As events would have it, I heard Sammy Davis, Jr.’s recording of “The Candy Man” long before I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Listen here.
I enjoyed the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse song along with much of America. Despite the music industry’s rock orientation, the easy-listenin’ ditty became a number-one hit. It also got Davis his only Grammy nomination as Pop Artist of the Year.
But I never did purchase the Willy Wonka soundtrack – I’m far more taken with Broadway’s musicals than Hollywood’s – so when I finally did catch up with the iconic 1971 cult film, I was stunned to see that “The Candy Man” was sung by a mere candy-seller.
The song itself got the film off to a brisk start, but considering that Willy Wonka was The Candy Man, I fully expected he’d be singing it.
That’s been rectified in the newest iteration of Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although bookwriter David Greig, composer Marc Shaiman and lyricists Shaiman and Scott Wittman didn’t have Willy sing the song when their musical opened in London four years ago, now on Broadway, two-time Tony winner Christian Borle’s Willy starts the show with the hit that’s as delicious as a Wonka Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight bar.
“The camera loves her” is often said of models that are especially photogenic. In the world of recordings, the microphone loves certain performers. Here’s one: Christian Borle, whose voice seems made for an original Broadway cast album.
British fans of the film had to settle for only one song from the film: “Pure Imagination,” in which Willy Wonka encourages kids to Be All That They Can Be. The original Broadway cast recording of the family-friendly hit offers that, “The Candy Man,” and two others from the movie: “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” which establishes bragging rights for having found one of the five prizes offered by Wonka and “The Oompa Loompa Song,” that introduces us to the beings who make the chocolate (which means we all are in their debt).
Both albums, of course, carry with them a passel of new songs by Shaiman and Wittman – the collaborators whose Hairspray wound up on the list of the top twenty longest-running Broadway musicals.
The Broadway set retains many but not all of the songs that they wrote for the West End edition. Perhaps the most important new-to-Broadway song is “A Letter from Charlie Bucket,” in which the kid establishes that he wants to win, not for himself, but so that his mother and grandparents can have easier lives.
One of the new songs goes to Violet, who would not be welcomed in any best little establishment run by Miss Mona, who has unequivocally stated, “I can’t stand no chewing gum; it looks just like a cow.” Shaiman or Wittman’s witty idea for the London production – “The Double Bubble Duchess” – has been replaced with the slightly more subtle “The Queen of Pop.” It’s Violet’s explanation on why she’ll be now and forever blowing bubbles.
The holdovers from London pass muster, too. One of the best ways to get an audience to hate a character is to have him be cruel to animals. Shaiman or Wittman accomplishes this admirably when the corpulent Augustus Gloop sings, “We raise piggies in the backyard – then I eat them limb from limb.” (“Piggies” has a far more endearing and vulnerable connotation than “pigs.”) Augustus’ carnivorousness also purposely and wittily plays against the title of the song: “More of Him to Love.”
If you like a good example of a song of denial, here’s Mr. Salt’s “When Veruca Says,” in which he minimizes the effects of giving everything his “adorable” daughter wants. Veruca won’t win Willy’s competition, but she has the title of Miss Spoiled Rotten all sewn up.
The show is now packing them into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre faster than Augustus can shove candy into his Cinerama-sized mouth. Charlie is what’s known in the trade as “a birthday show” – meaning that tickets are sold in quantities of four rather than two, for Mom, Dad, Sis and Bro all go to a show to celebrate one kid’s birthday.
Many times, parents sit at such shows uninvolved, all the while thinking, “If I didn’t have a kid, I’d never be here.” Here, they may be delightfully surprised to find so many sly aimed-at-adult references: Margaret Mead, Jimmy Hoffa, blood pressure and entre nous are among them.
(If you plan to explain them to your child, do it while listening to the album at home and not while sitting in the theater.)
Some may pose this question: “Considering that Broadway now has nine other musicals that have been adapted from movies – ones that have retained the precise titles of the films – why didn’t this show follow suit as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?
Good question. Rumor has it – and it’s nothing more than a rumor – that the reason the picture was released as Willy and not Charlie is that when the Vietnam War was raging, “Charlie” was a pejorative for the Viet Cong. Did the powers-that-be state that any association should be avoided?
The cast includes John Rubinstein, who made his impressive Broadway debut in 1972 in Pippin by singing how much he wanted to find his “Corner of the Sky.” Now that he plays Charlie’s Grandpa Joe in Charlie, he’s literally found it – for Rubinstein starts the show on a platform right up in the corner of the stage as close to the sky as the Lunt-Fontanne’s ceiling will let him be.
Those who opt for a CD rather than a download get a bonus track: “When Willie Met Oompa” as originally conceived and sung by Borle on a demo.
Know the term? “Demo” is short for “demonstration record” – meaning one that shows what the song is capable of. Think of it as a musical prototype or a trial balloon. That’s why piano and percussion are all you hear on this track. Musical creators know there’s no sense in fully orchestrating a song until everyone’s at least somewhat certain that it’ll pass muster.
My favorite lyric involves a move that seals the deal: “And we shook with a chocolate shake.” Maybe that’s the best part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You can get your candy-bar fix without the intake of a single calorie.
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.