By Peter Filichia —
With the Tony Awards® and Once fresh in our minds, let’s at least once talk about a Tony-winner that isn’t always fresh in our minds: Hallelujah, Baby!
It opened on April 25, 1967 and only ran 293 performances at the Martin Beck (now the Hirschfeld). Back then, April 15 was the cutoff for the Tonys, so even though Hallelujah, Baby! was officially part of the 1966-67 season (where all the record books have always put it), it wasn’t eligible for Tonys until the 1967-68 season. Had it competed in 1966-1967, it most assuredly would have lost to Cabaret.
“You always win for the wrong one,” said Jule Styne, who composed Hallelujah, Baby! — and such Tony-losers as Gypsy and Funny Girl. Styne didn’t just mean that this was solely true of Broadway; he said the same thing about Hollywood. He won a 1954 Oscar for “Three Coins in the Fountain,” and spent the rest of his life fully admitting the superiority of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man That Got Away” – and felt that he’d got away with something.
Hallelujah, Baby! is one of the comparatively few Tony-winning musicals that has never been revived on Broadway. It’s never had a mounting at Encores! And yet, a case can be made that it’s Jule Styne’s third-best score after Gypsy and Funny Girl. Some smart Betty Comden and Adolph Green lyrics, too, make it well worth investigating.
Bookwriter Arthur Laurents created an original story which examined how blacks, though oppressed, pressed forward. Although the musical would go from 1900 to 1967, its gimmick would be that its characters always stayed the same age. When we meet Georgina (Leslie Uggams), she’s a black maid with a jack-of-all-trades boyfriend Clem (Robert Hooks) and a white admirer named Harvey (Allen Case). They’re all in their twenties. Of course, Georgina’s mother (Lillian Hayman, who’s simply called Momma) is somewhat older, but she never sees fifty.
Alas, Laurents’ device of having the characters not age turned them into archetypes and prevented us from becoming emotionally involved with them. The fact that Harvey was a kinder and gentler white was a problem, too. Harvey in the show was always on Georgina’s side, mostly because he was attracted to her. That their love could never be was too clichéd and convenient. (Actually, by 1967, it could have been, but Laurents didn’t dare go that far.)
Georgina made her way into show business, which made sense, for that was the one legitimate way that black women could succeed back then. But even in the ‘30s, Georgina, while performing in a WPA show, made two white female friends who championed her rights all night long. True, entertainers tend to be more liberal than others. But if the show were to be about racism, like it or not, we had to see racist characters. Aside from a quick scene where two bigots objected to Georgina’s performing on a Southern stage, there weren’t any. The creators apparently didn’t want to place the blame on white men for black oppression, but, frankly, that’s the place to put it. Was racial bias too bitter a pill for the collaborators to dispense, or one that they feared would be too hard for us to swallow? Whatever the case, by not coming to grips with it, they didn’t create much of a musical.
By the way, Georgina’s WPA friends were named Mary and Ethel. Knowing Comden and Green, they didn’t call them that in tribute to Mary Schwartz and Ethel Hotchkiss, who were Ella Peterson’s buddies in their Bells Are Ringing. They undoubtedly had Marys Pickford and Martin as well as Ethels Merman and Barrymore in mind.
One 1967 concept has since changed in a way that the authors didn’t anticipate. Georgina and her white girl friend Mary joked that maybe they should do a sister act — all so we could laugh at the absurd thought of two people from different races trying to pass as sisters. But little more than 20 years later, black Terry Burrell was playing sister to white Lauren Mitchell in Into the Woods. The world did change and improve in the way that Hallelujah, Baby! wanted it to.
Whatever the problems of Laurents’ book, oh, that score! After a marvelous Jule Styne overture (is there any other kind?), Georgina sang how she wanted “My Own Morning” – “where every hour is golden; no one to whom I’m beholden.” And while a turn of the century maid wouldn’t put a preposition in front of a pronoun, the sentiment makes sense. What’s more, while the melody may be lilting, it also suggests yearning and the promise of contentment that would follow if Georgina were to have her own home and own life – ideally with Clem.
In “The Slice,” Clem has both good news and bad news. The good news is that he won big in a poker game. The bad news is that he was playing with whites who later showed him they were members of the Ku Klux Klan and that they’d best take his money from him. One might question why Clem is so happy at his “glory” that the melody approaches a cakewalk, but Styne did his work well.
One of the great pleasures of Hallelujah, Baby! is that Styne’s work, enhanced by brilliant orchestrations by Peter Matz, nicely takes us through the ages. “Feet Do Your Stuff” captures the ‘20s Cotton Club music. “Witches Brew,” that WPA show that was an updated Macbeth, used ‘30s harmonies. The bluesy feeling that entered pop music in the ‘40s can be heard in “Talking to Yourself,” in which Georgia, Clem and Harvey feel they’re doing just that. In the pre-rock ‘50s, Georgina sings the musical’s title song, and it sounds variety-show right. So does the breezy Nelson Riddle-ish orchestration for Harvey’s lament, “Not Mine.”
Granted, Styne, Comden and Green didn’t address the late ‘60s the way the Beatles, Byrds or even James Brown did. But Comden and Green’s lyrics in “Now’s the Time” did express what had to be felt. Laurents did have Clem became a black militant, albeit a more peaceful one than members of the Black Panthers.
Musical theater tune detectives are quick to note that the melody for “Witches Brew” was actually recycled from a song in Fade Out-Fade In, Styne, Comden and Green’s previous show. They never told Laurents, who, when he learned about it, was furious. (But wasn’t he always?) Still, you’ll find each hour is golden when you listen repeatedly to Hallelujah, Baby! That includes “Being Good,” Georgina’s passionate aria in which she knows that a black woman must be at least twice as accomplished as a white woman to get about half of what she gets.
And we haven’t even mentioned Momma’s show-stopper “I Don’t Know Where She Got It.” In it, Momma refers to Georgina’s considerable talent while claiming that “She sure didn’t get it from me.” Lillian Hayman shows us that indeed she did.
You’ll get two Tony-winning performances here, too. Uggams and Hayman both won for their performances. It was the first time ever that black performers won in both the lead and featured categories in the same year.
Truth to tell, Uggams didn’t win the Tony outright; she tied with Patricia Routledge for Darling of the Day – a performance and score also well worth hearing.
The composer for Routledge’s show? Jule Styne, too. He was an inveterate horse better. What odds would he have given himself back when the Tonys began that someday he’d provide the music for two Tony-winners in the same category in the same year? Hallelujah to all three of them.