When A Lyric Picks Up A New Relevance
By Peter Filichia
Every now and then, a lyric written long ago assumes a new and suddenly relevant meaning.
That happened with the 1962 TV-special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. It contained a hellishly clever parody of The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews played Mrs. Pratt, a happy-go-lucky Maria von Trapp stand-in who supervised a troupe of twenty children. Little did Andrews know that in three years she’d be playing the actual Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lindsay and Crouse version of Maria von Trapp in the musical’s film version – or that it would become the role most associated with her.
When Anyone Can Whistle debuted in 1964, no one reacted when one of the corrupt officials of Cora’s administration was revealed to be named Magruder. But starting in late 1972, giggles greeted the name at productions of Sondheim’s cult hit. By then, Jeb Stuart Magruder, a Richard M. Nixon aide, was very much in the news as one of the less-honest executives in Nixon’s Watergate-tainted administration.
We now have a new one to add to the mix.
It comes from the off-Broadway revue When Pigs Fly, also known as Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly in honor of the theatrical wizard who created it.
Crabtree (1954-1996) was first and foremost a costume designer and a brilliant one at that. When I attended his 1993 hit, Howard Crabtree’s Whoop-De-Doo, I roared with laughter after he came on stage as a Native American with a papoose strapped to his back. What made the costume unique was that the father’s face was a plaster mask; when Crabtree turned around, we saw that the face of the “baby” was actually Crabtree’s, poking through a hole above the plaster body of the child.
Alas, Crabtree died only forty-seven days before When Pigs Flyopened and thus missed its entire two-year run. But he’d been smart enough to hire composer Dick Gallagher and lyricist Mark Waldrop to write the score for his show.
Their crowning glory was the first-act closer, “A Patriotic Finale.” It’s one of those songs that has an obfuscating title — like “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” which should really be called “Tits and Ass.” In fact, it originally was until Michael Bennett and the creators realized that they were giving the song’s big joke away. So they chose a title that didn’t tip off the audience.
Gallagher and Waldrop did the same. In truth, their song should be called “You Need ‘Us’ to Make the U.S.A.” It’s a song that stresses that, no matter if anyone likes it or not, gays are part of America and help this country to be great.
Lest they be too soapbox-y, the songwriters get both literal and fanciful to make their point. As the opening lines go:
“You can’t take the ‘Color’ out of Colorado.
You can’t take the ‘Mary’ out of Mary-Land.
As John Philip Sousa said, ‘I can’t march
If I can’t hear the boys in the band.’”
(The last lyric is a clear reference to Mart Crowley’s 1968 ground-breaking hit off-Broadway show, which was a vital spur to the gay liberation movement.) “You can’t take the ‘sissi’ out of Mississippi.
He’s there and he’s going to stay.
And so — Q.E.D. — it’s as plain as A-B-C,
You need US to make the U.S.A.”
How deliciously clever – and not just because of finding gay synonyms within the names of states (“Don’t subtract the ten percent from Tennessee”) No, to gild the very pretty lily, “U” and “S” are two-thirds of the letters needed to make “U.S.A.”
I’ve often talked of how I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the creation of many musicals. Oh, to have seen Jerome Robbins lackadaisically walk backward on a stage while no one in the cast told him he was about to fall in the orchestra pit — because everyone wanted him to. Ah, to have seen Carolyn Leigh, so furious with producer-director Cy Feuer during the tryout ofLittle Me, run into the street to get a policeman to have Feuer arrested.
And as Waldrop searched through book after book, almanac after almanac, looking for information on states on which he could riff, I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall and heard his joy when he learned Utah’s nickname. How long did it take for him to write “Utah could never be ‘The Beehive State’ if the hairdressers went absentee?”
“Who will never be passé in Old El Paso?
Who will always know what’s new in New Orleans?
Chicago with no ‘Chic’ would be boring in a week
And you can’t have New York City without Queens.” When I ran into Waldrop some weeks after seeing When Pigs Fly, the compliment I paid him on this song resulted in his giving me a compliment. After I told him how much I loved the line “And who’ll always keep Santa fey?” he said, “The people who mention that one to me first and foremost are always the brightest people.”
Oh, and what’s the line that recently picked up a new relevance? It occurs after the entire company sings:
“Think of Provincetown, Key West or San Francisco.
Without us, they’d be a lot more like Fort Wayne.”
When Waldrop wrote that line, he had no idea that almost twenty years later, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana would sign into law a piece of legislation that would impact the state’s 138 cities and hundreds of towns — including Fort Wayne.
If the gays did decide to move from where they’re clearly not wanted, the city also known as “The Magnet Wire Capital of the World” would be a far duller and less bright place. It would literally and metaphorically poorer than even Mark Waldrop had envisioned it.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday atwww.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming bookThe Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order atwww.amazon.com.