Were you attending New York cabaret shows in the ‘80s? If you had been sitting at a table and seeing any chanteuse back then, chances are you would have heard a haunting song called “Old Friend.”
Even now, decades later, “Old Friend” hasn’t dated. It describes a woman whose latest romance has come to a bitter end, which drives her to phone her best male friend. There she pours out her heart to him and he responds with the requisite sympathy.
The touching song that admits “Love is rare, and life is strange, and nothing lasts and people change” comes from I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. The 1978 musical that composer Nancy Ford and bookwriter-librettist-star Gretchen Cryer wrote together would indeed take to the road – but only after it had amassed 1,165 performances at the Public Theater. That was enough to then make it the longest-running original book musical – meaning one not based on any source material — in off-Broadway history.
Now we have the return of an “Old Friend” in the category of original cast albums. If you missed getting the recording of I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road the first time around, you now have a second chance to hear one of off-Broadway’s landmark musicals.
Heather is a recording artist who years ago showed promise by writing a nice, sentimental pop song called “In a Simple Way I Love You.” (The cast album lets us hear it.)
The song’s greatest admirer was Manager – the sole way he’s identified in the Cast of Characters. Now he wants more songs just like it from Heather – especially because “all the DJs, the guys from Billboard, Cashbox and Newsweek are coming to see you tonight.”
But “life is strange, and nothing lasts and people change.” Heather is not the same woman she was when “In a Simple Way I Love You” reached the charts. Manager likes to tout that success; “Number Eighty-nine,” drones Heather. To Manager, it was a start and he can see Heather going higher – if she follows the safe and conventional musical route.
Actually, Heather did believe what she was writing when penning the semi-hit. Now she wants to express in song who she is right now. If that’s a Number One or a Number One Million song, so be it.
Her choice of material is not the only problem that Manager sees. He’s not enthusiastic over her new clothes (“That isn’t what you’re going to wear tonight, is it?”), new hair style and, of course, her new songs. Although he does admit to her “Anything goes these days” in music, he doesn’t remotely believe it.
A listener will feel otherwise. “Smile” is Heather’s recollection that her father was most pleased with her when she put on a happy face. Considering that Dad often spoke to her in baby-talk, Heather may well have wished that she’d had two mommies.
On the other hand, Heather admits that her mother was a demanding woman who was disappointed that her husband couldn’t give her all the creature comforts that she’d expected. So a couple of women like her might not have been the answer, either.
Even in the radical ’60s, Heather thought she’d better be a June bride. She tells us what she believes the minister actually should have said: “To love and obey isn’t enough … send his pants to the cleaner, pick up his underwear from the floor …” This leads to “Dear Tom,” a song in which Heather apologizes to her husband for not being everything society led him to believe he would get from a wife. Heather has some sympathy for him, however, for she knows now that Tom “never wanted marriage in the first place but was coerced” into it.
Although Heather is very aware that Manager wants her, as she says, “to be put in a package and sold,” she frankly admits “I’m thirty-nine.” In Manager’s eyes, you’d think that Heather had used profanity in church and had loudly expelled gas at the same time. He knows that Heather’s matter-of-fact manner while coming clean about her age runs antithetical to a pop market where pushing forty is really old.
But if Heather’s a dinosaur, she’s a living one – and living dinosaurs were still pretty potent, weren’t they? Ford and Cryer’s songs reflect that strength: “Miss America” in is waltz time, all to contrast against its sad message of what happens to these one-time beauties after their reigns are over: marriage, children, housework, “and you feel like an actress on your own depressing soap.”
Finally Manager delivers what’s supposed to be the knockout punch.He complains that “You look like you’ve been through the wringer.” He’s not assuaged by Heather’s retort that “I have been through the wringer. That’s who I am.”
Manager retorts “Olivia Newton-John does not have wrinkles. Linda Ronstadt does not have wrinkles.” Those women, who were in 1978 respectively a youthful twenty-nine and thirty-two, have since been afflicted with terrible health problems. How they wish that wrinkles were all they had to worry about! Once again: “Life is strange, and nothing lasts and people change.”
Because dealing with her own unhappy husband would now be too difficult, Heather decides to take up with another woman’s unhappy husband. But that leads to a very good question — “Why do I want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with me?” – and another reality-based song: “Strong Woman Number” has Heather proclaim “I won’t hang on his sleeve. I’m so self-sufficient,” she adds, before conceding “I’m so easy to leave.”
The best advice Manager can manage to deliver is that Heather do an act in which most songs are what her public expects and then to “sneak up on them with your honest shit.” When she flat out asks Manager what he thinks of her mind, he says he likes it because “it’s full of surprises.” Although thirty-eight years have passed since I saw the show in its first production, I can still hear how hard the audience mockingly laughed, for the theatergoers weren’t remotely convinced of his sincerity.
As Marsha Mason advised Michael Bennett during previews of A Chorus Line – at an early point in the show’s history when Zach didn’t give Cassie the job – “You must allow for the possibility of starting over.” Zach reluctantly agrees; we’ll see if Manager will.
In the final section of “Old Friend,” Heather sings to her buddy, “We’ll meet the year we’re sixty-two.” Cryer, Ford and so many who saw the original I’m Getting My Act Together have now passed that age. Here’s hoping that each of us still has that Old Friend from way back when. As we learned later from Sondheim, “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.” At least I’m Getting My Act Together has returned.
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.