CHARMED, I’M SURE By Peter Filichia
Only two people ever won a Tony Award for Best Conductor and Musical Director, and he was one of them.
And yet, Lehman Engel, who left us thirty-four years ago next week isn’t most remembered for holding the baton in front of Streisand in Wholesale, Roz Russell in Wonderful Town or Elaine Stritch in Goldilocks. His true legacy was founding The BMI Musical Theatre Workshop where librettists, composers and lyricists could develop new musicals.
Since the early ‘60s, more than a thousand writers have taken advantage of this absolutely free course. Needless to say, not everyone who’s been accepted has made it to Broadway, but the program now fittingly known as The BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop has helped writers create A Chorus Line, Avenue Q, Ragtime and plenty of other hits.
Engel always claimed with pride that he “invented the term ‘charm song.’” Even the staunchest of musical theater enthusiasts didn’t know of such songs until 2001. That’s when A Class Act – a bio-musical of Chorus Line lyricist Edward Kleban – actually made Engel a character and had him tell the on-stage BMI class that a Charm Song is “the Southern belle of musicals; it don’t have to do a lick of work,” he said, purposely being ungrammatical for effect. “It just makes the audience smile.”
As an example, he offered “Put on a Happy Face” from Bye Bye Birdie; a student then added “Standing on the Corner” from The Most Happy Fella. But there are many, many more dotting the Broadway horizon, most of which aren’t nearly as famous as those two. May I offer some Charm Songs that may have escaped your attention?
“Go Visit Your Grandmother” (70, Girls, 70) — Kander and Ebb’s shortest-running musical yielded this delightful tune that urges us all to pay more attention to our grandmothers. And who can argue with that?
“Melt Us” (All American) – This is not a song sung by a coven of Wicked Witches of the West, East, North and South. Instead, it’s delivered by a group of eastern European immigrants who have come to America because they’ve heard that the country is a melting pot of nationalities, races, religions and creeds. They’re ready to be easily assimilated.
“Another Wedding Song” (Closer Than Ever) – Men and women who marry for a second time tend to shy away from gowns, tuxedos, ceremonies and “Here Comes the Bride.” Maltby and Shire, however, wrote a marvelous song that celebrates second marriages. Tell your divorced friends who are getting engaged all about it.
“Bargaining” (Do I Hear a Waltz?) – You’ll only hear this on the original cast album, for the revival dropped the song. Big mistake; Leona isn’t the only one who needs to fall in love with Renato; we must, too. This little mini-instruction on how to shop in Italy does the trick.
“Be Kind to Your Parents” (Fanny) – The title is followed by the line “Though they don’t deserve it.” Plenty of us agreed with that added phrase during our childhoods. However, those same people now more strongly relate to the final line: “Someday you may wake up and find you’re a parent, too.”
“Five Daughters” (First Impressions) – No, it’s not from Fiddler, but from a musical version of Pride and Prejudice, taking place a good eighty years earlier when a mother’s giving birth to a male heir was seen as even more important. Lord knows that Mrs. Bennet gave it her all, but as she reports, “Five tries; five misses.”
“Why Can’t We All Be Nice?” (Goodtime Charley) – Perhaps the Dauphin during Joan of Arc’s time wasn’t the manliest of men, but he certainly shows he was well-educated in this witty piece.
“Who Couldn’t Dance with You?” (Grand Hotel) – Alas, Tommy Tune’s brilliant staging of this number is lost to the ages, but the marvelous Robert Wright and George Forrest song remains with Tony winners Michael Jeter and Jane Krakowski shining throughout.
“The Happy Time” (The Happy Time) – There are very few title songs that are charm songs, too, but here’s one, courtesy of Kander and Ebb. It started the show and set the tone for a lovely little musical (that, alas, was overproduced in what was then Broadway’s biggest theater). Its appealing images range from “roller-skating down the hill” to “the day you found the dollar bill.” Yes, those are happy times.
“Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” (Hazel Flagg) – Most charm songs involve people, but here’s one about the city that’s arguably the greatest in the world. Most New York songs are snazzy and up-tempo, but here’s one that relies on – well, charm.
“When Gemini Meets Capricorn” (I Can Get It for You Wholesale) – Harry and Ruthie have different astrological signs, which does suggest they might not have all that much in common. But for now, we’re charmed by them, even before we reach the B-section in which Harold Rome had them ask “Did the planets plan it?”
“I Love My Wife” (I Do! I Do!) – Michael, courtesy of Tony-winner Robert Preston, gives this soft-shoe tribute to his new bride. (Never mind that four songs later, he and she will be fighting like Al Bundy and Marcy D’Arcy.)
“Little Biscuit (Jamaica) – Sure, it has Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban, which gives it a head start in the charm department. But has there ever been a more charming lyricist than E.Y. Harburg? He doesn’t disappoint here.
“Old Sayin’s” (Juno) – A charm song in which a husband and wife argue? It can’t be done, you say. I maintain that Marc Blitzstein did it. See if you aren’t smiling by song’s end.
“I Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way” (Maggie Flynn) – Imagine going into a seedy bar and asking the lushes there to forego drinking and instead contribute to keep your orphanage afloat. You’d better have a great deal of charm to succeed, and Shirley Jones shows she had it here.
“Tea in the Rain” (Now Is the Time for All Good Men) – Mike Butler is the new English teacher from the big city in this small midwestern town. How sophisticated he seems to music teacher Sarah Larkin, especially because he’s well-traveled. “Does London have a bridge?” she asks. “Does Scotland have a yard?”
“No Song More Pleasing” (Rex) – We’re about to meet Henry VIII, who won’t be nice to his first two wives Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. So how can we possibly like him? By discovering that on the side he’s a songwriter whose minstrel will air his newest composition. Richard Rodgers’ last great waltz got an appropriate title from Sheldon Harnick: “No Song More Pleasing.”
“We Said We Wouldn’t Look Back” (Salad Days) – You’re (almost) never too young to wallow in nostalgia, but Jane and Timothy are recent college grads determined not to do so. You do the looking back for them in this engaging ditty.
“Walking with Peninnah” (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) – Thurber’s Walter is a milquetoast, and musicals are usually about big characters. How to solve the problem? Earl Shuman and Leon Carr made us care about Walter by making us see what a good father he was to his daughter. (But couldn’t they have picked a less eccentric name for her?)
“But Yours” (Take Me Along) – Here’s one of those rare eleven o’clock numbers that is quiet and sentimental. Sid (no less than Jackie Gleason) and Lily do love each other, but have very different values. For one brief shining song, they wind up in sync.
“Look Who’s Dancing” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) – Well, you’ll be hard-pressed not to dance along with Shirley Booth and Company when you hear this – here’s the best word for it – charmer.
And by the way, A Class Act, in addition to “Charm Song,” sports at least four other charm songs by my count. But I won’t be surprised if you can find more in this very charming musical.
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.