MY COLORING BOOK by Peter Filichia
You’ve heard of The Secret Garden, of course, but have you encountered Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book?
No, it has nothing to do with the 1991 hit by Marsha Norman, who won a Tony® for her book as well as a nomination that she shared with Lucy Simon, who put music to her lyrics. Instead, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book is indeed a coloring book – for adults, mind you, to take away the cares and stress of everyday life, which provides plenty of both.
In the twenty-eight months that it’s been available, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book has sold over two million copies. Its success led to a semi-sequel entitled Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Coloring Book, which did almost as well. For a while, Amazon listed them in first and second place in its roster of best-selling books.
Do you have them? Do you color with crayons as white as milk, red as blood, yellow as corn, and as gold as a certain slipper? And if you do, is The Secret Garden playing in the background while you’re coloring in Secret Garden?
All this coloring-book talk reminded me of a song that begins “For those who fancy coloring books (as certain people do), here’s a new one for you.” They’re the opening lines of “My Coloring Book,” John Kander and Fred Ebb’s first hit song that came four years before “Cabaret” and fourteen before “New York, New York.”
“My Coloring Book” doesn’t come from one of K&E’s fourteen Broadway shows — although it eventually made it to the stage courtesy of the 1991 off-Broadway hit And the World Goes ‘Round: The Songs of Kander and Ebb. There, as you can hear on the show’s original cast album, it was sung by Brenda Pressley.
But the team wrote it almost thirty years earlier when Kander and Ebb were in the infancy of a collaboration that would last until the latter’s death in 2004. Back in 1962, the team befriended Kaye Ballard, who was then appearing on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. Como is pretty much forgotten now, but there was a time when he was a Major Player on the entertainment scene, as his (not one, not two, but) three stars on The Hollywood Walk of Fame attest: one each for radio, television and music (no fewer than thirteen gold records between 1945 and 1958).
So weren’t K&E happy when Ballard got the Como brass to allow her to sing on air “Sara Lee,” the team’s ode to a pastry company. It went over so well that Ballard asked them for more special material.
Ebb had an idea about a coloring book that he thought would be hilarious, but composers don’t often enjoy writing music to funny lyrics. After all, so many of them involve quarter-notes or even eighth-notes, which result in a less-than-glorious melody. So Kander told his new collaborator that because they’d been mostly writing comedy songs, now perhaps the time had come to write a ballad – often the favorite genre for music men.
Ebb acquiesced and came up with another idea that Kander put to a waltz: a woman has lost her beau and tells the listener, “Begin to color me. These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away; color them gray. This is the heart that thought he would always be true; color it blue.”
The song doesn’t simply use color imagery: “These are the arms that held him … color them empty … this is the room I sleep in, walk in and weep in … color it lonely … this is the man, the one I depended upon; color him gone.”
Ballard loved the ballad and wanted to sing it on the Como show, but told K&E that she doubted that producer Nick Vanoff (who twenty-seven years later would co-produce City of Angels on Broadway) would let her. She was the show’s resident comedienne, as female comics were called in those days; Sandy Stewart (who was married to Peter Pan co-composer Mark “Moose” Charlap) was the Como regular who got the “serious” songs.
And Stewart did indeed sing it on the show. Watching her that night was one Barbra Streisand, who loved the song so much that she insisted on recording it. She did, but Stewart got there first and made the song a Top Twenty hit.
(All right, so it peaked at only Number Twenty during its five weeks on the Top Forty. But that still makes it a Top Twenty hit.)
Streisand’s single, backed with a jazzy version of The New Moon’s “Lover, Come Back to Me,” didn’t do as well. Once she re-recorded it for The Second Barbra Streisand Album, however, she did wind up outselling Stewart, for the album went gold after hitting Number Two on the charts. But Stewart’s recording was the one submitted to the Grammy Awards®, which got it and her a 1962 “Song of the Year” nomination. Even Kate Smith, who’s equally forgotten now – and made a policy of not singing new songs – liked “My Coloring Book” so much that she made an exception and did it at Carnegie Hall.
K&E still wanted to give Ballard a ballad, however, and wrote “Maybe This Time” for her. Vanoff had parted ways with Como by then, so Ballard got to sing it on the show. Later Liza Minnelli recorded it.
“Yeah, I know,” you’re saying. “I know Liza did it, because I’ve seen the Cabaret movie a million times.” Well, yes, but Minnelli actually recorded it in 1964 for her first solo album and re-recorded it in 1970 on her sixth solo album. (You can also hear it done by Brenda Pressley on And the World Goes ‘Round.)
So perhaps this current coloring book mania will start a renaissance for “My Coloring Book.” Given that coloring is said to relax a body, program Pressley’s rendition on “Repeat” the next time you take to your book, Crayolas, Prismacolor pencils or gel pens.
It’ll certainly be substantially more relaxing than a a colorful song that goes “Red red red red red red orange red red orange pick up blue pick up red pick up orange from the blue-green blue-green blue-green circle on the violet diagonal di-ag-ag-ag-ag-ag-o-nal-nal yellow comma yellow comma numnum num numnumnum numnum num blue blue blue blue blue still sitting red that perfume blue all night blue-green.”
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.