I Swear, There Were Some Changes
By Peter Filichia —
Last week, we talked about the Robert Merrill-Patrice Munsel recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel that was made in 1955 – when the world wasn’t as frank a place as it has become.
As a result, in “Soliloquy” where Billy Bigelow comes to terms with being a father, Merrill first sings that no “bully’ll boss” his son around, and later repeats the words. Ah, but what Oscar Hammerstein II wrote for that second mention was that no “bastard’ll boss him or toss him around.”
Moments later in the soliloquy, Merrill sings that Young Bill won’t marry “a skinny-lipped woman” although Hammerstein actually called her “a skinny-lipped virgin.” And later, when Billy realizes that he may have fathered a daughter instead of a son, Merrill utters “What the heck!” and not the “What the hell!” that Hammerstein wrote.
Well, the Eisenhower era was known as a repressive one. But how can one explain the recording made ten years later of the 1965 Carousel revival? The Swingin’ Sixties had already started, but John Raitt, recreating the role he had initiated twenty years earlier, sings “bully” and “woman,” too. Indeed, he won’t even venture a “heck,” but simply interrupts himself after “What the — .”
Actually, if Billy is to be censored, this excision makes much more sense. Billy’s using the oh-so-mild “heck” seems thoroughly uncharacteristic of him. What’s perplexing is that in “The Highest Judge of All,” Billy sings “I feel like I’m entitled to a hell of a show” on both recordings.
The 1994 revival cast album has Michael Hayden’s Billy restore Hammerstein’s original lyrics, for he sings “bastard,” “virgin” and “hell.” Certainly, you’re saying, by the ‘90s, that would have had to have happened. The irony is that way back in 1945, John Raitt, in his first go-round with the role, sang “bastard,” “virgin” and “hell” on the original cast album.
So why the blue pencil in 1955 and 1965? My guess (and it’s nothing more than that) is that in 1945, adults were exclusively buying original cast albums, and they could take such salty language. By 1955, however, Rodgers and Hammerstein had already become a brand name representing “family fare.” (Think of how many of their shows feature children.) Besides, the 1965 production of Carousel was a “Music Theater of Lincoln Center” production at so-called “popular prices” aimed to bring in the families. Rodgers was in charge of the operation, so perhaps he didn’t want angry letters from outraged parents pouring into his office (or, worse, the parents themselves).
Conversely, the first Man of La Mancha recording was more demure than two that followed. The 1965 original cast album censored the song “Aldonza” in two separate instances. First, “Of all the cruel bastards” became “Of all the cruel devils.” Then the last section of the song was radically changed: “So please torture me now with your sweet ‘Dulcineas’ no more. I am me! I am no one! I’m only Aldonza the whore” was changed to “So don’t reach out to me with your sweet ‘Dulcineas’ you call. I am only Aldonza! I’m no one! I’m nothing at all!”
Much more awkward, don’t you think? Happily, both the 1996 studio cast album on which Julia Migenes sang the role and the 2002 revival cast album with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio restored the original lyrics.
“Son of a bitch” has an interesting cast album history. Columbia Records cast album guru Goddard Lieberson excised the last word of the phrase” from “Ooh, My Feet,” the opening song of The Most Happy Fella in 1956. He had Susan Johnson stop in her tracks and let the orchestra blare out a note in place of the offending word. But, time heals all censorship. Liz Larsen sang the entire phrase on the 1992 revival recording.
Says Broadway observer Sam Kerr Lockhart, “I maintain the censorship actually improves the line, because Susan Johnson sings, ‘But the big son-of-a-(hissing intake of air from pain, probably from touching that toe) hurts the most.’ The omission of the offensive word combined with the sound of pain makes for a better laugh because the audience gets to make an inference rather than hearing the blunt word itself. Four letter words can be laugh-killers because they are like mud-covered dogs at the tea party. If I were directing or music-directing the show, I would try that lyric the censored way first.”
In 1962, Lieberson took the phrase out of Elliott Gould’s first song in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. The actual lyric in “The Way Things Are” is “Never let your heart start bleeding, or your conscience itch. You’ll know that you’re succeeding when you’re called a son of a bitch.” In this case, Lieberson didn’t have the orchestra do the censoring; he instead apparently asked composer-lyricist Harold Rome to come up with a substitute line. The recording sported “Never let your heart start bleeding or your conscience reel. You’ll know that you’re succeeding when you’re called all kinds of a heel.”
Lieberson wasn’t the only producer who feared the phrase. When E.O. Welker at RCA Victor was readying the 1957 cast album of New Girl in Town, he didn’t have Gwen Verdon complain about “those vicious sons of bitches on the farm” as she did on-stage, but instead had composer-lyricist Bob Merrill rewrite to reflect on her “lecherous, treacherous cousins.”
At least all these instances didn’t distort the song’s meaning. But Lieberson’s predecessor, Columbia Records producer Mitchell Ayers, did when he censored a lyric in Finian’s Rainbow in 1947. In “Something Sort of Grandish,” Ayers had Ella Logan sing of the “swellish condish” she was in. Not until the 1960 revival cast album, produced by Bob Bollard for RCA Victor, did we find that lyricist E.Y. Harburg thought that she was in a “hellish condish.” No, there’s a difference between a condition that’s “swellish” and “hellish” – and a profound one at that.
Lieberson didn’t want to take the Lord’s name in vain, either. On the famous original cast album of My Fair Lady, the chorus behind Alfred P. Doolittle sang “Be sure and get him to the church on time!” instead of the on-stage lyric, “For God’s sake, get him to the church on time.” (That, however, is on the 1976 revival cast album.)
And speaking of the Supreme Being: Lieberson ensured that on the 1949 original cast album of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that He would not be mentioned during “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Only on stage at the Ziegfeld Theatre did Carol Channing sing, “Some men buy, and some just sigh that to make you their bride they intend. But buyers or sighers, they’re such goddamned liars.” On the recording, no new lyrics were written; Lieberson simply omitted this section of the song.
There’s a curious history between the original cast album of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and the word “Goddamn.” In the song “Love from a Heart of Gold,” company president J.B. Biggley proclaims that he’s sentimental, to which his kept honey Hedy La Rue agrees, “Damn it, so am I.” But on stage, she actually says “Goddammit, so am I.”
All right, we can all understand the excision – but what’s odd is that in “Paris Original” – the song in which all the female office workers show up in the same dress – secretary Smitty exclaims “Goddammit” when she discovers that her dress is not unique. Why one “Goddammit” and not two? Perhaps album producers George Avakian and Joe Linhart felt that the public might accept one, but two might be perceived as crossing the line. Or perhaps one of them wanted two “Goddammits” while the other producer wanted none, and they compromised.
Of course, it we want to get into Hollywood’s bowdlerizing lyrics in movie versions of Broadway musicals, that’s an entirely different issue. The one that most makes me smile involves The Pajama Game. On the original cast album, Babe insists to her co-workers that “I’m Not At All in Love” with Sid. She looks at the women and remarks, “All you gotta do is be polite to him, and they’ve got you spending the night with him.”
But in the film, the lyric was changed to “All you gotta do, it seems, is work for him and they’ve got you goin’ berserk for him.” That doesn’t quite pass muster, because Babe doesn’t see herself as someone who’s working for Sid. And yet, after she and Sid have indeed fallen in love, in “There Once Was a Man,” she claims she loves him “more than a dope fiend loves his dope.”
Ah, I see: you may talk about drugs, but, oh, don’t you dare allude to sex.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.