IT”S THE LITTLE THINGS
By Peter Filichia
"It's the little things, the little things" Elaine Stritch insisted in Company. And she was right -- little things do mean a lot. That's especially true of those little things we hear on cast albums.
In fact, why not start my little list with Stritch and Company? During “Side by Side by Side,” don’t you love the loud bark of a laugh she gives after David says that Bobby reminds him of the Seagram Building?
Orchestrators often give us little things. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the Americans in Paris sing that they've had their fill of The City of Light and suffer from the "Homesick Blues." Among the items they’ve missed is "a show like Sally." Orchestrator Don Walker then filled the next seven notes with the title phrase of "Look for the Silver Lining." That’s a nice musical joke, because that indeed was a song from Sally – Jerome Kern’s 1920 hit that, at 561 performances, closed as the third-longest-running musical in Broadway history. (Now it’s in 174th place.)
In It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, when the Man of Steel's arch enemy Max Mencken (Jack Cassidy) cackles about his victory over him, he crows "You landed with a thud." That’s when orchestrator Eddie Sauter had a kettle drum show us precisely what a thud was. Those who like a good deal of bass will feel the walls and floor of their homes shake from the sound.
"Nobody's Perfect" (I Do! I Do!) has Michael exasperatingly cataloging his wife Agnes' many faults. “Now this, as you know, is a statement from the bank," he snarls, already implying that she hasn’t conquered checkbook-balancing. And to suggest just how important the bank is, orchestrator Philip J. Lang had the entire orchestra give out with seven heavy, no-nonsense notes that indicate the seriousness of the issue -- well, serious at least to Michael.
Orchestrators occasionally editorialize. In the title song of Here’s Love, composer-lyricist Meredith Willson had Kris Kringle suggest a detente between then-Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev and positive-thinking progenitor Norman Vincent Peale. Orchestrator Don Walker followed the latter’s name by having church bells peal.
In Merrily We Roll Along’s“Opening Doors,” Joe Josephson (future star Jason Alexander) has listened to Shepard-and-Kringas’ new musical and isn’t much impressed. After he implores for the second time "Gimme a melody," orchestrator Jonathan Tunick offered three razz-ma-tazz drum swishes that tell you just the type of show that Joe Josephson likes.
Later, in the same song, we hear a young woman auditioning for that new revue Frankly Frank. "Who wants to live in New York?" she warbles, flutters and stinks before being summarily dismissed. And while many of us expected yet another lousy hopeful to follow before the good one arrived, Sondheim knew that we'd already got the point that auditioning no-talents is terribly arduous work.
As a result, Beth, the next candidate, is very much on key. Better, when Frank asks her to modulate, she does superbly. More to the point, when she reaches the lyric, "You got to have a real taste for maniacs," she isn't just singing; she's editorializing and already giving a performance. She gets the job.
Needless to say, Sondheim has given us plenty of other little things in the eighteen musicals he’s penned – and that includes strange sounds. There’s that shrill whistle at the top of Sweeney Toddthat lets us know we’re not in for a standard song-‘n’-dance show. The button he put on “Everybody Loves Louis” in Sunday in the Park with Georgeshows us unequivocally that she’s given up on her artist in favor of a baker; to show her devotion to her new man, she stuffs her face with one of his works and cries “Louis it is!”
Emily Post adherents may bristle at Dot’s talking with her mouth full, but even they may find it a preferable sound to the one they get at the end of “How I Saved Roosevelt” from Assassins: a seated Giuseppe Zangara, the man who did not want Roosevelt saved, hears the sound of electricity surging through his body. We hear it a bit longer than he.
In Chicago, co-bookwriters Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse created Hunyak, who only speaks in a foreign language. You can hear her impassioned Hungarian rant on the cast album, followed by the two words she knows in English: “Not geeelty.”
So why is that so smart? Some “merry murderess” must be hanged so that the recently emboldened Roxie won’t feel she’ll inevitably be acquitted. Because of the language barrier, Hunyak is the one killer to whom we’ve neither connected nor bonded, and thus the one whose loss we’d mourn the slightest. Hang Velma, and we’ve got a very different show on our hands.
Onto performances. In "If Ever I Would Leave You," Lancelot’s big number in Camelot, Robert Goulet's sings about the time of the year "when fall nips the air." Don't you feel that nip in the way that Goulet stresses the word “nips” in a clipped tone? This is one of the reasons that Goulet’s clear-as-crystal voice and precise phrasing captivated the nation in the early ‘60s.
There are two subtle but notable differences in performances from the original cast and revival cast albums of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brownand How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Both involve performers going high at the end of songs where their forebears didn’t. Roger Bart’s Snoopy does it to good advantage in the title phrase of “Not Bad at All” and Megan Mullally warbles wonderfully on the words “from downtown” in "Happy to Keep to Keep His Dinner Warm." It makes me, to quote another Frank Loesser song, warm all over.
Many have sung "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, and many have sung it very well. And yet, in its fifty-year history, no one I’ve ever heard has been able to approach Zero Mostel, the first Tevye, in aping the sounds made by chicks, turkeys, geese and ducks. Maybe in the next fifty years, someone will.
In The Rothschilds, paterfamilias Meyer is about to teach his son Nathan (Michael Maitland), already established as impetuous, about selling wares. "When a shopper says," Meyer begins his advice, causing Nathan to repeat "When a shopper says" in what seems to be the start of a time-honored convention of a musical round. Not at all. Meyer must interrupt both himself and his son to caution, “Nathan – listen.” The best jokes are the unexpected ones, and Sheldon Harnick gave us one here.
What a masterstroke Jason Robert Brown had when writing Parade. The story of Leo Frank, the Brooklyn-born Jew who moved to Atlanta, shows us a meek and mild man during the musical’s first half-hour. Once he’s on trial for murder, three young women in his employ – Monteen, Iola and Essie – testify that he was a sexual predator and we see and hear their (false) version of him come to life in “Come up to My Office.” This is a very different, never-was Leo who’s smarmy, as Brown’s melody insinuates as well. The number was a tour de force for Brent Carver, for it allowed him to play a completely different person from the character he was actually playing.
Once Upon a Mattress is a delightful post-modern take on a fairy tale. The Queen has decreed that no one in her kingdom may marry until her son finds the proper princess to wed. Trouble is, she doesn't want him to marry at all, but does everything she can so that he’ll remain momma's little boy. This spurs the commoners to sing that they have "An Opening for a Princess," while mourning that "Nobody's getting any."
Now that sounds a little ribald even for a fractured fairy tale -- until lyricist Marshall Barer shows us that he planned a wonderful fake-out when he finishes the phrase "Nobody's getting any" with the word "younger." We were the ones with the dirty minds.
But, of course, if we’re going to start on the best little things in lyrics, that would be enough fodder for a completely different column. I’ll start working on it.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at http://www.kritzerland.com/filichia.htm and at http://www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at http://www.amazon.com.