“You’re the one who chose Alan Alda’s entrance music, aren’t you?”
So said many people to me after I’d hosted The 69th Annual Theatre World Awards on June 3. Whenever a presenter or awardee sauntered onto the Music Box stage, our expert pianist/musical director Jason DeBord would play a song that was associated with the artist. So for Meg Bussert, who played opposite Dick Van Dyke in The Music Man, he played “Till There Was You.” For Lea Salonga, he gave us a bit of Miss Saigon’s “The Last Night of the World.”
Thus, the selection for Alda would have to be from one of his two Broadway musicals: Café Crown in 1964 or The Apple Tree in 1966. Given that the former opened on a Friday, closed on a Saturday and was never recorded, it would seem the less likely of the two. (Do you know a song from Café Crown? Can’t say I do.)
So it had to be The Apple Tree, which Alda did for the first five months of the year-plus run. What would be the most likely song of the six he sang in this trio of one-act musicals?
“Beautiful, Beautiful World” would seem to be first choice. It had been recorded by The New Christy Minstrels just before the show’s Boston tryout and wound up getting a bit of airplay.
It’s a terrific song, in which Adam – the first man on earth and thus didn’t need a surname – sings about all the lovely things he’s experiencing: “World, thank you very much for all I see, hear, taste and touch — plus every whiff I sniff.”
Is Sheldon Harnick a great lyricist or what? Look how few words he needed to get in all five senses – and with two rhymes to boot. His longtime collaborator (but, alas, not longtime enough) Jerry Bock provided him with a spritely, life-affirming melody as well.
But that isn’t the song that DeBord chose. Did he instead prefer one from the show’s second act – Frank R. Stockton’s famous story “The Lady or the Tiger?”
Or is the story still famous? Lord knows that Baby Boomers always encountered it in one of their English class anthologies. I suspect it’s dropped off in popularity, so I’ll condense it for those who don’t know it.
Medieval king puts accused criminals in an arena. Behind one door is a lady; behind the other is a tiger. King is convinced that an innocent man will, through divine intervention, choose the “right” door – the lady, whom the absolved man will then marry. King also believes that a guilty man will select the “wrong” door and be devoured by a tiger that hadn’t eaten in some time.
Funny; the supposition here is that all criminals are men. Or is the implication that the King, despite his barbaric system of justice, is for marriage equality?
Complications ensue when King’s daughter falls in love with a mere commoner. The monarch won’t have it, and will put the lad in the arena. The daughter doesn’t want her lover killed, so she surreptitiously discovers who’ll be behind each door.
And yet … she’s jealous enough to think that he’d be “better dead than wed” to someone else. So at the end of the story, when we’re told to which door she points, Stockton wrote “And so I leave it with all of you: which came out of the opened door — the lady, or the tiger?”
That’s where the curtain came down on The Apple Tree’s Act Two. Frankly, given that the insouciant Mike Nichols was directing, I’m surprised that he didn’t suggest – or insist – to Bock and Harnick that the tiger roar out of the chosen door. After that, the princess (Barbara Harris) would look out at us as if to say “Are you kidding? Of course that’s the one I’d pick!” while slapping her hands against the other as if to rid them of what they had once held. It would have been a nice surprise ending for those who knew the story’s ambiguous ending.
Back to Alda. As the maybe-doomed, maybe-spared lover, he had two consecutive duets with Harris: “Forbidden Love” segued into “In Gaul,” in which he suggested they take up residence. “They tell me it’s divided in three parts,” he sang, in a joke that referenced Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic War.
Nope. DeBord didn’t choose either one of those.
So did he dip into Act Three? “Passionella” gave Alda one solo: “You Are Not Real,” in which he played Flip, a wrath-of-God rocker who made known his penchant for “dirty fingernails … and scraggily hair and slovenly clothes and an air of despair.” Bock provided a rock-waltz that sounded as if it were a cut on Bob Dylan’s next album, and Eddie Sauter perfectly orchestrated it.
Nope again. What DeBord chose – after finding it on MOG – was “It’s a Fish,” from The Apple Tree’s first act, “The Diary of Adam and Eve.” Not only is “It’s a Fish” an inspired song, but it’s also an excellent example of dramatic irony: when the audience knows something that the character doesn’t.
Adam starts out by stating, “I just got back from a hunting trip up north and found that Eve caught some new kind of animal.”
Then he sings, “Now I could swear that it’s a fish though it resembles us in every way but size.”
(That’s our first clue.)
“She gives it milk and every night she picks it up and pats and pets it when it cries.”
(Figuring it out?)
“I always knew she pitied fish, but it’s ridiculous to make them household pets. She says ‘It’s not a fish.’ I say ‘It is a fish ‘cause it surrounds itself with water almost every chance it gets.’”
Good, you got it. Here’s the world’s first baby, and Adam –and Eve, for that matter — are well within their rights to be confused by it. (A bit later, Eve will sing one of Bock’s most beautiful melodies, a lullaby that is so lovely that it can even withstand Harnick’s smart opening line and title: “Go to sleep, whatever you are.”)
Lest anyone be slow on the uptake and not yet glean that Adam is inadvertently talking about a baby, Harnick leaves little room for doubt in the next lines: “It’s not a fish. Fish never scream. And this one does, though on occasion it says ‘Goo.’”
“Goo!” The quintessential baby word! Now even the slowest of theatergoers has caught on.
Adam hasn’t. He’s still mightily confused, and gives reasons why he’s changed his opinion from fish to kangaroo to bear. But Harnick, as is the case with all great lyricists, knows to save his best joke for last.
“I’ve searched the woods, I baited traps, but yet I couldn’t find its sister or its brother. And though I’ve hunted far and wide while Eve has hardly stepped outside, I’ll be damned if she didn’t catch another!”
And so, in a song that lasts a mere one minute and forty-six seconds, Harnick has covered at least ten months of action and the births of both Cain and Abel. Many musical theater songs are supposed to move the action forward, but this one does it with (to quote another great lyricist – Alan Jay Lerner – from a more successful show) the speed of summer lightning.
As DeBord played “It’s a Fish” as Alda approached the stage of the Music Box, I looked at his face to spot a glimmer of recognition. Can’t say that I saw it. Given that we’re talking about a role he hasn’t played in more than forty-six years, Alda might not remember this gem. But, oh, I certainly do and always will.