IT’S THE WRONG SONG IN THE WRONG PLACE By Peter Filichia
The songs I’m about to cite here are all musical theater songs that I dearly love.
Out of context, that is.
However, whenever I look at the shows for which they were written, I always think that they’ve been put in the wrong places.
This again occurred to me last month when I played the original cast album of Damn Yankees to celebrate the sixty-second anniversary of its Broadway opening. If I may modestly cast my three electoral votes on the score, I’d say there are two songs in a row – terrific ones, mind you – that should be in different slots.
Yeah, the show won one Tony as Best Musical and six others, too, so how injurious could these so-called misplacements be? But as Buddy Fidler says in City of Angels, “Nothing was ever hurt by being improved.”
The first is the show’s big hit song “(You Gotta Have) Heart.” Bookwriters Douglass Wallop and George Abbott decided in conjunction with songwriters Richard Adler and Jerry Ross that Manager Benny Van Buren should sing this pepper-upper to his woeful Washington Senators after they’ve lost yet another baseball game.
The song does have lyrics in the great tradition of optimistic ideas: put on a happy face, good times are here to stay, you’ll never walk alone, keep talkin’ happy talk, climb ev’ry mountain, ford ev’ry stream, follow every rainbow till you find your dream: you’ve got to have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?
But given that Joe Hardy will soon arrive and will change the Senators from zeroes to heroes, he should sing the song after he helps them win a game or two – not Van Buren, who’s a secondary character. Far more often than not, the show’s most important characters get the most important songs.
What’s more, if “Heart” and Joe’s sunny outlook changed the ballplayers’ minds by song’s end, the action would have moved forward – always an asset in musical theater. For the last sixty-two years, “Heart” has pretty much ended in the same emotional place where it had started. The excellence of the song itself has been what’s sold it.
Next comes “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo” – or, as the ballplayers like to call it, “a little hoedown in honor of our new star.” Fine – but all that Joe has done thus far is impress during batting practice. He hasn’t even been up at bat once in an actual game, but the guys are already deeming him a star.
The St. Louis Browns once had a promising pitcher who could strike out the best of them – until he got in front of a crowd; he then became so self-conscious with thousands of people watching him that he couldn’t get anyone out. This was also the subject of Arthur Miller’s first play, The Man Who Had All the Luck.
So the Senators are premature in celebrating their new “star.” “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo” belongs later in the show after Joe has definitely proved himself in game after game after game.
Bye Bye Birdie’s “Put on a Happy Face” was put in an odd place. Albert Peterson sings it to cheer-up a Sweet Apple teen — not even second female lead Kim McAfee but, as the program calls her, “Sad Girl.” All of Albert’s efforts are for naught until he accidently bumps into a wall; that makes “Sad Girl” laugh. She’s never again brought into the show, so why bring her into it in the first place?
Wouldn’t the song be better served in the show’s first scene, after Rosie has complained to Albert that he should have been “An English Teacher” instead of being a music business bum? He could try to calm her by telling her to “Put on a Happy Face.” It would tell us a little more about Albert’s character, too, as a guy who’s deflecting confrontation as well as marriage. What’s more, having a really good song at the start of a show bolsters an audience’s confidence that this could be a truly fine musical.
The title song of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown makes for a spirited opening number. But Charles Schulz’s Charlie is constantly mocked and found wanting in so many ways, so why does the musical start out with the Peanuts telling him he’s a good man?
As the show continues, we’ll see Charlie’s failures in “The Kite” and “T.E.A.M. (The Baseball Game).” He’ll be criticized by “Dr. Lucy” and his intelligence will be dismissed in “Little-Known Facts.”
Under these circumstances, the opening number should be called — to use one of Schulz’s favorite words — “You’re a Blockhead, Charlie Brown.” It would have to be done in a slower tempo and perhaps even in a minor key. Only at show’s end should we hear that the kids now believe “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
“Wait,” you’re saying, “but the show ends so nicely with that heartwarming song ‘Happiness.’” Indeed it does — and it still should.
However, wouldn’t “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” serve as nice curtain-call music?
Parade has Mary Phagan murdered at the end of the fourth scene.
Leo Frank is arrested in the fifth and another suspect is interrogated in the sixth. Then scene seven begins with reporter Britt Craig singing “Big News.” Yes, indeed, Phagan’s murder and Frank’s arrest will be big news in Atlanta for years to come – but that’s not what Craig is saying when he croons “Big news! Another week goes by in Atlanta! Another fascinating, scintillating, stimulating, spirit-stirring week.” He’s being sarcastic, for he believes that nothing of interest ever happens in this then-sleepy Georgia city. But an audience may understandably think when Craig starts the song with the words “Big news!” that he is indeed referring to the murder.
“Big News” would have been better positioned after the opening scene: The Confederate Memorial Day Parade, which, because it uneventfully happens each year, isn’t particularly newsworthy.
Again – they’re all terrific songs. May they live forever. And if all my suggestions sound somewhere between unnecessary and artificial to you, keep this in mind: Company, when it began its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, had “Another Hundred People” in the second act. Similarly, when Fiddler on the Roof debuted in Detroit, “Anatevka” began Act Two instead of finishing it.
And then there’s “My Cup Runneth Over” from I Do! I Do! Originally it was positioned around the halfway point of Act One, when Agnes and Michael are still a couple in their twenties. At that age, they wouldn’t have the perception “In only a moment, we both will be old,” for young people tend to believe that youth will last forever; only when women and men reach middle age do they start noticing that time goes by ever-so-quickly.
In fact, decades after the 1966 Broadway premiere, bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones moved “My Cup Runneth Over” to the second act, when Michael and Agnes are in middle age. That’s where you’ll hear it now if you see I Do! I Do!
So just as it’s “Never Too Late for Love” – a song in Fanny that is in the right place — it’s never too late to rethink where a song should go in a musical.
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.