By Peter Filichia —
How many rock musicals begin with a waltz?
All right, the song that starts Inner City will never be confused with a Strauss waltz. It’s a jazz waltz, but it’s in three-quarter time nonetheless. It shows that many of us have a misconception about this 1971 musical – which isn’t quite a rock musical.
True, much of Helen Miller’s excellent music embraces rock, because it had to capture the pulse of Manhattan at a time when that style of music was already dominating New Yorkers’ taste. Still, there are plenty of other styles on this disc that is finally making its debut on CD: R & B, soul, gospel and, yes, the show tune.
Lovers of the traditional Broadway sound will find that “City Life,” about the many joys to be found in Manhattan, is a veritable soft-shoe. For those who demand a genuine show-stopper in the brassy Broadway tradition – complete with modulation – there’s “The Hooker,” in which a lady of the evening offers no apologies for her profession and gives good reasons why it’s not dissimilar to yours.
En route, she uses a familiar vulgarism for the male organ that, to my knowledge, had never before been said on any original cast album – and probably no other record. It could have appeared on the Columbia four-record set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for indeed Edward Albee wrote the word in his script. But when record producer Goddard Lieberson put the play on vinyl, he drew the line at that, and insisted that the common term for “illegitimate child” be used instead.
The melody The Hooker sings is reprised when “The Pusher” makes many of the same points about his line of work. Only this time Gordon Harrell’s orchestration is much more mellow, especially when the chorus chimes in. One can see that they have been perpetrators of a victimless crime.
What a shame that The Pickpocket didn’t get his rendition of Helen Miller’s marvelous melody recorded, too. It was the third jewel of the triple crown. But two out of three is pretty good.
All three songs are concerned with money, which certainly is an issue for most New Yorkers, be they middle-class or the disenfranchised. But other songs address urban violence. “Who Killed Nobody?” has a policeman ask questions about a moments-ago murder victim about whom he’s not concerned; it’s just another ho-hum homicide on his beat. “Law & Order” might have made a good theme song for the long-running series that was almost two decades away – at least musically. Lyrically, “I’m for law and order” – then amended by the caveat “depends on whose law; depends on whose order” – might not have been just what the series ordered.
“Hushabye” is a song that Brecht and Weill would have written had they lived and worked into the ’70s. An abused child who had been taken advantage of by a rich man and now is abandoned and pregnant is the type of person for whom they liked to write. “I bought myself a dime-store ring,” the unfortunate young woman rues, before becoming brave when talking to her yet-unborn child: “I’ll be your mama: I’ll be your dad.”
Inner City only got one Tony® nomination: Linda Hopkins as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The dynamic way she delivered her first solo (“Deep in the Night”) made her a contender, but it’s my belief that “It’s My Belief,” a galvanic piece of gospel, made voters choose her over Beatrice Winde for Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Adrienne Barbeau as Rizzo in Grease and, yes, even Bernadette Peters for her Hildy in On the Town.
Until now, Hopkins was the only female Tony®-winner from the ’70s to not have her performance available on CD. Just as New York had its problems during that same decade, how nice that we no longer have a case of “CD to Hopkins: Drop Dead.”
Inner City could manage no more than ninety-seven performances, probably for lack of an opening number that explained its main conceit. The show was mostly based on Eve Merriam’s The Inner City Mother Goose, a mock-children’s book which took nursery rhymes and updated them to urban life. So the familiar chant that asked “How does your garden grow?” was transformed to “How does your sidewalk grow?” — followed by a mention of Popsicle sticks, candy wrappers, garbage bags and, last but hardly least, a problem that plagued New York until 1978 when many citizens were forced to purchase super-duper pooper-scoopers.
So the juxtaposition didn’t help the show. One minute you’d have a riffing on one of your old favorite rhymes from way-back-when. (“If Wishes Were Horses” had the cast yearning for “college degrees, station wagon keys and interesting jobs.”) The next minute, there’d be a song about kindness that had no basis in nursery rhymes. This was a problem on stage, but it won’t be for the listener on disc or download. All the songs work melodically and lyrically on their own terms.
The ultimate strength of Inner City involves the strength of its citizens. The show ends with two stirring songs. The penultimate is “The Great If.” Songs in rock musicals are often criticized for putting the accent on the wrong syllable, but listen and find how perfectly Miller set Merriam’s word “great.” It is, in a word, great.
The album concludes with a solid anthem, “On This Rock,” in which the cast comes to the conclusion that many of us Manhattanites have reached: New York is its own reward. So is the original cast album of Inner City.
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.