By Peter Filichia —
Two points before we get to the meat of the matter:
Point One: Legendary Columbia cast album producer Goddard Lieberson hated spoken introductions to songs. He believed that people would enjoy them once, but not with repeated playings. He often omitted dialogue in the middle of songs, too, which was really unfortunate in two cases: cutting the lovely patter between Ella and Jeff in “Just in Time” on the Bells Are Ringing cast album and between Arthur and his bride-to-be in the title song of Camelot.
And yet, Lieberson DID include introductory dialogue just before Conrad Birdie sang “Honestly Sincere” in Bye Bye Birdie. Ursula Merkle drooled to the golden idol, “Speak to us, oh beautiful one; tell us how you make that glorious sound that even now, in anticipation of it, has reduced me to a snarling, raging, panting, jungle beast.”
I daresay Lieberson added that line so that his mature listeners of “Columbia Masterworks” records would be able to put in context the first rock ‘n’ roll song on any cast album and understand that they were about to hear a spoof.
Point Two: In the theater, when a comedy song unleashes a joke, there’s often a pause or few bars of instrumental music so that the audience can laugh and not miss the next line. Case in point: At the Shubert Theatre where Here’s Love played in 1963-1964, Kris Kringle in the title song gave love to “Elizabeth Taylor to husbands in review” because the actress seemed to be getting married and remarried with great regularity. The orchestra provided two bars to cover the laugh, but Lieberson didn’t keep them on the cast album. He probably figured that a listener, even if he laughed and missed the next line, could make up for it on repeated hearings.
And that, dear readers, brings us to The Apple Tree.
Do you know it? The musical was Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s penultimate Broadway musical, produced in 1966. Out of the then-six New York daily papers, three raved and two liked it.
The show was composed of three one-act musicals. As producer Stuart Ostrow said, “So many musicals had second-act trouble that I thought if we just did one-act musicals, we’d eliminate that problem.”
The second act of this show was the musical version of that grammar school perennial The Lady or the Tiger? Remember Frank R. Stockton’s short story? A king in an ancient kingdom has a primitive system of justice. Every criminal is brought into an arena where he faces two doors. Behind one is a lady. Behind the other is a tiger.
The king feels that divine intervention will ensure that an innocent man will pick the door that leads to the lady, whom the accused would then marry; a guilty one would choose the door that shields the tiger, which hadn’t been fed in days. There’s no possible way to describe what the tiger would feel when he’s gawking at his meal, but I’ll try: he devoured him in two seconds flat.
Then the king’s daughter fell in love with a mere soldier. While Stockton didn’t name them, Bock and Harnick took the liberty of calling him Sanjar and her Barbara (pronounced Barr-BARE-uh, to stress her native barbarism).
Sanjar (Alan Alda) and Barbara (Barbara Harris) both knew that His Majesty would never approve him, so they discussed leaving the kingdom and heading somewhere else. He recommended that they take up residence in Gaul: “They tell me it’s divided in three parts,” he sang, in a joke that meant much more when kids took Latin in school.
A bit later he warbled, “In Gaul, we’ll have a garden on the outskirts of town and a house painted brown.”
Now if you listen to this song – the 12th on the recording – you’ll hear the orchestra stop for a long second. Nothing happens. It’s as if Sanjar had just sung something funny. But what’s funny about having a garden and a brown house?
To fully understand the “joke,” we must return to the first act and first story, adapted from Mark Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve, which dealt with you-know-who.
After God had thrust the pair into the real world, Adam (Alda) held a grudge against Eve (Harris). So he built a little wooden hut and went inside to be alone – and made clear that he did not want to be disturbed. He had no pity on Eve, although rain was falling heavily on her.
Then he noticed that Eve was “raining,” too. She corrected him: “I’m crying.”
Well, what man isn’t moved by a woman’s tears? He reluctantly invited her in, and once she sat down and looked around at the walls, she asked, “Adam … why did you pick brown?”
And the audience roared. At least as of 1966, women were famous for calling the shots in a house and felt that they had eminent domain over decorating.
Have you put it together? So after Sanjar sang “and a house painted brown,” Barbara turned out front and said to us, “Why brown?” And how the audience loved remembering the first reference.
For the record, the joke semi-appeared in the third musical of the night: Passionella, a Cinderella spoof by Jules Feiffer. Here Ella (Harris) was a chimneysweep who wanted to be a “beautiful, glamorous, radiant, ravishing movie star.” Her Fairy Godmother showed up and allowed her her dream – but only during prime-time hours when filming would have to take place. After The Late, Late Show, the newly minted Passionella – with a bosom that could hold up a shelf of the world great books – would return to dull, drab Ella.
But, oh, those heavenly nighttime hours! She (and her bosom) even captured the attention of Flip (Alda). Think Marlon Brando as the biker in The Wild Ones . He sang a Bob Dylan-esque song, damning her because “You Are Not Real.” So she decided to play more down-to-earth roles, which made her film during daytime-TV hours when she needed no make-up.
The final scene had Passionella and Flip on a couch doing what is still called, after all these years, making out. Then The Late, Late Show ended, and Passionella turned into plain ol’ Ella – but Flip turned into the nerdiest of nerds, too. Apparently he had the same Fairy Godmother.
He asked her name, and she said Ella; she asked his, and he said “George L. Brown.” She said, “Oh, I love brown!” and the audience cooed in approval.
By the way, when the show tried out in Boston, there was a lyric in “You Are Not Real” that got cut, and I’m still wondering why. (I’ve asked Sheldon Harnick about it, and he has no recollection of even writing it.)
Flip mentioned that he went to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. “I saw hand prints and foot prints and other prints, too,” he sang, before revealing, “Then I saw two deep holes and I knew it was you.”
Even without those lines, The Apple Tree has plenty of tasty treats in it. Do drop into Eden – and beyond!