memoirs to amanuensis Patrick Dennis, Neil Simon’s book had a Young Belle Poitrine reveal her adventurous life.
This ingénue parvenu-to-be yearns for sky-high-born Noble Eggleston. However, he’ll only deign to marry her if she attains “wealth, culture and social position” that will get her “On the Other Side of the Tracks.”
That’s another terrific song. Virginia Martin, originating Young Belle, delivered it wistfully at first. Then came a reprise where she wonderfully bulldozed through it as she imagined the triumphant day when she’d “sit and fan on my fat divan while the butler buttles the tea.”
But in the 1984 London revival, Sheila White delivered the lyric in a distinctively different way. Just before she reached the verb “buttles,” she paused a split-second, made her face express confusion and then with a shrug sang the word. What she conveyed was “I guess there’s a word for when a butler brings you tea; maybe it’s ‘buttles.'”
Belle does eventually wind up at an elegant party where a butler’s on hand. Broadway audiences weren’t surprised, for butlers often showed up on stage.
How many? A look at www.ibdb.com tells us that in the first half of the twentieth century, only 1905, 1940, 1941 and 1942 had no credit for “butler.”
The following years of the forties did have at least one butler in a show or two. So did the entire fifties, including the butlers found in such worthy hits as CALL ME MADAM, FANNY, MY FAIR LADY and LI’L ABNER as well as the revue TWO’S COMPANY and FIRST IMPRESSIONS – that much-underrated musicalization of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. It had an actor play a butler in one locale and yet another in a second.
You’d think that one performer would play both, but in those happy times, two actors served. John Starkweather and Norman Fredericks may not have been happy with the little stage time they had, but they had to be grateful that director Abe Burrows deemed that two performers were necessary instead of just one. (Each would only appear in one more Broadway musical and then call it a career.)
There’s a metaphor at work here: many plays and musicals had more elegant locales in those days that required butlers. (Can you say “drawing room comedy”?) As the tumultuous sixties arrived, butlers became scarce. In the entire decade, only one new play, two play revivals and three musicals had butlers. Most were period pieces, including DARLING OF THE DAY, whose eleven o’clock number was the astonishingly witty “Butler in the Abbey,” courtesy of E.Y. (THE WIZARD OF OZ) Harburg. Jule Styne’s felicitous tune certainly complemented it.
What’s the subject of the song? Oh, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Listen to it in what is considered by many to be Styne’s third-best score (after GYPSY and FUNNY GIRL, of course).
You wouldn’t expect that HAIR, the first musical to shake up Broadway with rock, would have a butler, but it did in a manner of speaking. Its producer was Michael Butler.
Around the same time that that he was getting interested in HAIR, another Michael Butler appeared off-Broadway. He’s the idealistic teacher in NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL GOOD MEN, the estimable first score from Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford.
Starting in 1970, the rest of the century mostly saw butlers in revivals. Only two new musicals had “Butler” in their Playbills – for we can’t really count SO LONG, 174TH STREET despite its sporting “The Butler’s Song.”
Marlowe, the character singing it, wasn’t really a butler. He was a theater director who’s been so insensitive to novice actor David Kolowitz that the lad fantasizes that one day he’ll be a star and Marlowe will be his butler.
(“The Butler’s Song” is on the vulgar side and is not recommended; Lord knows, though, it has its fans.)
To be fair, there’s a possibility that many a butler is abounding in contemporary shows but each isn’t listed as “Butler” but has a name.
The name of the butler that even those brand-new to musical theater know appears in ANNIE. For which of us hasn’t heard dozens or even hundreds of times that when Annie awakens, she should ring for Drake who’ll bring her tray?
But that’s about it for the remaining years of the twentieth century. In recent times? It’s so hard to get good help nowadays. We’re already twenty percent through this new century, and no new musical and only one new play – ALL THE WAY – has offered audiences a guy on stage who’s serving food and drink.
Stephen Sondheim has stated that in 1939, a butler delivered the first music that he at nine-years-old ever heard in a theater. It happened at the Alvin where, thirty-one years later, his COMPANY would play, and fifty-two years later, his MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG would as well.
The musical was VERY WARM FOR MAY. Considering that the composer was Jerome Kern and the bookwriter-lyricist-director (and Sondheim’s future mentor) was Oscar Hammerstein, you might assume that “All the Things You Are,” still considered one of the greatest show songs of all time, impressed the tyke.
Actually, the first music to which Sondheim refers occurred when the musical’s butler dusted the on-stage piano keys.
No one’s saying that this is the reason why Sondheim chose “Butler” as one of the twenty-nine occupations in SWEENEY TODD’s “A Little Priest.” But aren’t we glad that he came up with the idea for that song – not only because it’s one of the greatest first-act closers in Broadway musical history but also because it provided much-needed comic relief after Sweeney’s searing “Epiphany.”
Patrick Dennis had a late-in-life epiphany, too. He wasn’t just a character in LITTLE ME; he was the author of the hilarious faux memoir on which the musical was based. The man born Everett Edward Tanner III also had written himself as a character in AUNTIE MAME, the super-successful best-seller that morphed into MAME.
After a while, Dennis’ books weren’t selling as well, so he reinvented himself. “I’m embarking on what is probably the best career that I will ever have,” he told his friends while making them promise that they’d never make his whereabouts known. He created a new pseudonym and sold everything he owned except Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR, Emily Post’s ETIQUETTE and a crossword puzzle dictionary. Among his new employers was Ray Kroc, the man who allegedly stole McDonald’s from the McDonald’s.
And what was Dennis’ occupation during this time? Many will accuse me of outright lying. But here is, as Belle Poitrine sang in her opening number, “the all-revealing truth” of what Dennis became in his later years.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.