Did you know that May 19 is National Devil’s Food Cake Day?
I did, thanks to someone I met at a party some years ago. I never learned his name, but ran into him as be simultaneously rushed to the table that offered almost as much chocolate as Willy Wonka’s factory.
He lunged for the item that had been placed dead-center as he cooed “Devil’s food cake! You know how it got its name?”
I shrugged. If a fact hasn’t been mentioned in a Broadway musical, I don’t know it.
“Because it has chocolate that’s not as sweet as other kinds of chocolate cake,” he said as he carved out an obscenely large forkful. “And the funny thing is that I was born on May 19: National Devil’s Food Cake Day. That explains why I’m not as sweet as most people.”
He smiled, popped the chunk into his mouth, and walked away.
Well, now that we’ve reached May 19 – and National Devil’s Food Cake Day – be apprised that each slice of said cake contains an estimated 290 calories. So perhaps instead you should give the devil his due in a non-caloric way: by listening to songs that deal with The Prince of Darkness.
His first appearance in history was commemorated in THE APPLE TREE, where he tries to convince Eve to taste “Forbidden Fruit.” In Sheldon Harnick’s marvelous lyric, Snake urges her to take “Just an apple a day” (without adding the severe ramifications that it “will keep Eden away.”)
Stephen Schwartz also musicalized Snake in his 1991 musical CHILDREN OF EDEN. Here the devil encourages Eve to be “In Pursuit of Excellence.” As he sings with a shrug, “It’s no sin to be scintillating.”
If you have the CD of the show’s original London cast album – and it works – congratulations! Most of them don’t through some sort of defect that happened during manufacturing. Never fear: the two-disc version of the 1997 Paper Mill Playhouse production is available (and more complete, anyway).
In both shows, if we wanted to get anachronistic about it, Eve could sing a song from ALL SHOOK UP: (“You’re the) Devil in Disguise.” Three other terrific musical theater songs have the word “devil” in their titles, but they couldn’t be more unlike each other. “Old Devil Moon” (FINIAN’S RAINBOW) is quintessential easy listening; Biff McGuire does it proud on the highly recommended 1960 revival cast album. “Never Be-Devil the Devil” (THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD) came about when lyricist E.Y. Harburg decided to write a musical version of LYSISTRATA to existing Jacques Offenbach melodies. This song could be described as an up-tempo madrigal. “The Devil You Know” is Norm Lewis’ cautionary advice to the Hilton Sisters about leaving the SIDE SHOW and trying vaudeville.
Vaudeville immediately makes Rose in GYPSY come to mind. Maybe her devilish nature was predestined. Have you ever noticed that the word “vaudeville,” which Rose was so intent on conquering, actually contains the word “devil”?
Two of the best Roses have been Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury. The 1959 original cast album does demonstrate what has to be The Greatest Performance to Ever Lose a Tony – for Merman succumbed to Mary Martin’s Maria von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Second time was the charm, though, as Lansbury picked up the prize. Comparing both recordings with Great Stars is great fun.
Mr. Applegate never quite says he’s The Devil in DAMN YANKEES, but there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that he is. Who else could feel so simpatico with Nero, Napoleon and Jack the Ripper, as he reveals in “Those Were the Good Old Days”? It’s a great eleven o’clock number, and without this Adler and Ross winner, Ray Walston probably wouldn’t have won the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical.
Nice, too, that Walston can also be heard on the soundtrack. Then again, the film employed virtually everyone from the original cast. That includes Tony-winners Gwen Verdon and Russ Brown, who respectively delivered the show’s biggest hits: “Whatever Lola Wants” and “(You Gotta Have) Heart.”
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman gave us plenty of ASSASSINS, but their characters may be more deranged than devilish – certainly when compared to Mordred in CAMELOT. He never officially disagrees that there are seven deadly sins, but he does instead sing about “The Seven Deadly Virtues”: “It’s not the earth the meek inherit; it’s the dirt.”
Which HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSIENSS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING character has more devil in him: J. Pierrepont Finch, our ostensible hero, or Bud Frump, his nemesis? It may well be a tie, but the 1995 revival cast album allows us to see the sinister side of Frump in a reprise of “Been a Long Day” that is sadly missing from the 1961 original cast album. It’s great fun.
That same season delivered far more of a devil in I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE’s Harry Bogen. Even his mother turns against him in the very powerful “Eat a Little Something.” A lesser writer would have given her a song called “You’re No Good,” which would have been, in songwriting parlance, “on the nose” – meaning too obvious. Harold Rome was too talented for that, and put his message between the lines.
Does this mean that Ervin Drake erred when writing “You’re No Good” for WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? No – because Laurette Harrington, after making that charge to Sammy Glick, adds “And it does my black heart good to see you’re just like me.” They’re two devils who reside in – where else? – Hollywood.
Shall we include Miss Hannigan in ANNIE? No, because “Little Girls” reminds us that running an orphanage is a tough job. The writers apparently came to this conclusion after their first run at Goodspeed, for not until then did they write this song. If there’s anyone in ANNIE who’s devilish, it’s the knife-wielding Rooster.
Although Berger, a hippie leader in HAIR, begins the tremendously catchy “Goin’ Down” with the lyrics “Me and Lucifer; Lucifer and Me,” he’s not a bad guy; call him irresponsible, call him unreliable, throw in undependable, too – but devilish he ain’t.
Mr. Pinchley is in LITTLE ME – but he proves that being devilish is not necessarily a lifetime sentence. Belle Poitrine reforms him in one of musical theater’s best showstoppers: “Deep Down Inside.” In IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S SUPERMAN, The Man of Steel of course faces devilish villains. Lex Luthor? Mr. Mxyzpltk? Bizarro? No: Max Mencken and Abner Sedgwick. (The creators couldn’t get the rights to those other guys.)
And then there was Henry VIII, that devilish monarch who married almost as many times as Alan Jay Lerner. May 19th isn’t only National Devil’s Food Cake Day; it’s the date that Henry chose in 1536 for the beheading of Wife Number Two Anne Boleyn. This event is treated rather light-heartedly in “Flash! Bang! Wallop!” – the second-act showstopper in HALF A SIXPENCE – and more seriously in the 1976 musical REX, which could have never been called HENRY, SWEET HENRY even if that title hadn’t been taken by another musical nine years earlier.
REX reunited bookwriter Sherman Yellen and lyricist Sheldon Harnick from THE ROTHSCHILDS but without their composer Jerry Bock – not that they were unhappy when Richard Rodgers took the job.
Henry appears in the opening song, a waltz that’s right up there in quality with Rodgers’ most famous ones. When you hear “No Song More Pleasing,” you may be convinced of it – well, at least until you hear many of the others on this list.