LET’S DO THE TWIST By Peter Filichia
Twice in the same year, Anita Gillette played characters who were interested in the dance that the nation had been fervently embracing.
In early 1962, in ALL AMERICAN — the musical that Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote immediately after BYE BYE BIRDIE — Gillette played a college student Susan. She established in her first song that she not only wanted “Nightlife,” but that she also wanted “to Twist until I get arrested!”
That apparently didn’t happen, for she wasn’t in jail in late 1962 but at the St. James Theatre instead. There she did Irving Berlin’s final Broadway musical MR. PRESIDENT. Gillette looked sharp when she took center stage as Leslie Henderson and sang “The Washington Twist.”
Give Berlin credit. Here he was a septuagenarian writing in a style that was (to say the least) unfamiliar to him. Yet wouldn’t you say that he did a better job of seeming au courant than Cole Porter did when he wrote “The Ritz Roll and Rock” for SILK STOCKINGS?
Berlin could have quoted one of his earlier lines to Porter: “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
If you listen to the entertaining original cast album of SILK STOCKINGS, you won’t find “The Ritz Roll and Rock.” To quote a different Berlin lyric, “Count your blessings instead of sheep.” Not only is Porter’s melody ersatz, but the opening line has also turned out to be woefully inaccurate: “The rock and roll is dead and gone.” Wishful thinking, Mr. Porter, wishful thinking.
HAIRSPRAY didn’t arrive on Broadway until 2002 (and stayed there for more than six years), but it’s set in the same 1962. As a result, it too acknowledged The Twist.
In “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” Tracy Turnblad shows her frustration at her mother’s reluctance to let her make her own decisions. “You’re the one who taught me how to twist and shout,” she sings before giving an unexpected twist in her explanation: “Because you shout non-stop, and you’re so twisted, too.”
There’s a little Easter Egg in that lyric, for “Twist and Shout” was a 1961 Top Twenty pop hit by a group called The Isely Brothers. Fewer than three years later after their rendition, The Beatles covered it and upped it into a Top Ten hit.
Actually, those lines involving The Twist weren’t originally in the song. HAIRSPRAY’s co-lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman used them in place of ones that, one could argue, were more effective. The “Preview Highlights” promo disc that was sent to theatergoers in advance of the show’s opening (all to entice them to buy tickets, my dear) has Tracy sing “Ma, you’re always telling me to act my age. Well, that’s just what I’m trying to do!”
Yes! When parents tell teens to “act their age,” what they really mean is that the kids should act THEIR adult age. But Tracy is a mere high schooler, a typical teen who is indeed acting her age by being obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll (as rock was then called), “The Corny Collins Show” and, last but hardly least, Link Larkin.
Then there was an almost-1962 musical that gave Broadway its most famous Twist. However, this Twist came in a different context, thanks to OLIVER! – based, of course, on Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST.
It was set to open on Dec. 27, 1962, but a newspaper strike was on. Producer David Merrick knew his hit import from London would get raves and wanted the theatergoing public to read them. So he moved the opening to Jan. 6, 1963, all in hopes that the strike would be over by then.
Alas, it wasn’t, so he went ahead and opened OLIVER! And in a twist of normal procedure, Merrick went on the radio and read his own review of the show.
(It was MOST enthusiastic.)
Oliver Twist didn’t do The Twist but with Nancy (an honorary member of Fagin’s gang) he did a few steps in the ever-so-pseudo-elegant “I’d Do Anything.”
That’s about it for dance in OLIVER! Perhaps the feeling was that hoofing around the stage would be out of place in a musical that involved child abuse, thievery and murder.
How little dance was there? Take a look at the credits of OLIVER! and you’ll see no choreographer listed. The absence of that collaborator may have been a factor in Merrick’s bringing the musical to America: one fewer royalty to pay each week.
In a way, the original cast album dances. As the long-playing album proclaimed “Note to Stereo Listeners” – a not-so-subtle way of saying, “Monaural Listeners, get on the ball!” – “In this recording, the voices may appear to move back and forth between your speakers. This was deliberately done to duplicate stage action and heighten realism.”
(Not that you’d expect The Twist in a musical set in 1850, anyway.)
There’s another kind of twist in Broadway musicals: when lyricists twist a word’s meaning. Nobody did it better than E.Y. Harburg in “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near)” in FINIAN’S RAINBOW. The wordplay is so spectacular that it won’t be revealed here so that you can discover it for yourself and wallow in its brilliance.
Alan Jay Lerner came up with a beauty in “The Contract” in GIGI. Here Honore and Alicia respectively negotiate a pre-nup for Gigi and Gaston. When Alicia doubts Honore’s legal competence, he huffily declares “Madame, I practice law!” The unruffled Alicia icily responds “Go out and practice more!”
Fred Ebb did just as splendidly in “How Lucky Can You Get,” impressively delivered by Karen Mason in AND THE WORLD GOES ‘ROUND. It had originated in FUNNY LADY where Fanny Brice sang that one of her options was to “circle the globe with my circle of friends.”
“He’s no good, but I’m no good without him,” sings the self-proclaimed “Queen” in THE LIFE. For the moment, let’s not dwell on her self-esteem issues. Instead, we’ll applaud lyricist Ira Gasman for noting that “no good” in the first instance means “bad” and in the second indicates “incapable.”
By the way, as terrific as the original cast album is, the earlier concept album is well worth having. There’s a long-held belief that composers and/or lyricists are the best interpreters of their own work; Cy Coleman proves it with his charming rendition of “A Lovely Day to Be out of Jail.” There’s no twist in the song, but there are many pleasures to be had – not the least of which involves Coleman’s accompanying himself on the piano and tickling (nay, caressing) the ivories.
The aforementioned Shaiman and Wittman showed that in 2017, fifteen years after HAIRSPRAY, they hadn’t lost their way with words. In “When Willy Met Oompa” in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, we learn that all cemented their friendship when “We shook with a chocolate shake.”
Because “To Life” (in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) gallops at a rapid clip, you might have missed this beauty from Sheldon Harnick: Tevye drinks to his daughter’s betrothal and then he sings “Here’s to the father I tried to be.” That’s answered by presumptive son-in-law Lazar Wolf’s “Here’s to my bride-to-be.” The twist here doesn’t even come from words, but from hyphens.
Given that I disparaged Cole Porter earlier in the column, let’s end by praising him for the twist he inserted into “What Do You Think about Men?” in his 1950 musical OUT OF THIS WORLD. Three women trade notes on how they feel about the male sex before coming to the conclusion that “No matter what we think about men, we think about men.” Although the last four words of each phrase are identical, the first “we think about men” refers to their having an opinion about guys while the second means that men are always in their thoughts.
Thanks, Cole! You’re forgiven for “The Ritz Roll and Rock.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.