Another Look at ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS By Peter Filichia
Some songs inspire us: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” “(You Gotta Have) Heart.”
Some make us feel optimistic: “Good Times Are Here to Stay.” “Happy Talk.”
But how many songs actually help an individual while he’s working?
And yet, Ken Bloom says that a song from the 1966 TV special Alice Through the Looking Glass actually made his job much easier.
Bloom is noted for co-authoring Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. Now he’s the sole author of the forthcoming Show and Tell, an Oxford University Press book that dispenses theatrical anecdotes. But in the late sixties, he was working in various Washington, DC theaters as an usher.
“That meant taking people down the aisle where the rows went from Z to A. Well, Alice through the Looking Glass has a song called ‘The Backwards Alphabet’ that goes from Z to A, too. So as I escorted people down the aisle, I’d sing the song to myself. It really made me more efficient in getting people to the right rows a little bit faster.”
Yes, long before Sesame Street’s writers more famously musicalized a backwards alphabet, lyricist Elsie Simmons and composer Mark “Moose” Charlap wrote such a song as an amiable soft-shoe. Bloom heard it on the soundtrack album of Alice Through the Looking Glass, which has been re-released by Masterworks Broadway in honor of the 50th anniversary of the show’s November 6, 1966 debut.
The song was sung by Tweedledum and Tweedledee, those corpulent characters whose names were not invented by Carroll for his 1865 masterpiece Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Surprised? The names themselves were actually coined in the seventeenth century and soon became an idiom for two people you can’t easily tell apart.
Let’s clear up another misconception: Tweedledum and Tweedledee weren’t even characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. No, Carroll didn’t introduce them until 1871 — six years later after the first book — in Through the Looking Glass, which has Alice walk through a mirror instead of falling down a rabbit hole. (Tweedledum and Tweedledee’s appearance in Walt Disney’s 1951 animated film version of Alice in Wonderland is probably most responsible for people believing that they were in the earlier work.)
In the TV special they were played by The Smothers Brothers, namely Tom and Dick, who would harry CBS executives in a mere three months’ time. Their ever-so-controversial The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on February 5, 1967 and would take great issue with the politics and policies of the day, especially involving the Vietnam War. It was eventually canceled for its candor. But they’re on their best behavior here (if indeed the incorrigible Tom could ever have been said to be on his best behavior).
You might think that Tweedledum and Tweedledee would get the song “There Are Two Sides to Everything,” but that went to Robert Coote and Agnes Moorehead as The Red King and Queen as well as Ricardo Montalban and Nanette Fabray as The White King and Queen. The message of the song can best be encapsulated by one Simmons lyric: “Take a cat. It’s a pet around the house. But that cat is a monster to a mouse.”
Unlike Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Fabray insists in song “I Wasn’t Meant to be a Queen.” But Through the Looking Glass, if nothing else, celebrates a topsy-turvy world. “Keep on the Grass” has Lester the Jester (a new character invented by bookwriter Albert Simmons) urging Alice to pick flowers and feed the animals in the zoo. Is it a coincidence that this break-the-rules song aired right around the time when the sixties turned tumultuous?
Alice turns out to be the courageous one when facing the dreaded Jabberwock, for she urges the others to “Come out, Come out, Wherever You Are.” And how menacing was this beastPut it this way: Jack Palance played him, and if twenty-seven years later he was still able to do one-armed push-ups (as he demonstrated at the 1993 Oscars), he must have been that much more of a terror in 1966.
Every musical needs a beautiful ballad, but Charlap and Simmons gave Alice two. “Some Summer Day” is The White King’s soothing message to Alice, nicely delivered by Montalban in his best Corinthian-leather voice. Later showing a splendid voice is Judi Rolin, whose Alice asks many a visitor whom she encounters “Who Are You?”
And just who was this newcomer Rolin? The actress — who turned twenty on the precise night that the show aired — had a great 1966. In addition to Alice, that year saw her on The Tonight Show, The Bell Telephone Hour as well as The Dean Martin Show, on which she appeared five times.
Rolin’s next few years in show business were less notable; one film followed in 1972, and that would be pretty much it if one were to believe ibdb.com, which has nothing on her. But Wayne Bryan, now the producing artistic director of Music Theatre Wichita, well remembers Ms. Rolin from her stint as his castmate in the 1975 Broadway revue Rodgers & Hart.
“She replaced Tovah Feldshuh mid-way into our run,” says Bryan. “Judi had a stratospherically high upper register, so they added a solo version of ‘My Funny Valentine’ which ended on one of her very highest notes.”
How Rolin got the role won’t go down as one of the great triumphs of theatrical history. “Because the show was not doing well when Tovah departed,” says Bryan, “there wasn’t a lot of money in the budget for replacement costumes — even though pretty much all clothes were bought off the rack. One of the great advantages of hiring Judi was that she was exactly the same size as Tovah right down to her shoes.”
(You’ll hear that she fits Alice’s shoes very well, too.)
One of the delights of the album comes during the penultimate number, the oddly titled (it is Carroll, after all) “‘Twas Brillig.” Unfamiliar with the term? “Brillig” is “four o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.” So says the Jabberwock in the story, and so sings Jimmy Durante in his delightful gargled-with-razor-blades voice.
Instead of an eleven o’clock number we have a ten o’clock number (well, the 90-minute show started at 7:30 p.m.). Both Queens vie for Alice’s attention in “Alice Is Coming to Tea.”
Moorehead may not have the most mellifluous voice, but the song would have received far less justice if the performer originally signed for The Red Queen had stayed with it: Bette Davis. Legend has it that the illustrious star saw Fabray roller-skating around the set, felt she couldn’t compete and bowed out.
We’re glad that the writers didn’t. While everyone from late-night talk show pioneer Steve Allen to controversial composer Frank Wildhorn has musicalized Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, far fewer have attempted Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. You’ll find this recording most worthwhile – even if you aren’t an usher.
Preorder this new MWB vault release on Amazon here.
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.