Time for a Holiday
We’re about to begin the one month of the year that doesn’t have a big holiday.
But at least August contains days that have been chosen as commemoratives. One such is Sisters’ Day, which might be celebrated by more sisters if they knew that it existed.
Certainly Judy Turner (from A Chorus Line) should be told about Sisters’ Day. As we learned in “Hello, Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello, Love,” she viewed her sister as “A little brat! And that’s why I shaved her head! I’m glad I shaved her head!”
Well! Every first Sunday in August is Sisters Day, Judy, so take the opportunity this August 4 to reconcile with your sibling. She may have already forgiven you, for her hair has undoubtedly grown back. But just in case she hasn’t, try to apologize once more.
Judy might be able to make amends, but Velma Kelly cannot. Alas, by the time we meet her in Chicago, sister Veronica and Velma’s husband have already gone to their final reward — or punishment. Now Velma’s being punished, too, not only with incarceration, but also with the remnants of a sister act that needs a partner. “I Can’t Do It Alone,” Velma mourns. (Actually, although Chita Rivera plays well with others – Gwen Verdon, Dick Van Dyke, Liza Minnelli et al. – she can do anything alone, and always does it in splendid fashion.)
Some sisters are alike (The Simpson Sisters in Redhead) while others are not (The Hubbard Sisters in Regina). We never get a sense if the Boylan Sisters (in Annie) love or hate each other. But we could infer that their singing “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile” with such elan would suggest that they all get along.
No sisters could of course be as close as the Hiltons, the conjoined twins whose musical Side Show offers many dynamic songs. But Wildcat Jackson – the title character of the 1960 musical – feels almost as close to her younger sister. Listen to “That’s What I Want for Janie,” an introspective ballad sensitively delivered by – surprise! – Lucille Ball. To be sure, we expect Ball to be up to the slam-bang Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh numbers (such as the title song, “Give a Little Whistle” and of course “Hey, Look Me Over”). But in this plaintive song, she proves that she can be tender, too.
The two sisters bond pretty well in Gypsy, despite their differences. June is a dynamic little talent, even if she isn’t quite, as her mother insists, “the biggest little headline in vaudeville.” Louise is more demure and seemingly talent-impaired, although she’ll have the better future once she becomes Gypsy Rose Lee. Both girls do see eye-to-eye on one matter, as they dream “If Momma Was Married.” (The mother in question, one Rose Hovick, has no such illusion.)
In 1957, Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley respectively portrayed sisters named Portia and Joy. By the time that Pat Carroll and Barbara Ruick recreated these roles in 1965, the sisters had been renamed Prunella and Esmerelda. Then in 1987, Kay McClelland and Lauren Mitchell played the same sisters with very different names in a very different show.
The sisters in question, of course, are the ones who gave their step-sister Cinderella much grief. Oscar Hammerstein was the first to name them in the TV musical he wrote with Richard Rodgers. Eight years later, with Hammerstein gone, Joseph Shrank got the job of adapting the script for a color broadcast, and changed the names of the ladies who made Cinderella’s life miserable. Each pair got to sing the delightfully witty “Stepsisters Lament,” in which we see how genuinely clueless they are about their lack of appeal.
Chances are, however, today most people think of Cinderella’s stepsisters as Florinda and Lucinda – the names Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine gave them in Into the Woods. Before Act One ends, they’ll have a much harder time of it than Portia, Joy, Prunella or Esmerelda ever did.
We know that two fans of Washington Senator superstar Joe Hardy (in Damn Yankees) are siblings – because Doris always calls the woman by her side “Sister.” The not-much-remembered Elizabeth Howell played the former, but the still-fondly-remembered Jean Stapleton – the future Edith Bunker – played the latter. You can hear both in the reprise of the show’s most enduring hit “(You gotta have) Heart.”
Prudie and Rhetta Cupp (in Pump Boys and Dinettes) run their Double Cupp Diner on Highway 57 in Smyrna, Georgia. While they “need a vacation like nobody’s business,” they’re happy to serve the public as long as they get, as they sing, “Tips.” Although most of their songs are up-tempo and gregarious, they do have an introspective one simply called “Sisters” near show’s end. Each admits that despite growing up and sharing a bedroom, “I never knew you.” They’ll now try to rectify that.
In Now Is the Time for All Good Men, sisters Sarah and Eugenie Seldin often wish that they’d never known each other. Eugenie still believes that Sarah stole her true love from her, although we come to see that the man made his choice. Now Mike, a young schoolteacher, has arrived in their town of Bloomdale, Indiana, and Eugenie is angry that Mike seems to be paying more attention to Sarah. She sings “Stuck-Up,” a hilarious rant that accuses him of being aloof. Actually, why shouldn’t Mike prefer Sarah? She’s utterly charming in her naïvete, when she talks about seeing the world: “Is England really merry? Is Paris really gay?” leads to the enchanting “Does Scotland really have a yard?”
Of course, we need not relegate our August 4 listening to fictional sisters. We can enjoy The Pointer Sisters in their 1996 recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’. Not many touring companies get their own original cast albums, but The Pointers’ gig from sea to shining sea was so well received that it warranted one.
And then there were The Andrews Sisters. In the 1974 musical Over Here! they played the de Paul Sisters, ‘40s maidens who were trying to get ahead in show business. Granted, the show didn’t star all three Andrews who had sold over ninety million records and had seen forty-six Top Ten Hits, for Laverne had died in 1967. Nevertheless, Patty and Maxene could still claim to be “The Andrews Sisters” and did.
These two siblings sang songs written by two other siblings: The Sherman Brothers of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks fame. But the Shermans’ songs for Over Here! have neither their usual sticky-sweetness (“Valentine Candy”) nor their ridiculous sounding made-up words (“gratifaction”). Here the Shermans, with help from Patty’s husband Walter Weschler, created the right “Big Band Sound.” Indeed, had all three Andrews recorded some of these songs in their heyday, they might have sold many more millions and had more Top Ten Hits.
As soon as I mention that at least three musicals deal with five sisters, you’re thinking Fiddler on the Roof. We learn a good deal about Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava through “Matchmaker,” in which the three ruminate on the husbands that Yente will assign to each. (It is 1905 Russia, after all.) The song is optimistic fun until the girls realize that they may not get the men of their dreams and that “playing with matches a girl can get burned.”
If your local watering hole offers a trivia contest, you might stump the customers by asking “What are the names of Tevye and Golde’s two youngest daughters?” Few will answer “Bielke and Shprintze!” – especially if you’re in a sports bar.
Another musical with five sisters had them live a century earlier in faraway England – but they had the same concern and hoped that they’d marry men they loved. These were the Bennet Sisters in First Impressions, the 1959 musical version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. “Five Daughters,” moans Mrs. Bennet (and was there anyone who could moan as well as Hermione Gingold?). Those were days when male heirs were preferred. “Five tries,” Mrs. Bennet recounts. “Five misses.”
We get to know Kitty, Lydia, Jane and Mary Bennet about as well as we become acquainted with Bielke and Shprintze. No question that Robert Goldman, Glenn Paxton and George Weiss were more interested in Elizabeth, whom they had sing in eight songs. “I’m Me” sets the tone for the rest.
Can you remember what other musical has five sisters? Nope, Little Women only has four. Give up? The Sound of Music, of course. Yes, the number seven first comes to mind when we think of The Trapp Family Singers, but 71% of them are sisters. Without them, we wouldn’t have heard do, re, mi, sol or ti.
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.