A Different Kind of Musical Theater World Tour By Peter Filichia
Thanks to so many of you who wrote to say that you liked my article of two weeks ago.
It urged you, in these arduous times, to stay at home and safely travel by way of your cast albums: Paris through SILK STOCKINGS, England via DARLING OF THE DAY, Greece courtesy of THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD – and points beyond through other musicals.
Well, our unworldly real world state hasn’t much changed. So maybe THIS week’s cast album tour should be to places that are, to quote a much underrated 1950 Cole Porter musical, out of this world.
As the title character of PETER PAN tells Wendy of “Neverland” — his adopted home after he took off from London at a very early age (for which Jule Styne arguably provided his most beautiful melody) — “It’s not on any chart. You must find it with your heart.”
Actually, you can find many such places on cast albums, too. However, here’s hoping that our only knowledge of such a dire place as Urinetown will be from that 2001 musical that deservedly won Tonys for Best Book and Best Score. The same goes for Vulgaria, where some of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG occurs. Just from its name, aren’t we glad that it’s fictional?
The majority of historians and scholars don’t believe that Camelot was real; we musical theater fans don’t care if it was or wasn’t as long as we have the heavenly cast album of CAMELOT.
Even after the Toronto and Boston tryouts and Broadway opening, bookwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner decided that the show was too long. He dropped two songs, but luckily, they’d already been recorded. One – “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” – is so delicious and full of plot you may never understand how Lerner could bear to part with it.
Most historians and scholars also agree that the Illyria that was in the Balkan Peninsula wasn’t the same Illyria that Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote TWELFTH NIGHT; William just liked the name and made it his fictional locale. The creators of YOUR OWN THING – the freewheeling musical version of The Bard’s 1601 hit – set their show in Illyria, too, as the introductory dialogue informs you before the most appealing song “The Flowers.” But when you hear the album, you might well feel as if you’re in New York City in 1968 – at the time when Mayor John Lindsay referred to it as “Fun City.”
(It indeed is in this score.)
What you have in FINIAN’S RAINBOW is a young woman in one mythical place singing about yet another. Sharon McLonergan is now with her daddy Finian in neither Mississippi nor Kentucky, but Missitucky. There she wonders “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” Although Ireland has a Glockamara, that’s close, but no shillelagh.
The title is attributed to lyricist E.Y. Harburg, but his composer-collaborator Burton Lane deserves credit, too. He wrote the melody first and, when playing his new song to Harburg, jokingly sang “There’s a glen in Glocca Morra.” Harburg liked the name of the place and the preposition, but made the rest of the lyric his own.
“Bali Ha’i” is that mystical island of which Bloody Mary sings in SOUTH PACIFIC. It wasn’t the creation of co-librettists Oscar Hammerstein or Joshua Logan; James Michener, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC coined the name. Michener based it on Ambae Island which he saw from afar when he was a Navy lieutenant commander stationed in neighboring Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu – a real country.
(Is it anywhere near SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS’ Bikini Bottom?)
CALL ME MADAM claimed that it was set “in two mythical countries. One is called Lichtenburg, the other is the United States of America.” It’s a cute joke from Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse that inspired Irving Berlin’s Tony-winning score.
The locale that the 1950 hit actually had in mind was Luxembourg, where Perle Mesta was then serving as ambassador after President Truman had named her to the post. Mesta was known as “The Hostess with the Mostes’,” a sobriquet that Berlin used to introduce us to Mrs. Sally Adams, his Mesta stand-in.
I once saw CALL ME MADAM in Luxembourg – well, all right, only in a manner of speaking. Irving Berlin’s home was 17 Beekman Place until his death in 1990, when it was actually sold to – of all countries – Luxembourg, which made the building its embassy. On May 30, 2007, a CALL ME MADAM concert was staged there, which I attended. It’s said when you’re in a country’s embassy, you’re actually in that country; as a result, I count Luxembourg among the fifteen countries in which I’ve seen theater.
Sholom Aleichem invented Anatevka for his TEVYA stories – and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF kept it there. Yet now Anatevka really should be stricken from this list, for six years ago, a town by that very name sprung up in the Ukraine. Although FIDDLER’s Anatevkans were forced to leave, this century’s Anatevkans have mostly moved there to escape Ukraine’s political strife.
Thus one of Tevye’s lines in “Tradition” – “in our little village of Anatevka” – is now not only a reality but also an accurate description. An article about the town describes it as being only as large as “three football fields” – which means 300 yards long and 480 feet wide. May it grow as quickly as San Antonio has in recent years.
We know where we are in LI’L ABNER from the first two lines of the opening number: “It’s a typical day in Dogpatch, U.S.A.” Gene DePaul set Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to a lazy waltz that comment on its citizens’ serene happiness.
But some musicals aren’t specific about their settings, although when we listen, we know we’re not in Kansas anymore. THE WIZ that debuted in 1975 brings us to a very different Merry Old Land of Oz. As for our other fairy tale musicals, INTO THE WOODS only specifies “a far-off kingdom”; CINDERELLA starts in “a forest glen” and ONCE UPON A MATTRESS leaves it as “in and about the castle.” My recommendations for best songs from each show are respectively “He’s the Wiz,” “It Takes Two,” “Gavotte,” which has no words, and “Shy,” which has excellent ones, culminating in a fine piece of wordplay.
Seventy-three years ago, Broadway learned about Lerner and Loewe’s BRIGADOON, a Scottish town that only shows up once in a hundred years. If it reappears in 2047, I hereby bequeath permission to my successors to take it off this list.
And speaking of Lerner and Loewe, in these troubled times, a trip to PAINT YOUR WAGON’S “Rumson’s Creek” is an absolute must. No, it never existed during the mid-nineteenth century California Gold Rush, but it’s an excellent song to play these days.
Why? You’ve been told, haven’t you, to sing “Happy Birthday” when you wash your hands, for the tune lasts twenty seconds. That’s the bare minimum time recommended to do a good cleansing job that’ll keep you safe and sound. But why take any chances? Play “Rumson Creek” while you’re doing your ablutions, for it lasts forty-eight seconds – enough time for you to be sure that you’ve definitely taken yourself out of harm’s way.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.