Lyrics in London
By Peter Filichia —
If you’re quite familiar with the 1966 original Broadway cast album of Cabaret, two lyrics are going to jump out at you when you listen to the 1968 original London cast album.
One comes quite early, when Fraulein Schneider sings “So What?” On the Broadway disc, Lotte Lenya sings “When I had a man, my figure was dumpy and fat … Now I have what he missed and my figure is trim … if it wasn’t to be that he ever would see the uncorseted me, so what?”
But on the recently re-released London disc, Lila Kedrova instead sings “When I had a man, my figure was boyish and flat … Now I have what he missed and my bosom is full … if it wasn’t to be that he ever would see the abundance of me, so what?”
Take it from someone who read the script of Cabaret in spring of 1966, months before its first rehearsal, when show was called Welcome to Berlin: the lyric that Kedrova sang was actually the first version that Fred Ebb wrote. He assumed that the actress who’d be cast as Fraulein Schneider would be a heavy-set one. The chance to have the thinner Lenya in a Berlin-centric story, however, was too delicious to pass up. Better to write a new lyric than to lose Lenya. When the more Rubenesque Kedrova was cast, Ebb reverted to his original lyric.
In “It Couldn’t Please Me More” – in which Herr Schultz gives Fraulein Schneider a pineapple — there’s a more profound difference. Long-time Cabaret fans know that when Schneider wonders how she can thank Schultz, he pooh-poohs, “Kindly let it pass,” before turning down a slice because “it would give me gas.”
In London, however, the exchange has Schultz minimize the thank-you by saying “Never mind, my dear” because “it would lay right here.”
Says my buddy Aubrey Berg, who’s spent a good deal of time in London, “No, the British simply don’t use the word ‘gas’ in this context.” And that got me thinking about the changes made in lyrics in Broadway musicals that received London productions, all because of different regionalisms.
Robert Preston on the Broadway cast album of I Do! I Do! complains about his wife’s applying gobs of cold cream on her face before bedtime: “Every night beneath the sheet, must you look like Trick-or-Treat?” On the London disc, Ian Carmichael instead asks “Every night when we recline, must you look like Frankenstein?”
Guess that children in England are denied the pleasure of going door-to-door every October 31 and getting free candy.
And are Londoners strangers to Russian dressing, too? Preston sings that he “happened to detest” it, but Carmichael instead takes aim at “pickled onions.” (Well, who can blame him?)
On the Broadway cast album of City of Angels, Buddy Fidler, the monarch of mixed metaphors, says “No one gets a hole-in-one their first time at bat.” In London, he proclaims “No one gets a hole-in-one the first time they swing a racket.”
Yeah, they don’t know baseball in the United Kingdom. That’s why in 1958, English movie exhibitors changed the title of Damn Yankees to Whatever Lola Wants before the film debuted there. They apparently feared that British audiences would assume that a picture called Damn Yankees would concern the American Revolution.
And speaking of that skirmish, when 1776 was announced for London, I fully expected that Sherman Edwards would change one lyric: the one in which Adams, Jefferson and Franklin roar “We say to hell with Great Britain!” Wouldn’t that be too much for Londoners to take? But Edwards retained it and every other lyric in “The Egg” — which may be why 1776 laid an egg in the West End.
Lyrics with less punch have been changed en route to London. On the 1971 Broadway revival cast album of No, No Nanette during the first finaletto, Pauline the maid tells Nanette’s just-spurned beau Tom that “She’s going to visit her grandmother in Trenton, New Jersey.” Well, by the time the London production opened in 1973, Grandma had apparently moved, because now Pauline informed the Beau that “She’s going to visit her mother in Hackensack, New Jersey.”
Although Trenton is the Garden State’s capital, its lofty status
doesn’t mean that Londoners would know it. And while Hackensack isn’t any more or less famous, it’s at least a funnier word. Remember Neil Simon’s rule: “Words with a ‘k’ are funny.” Hackensack has two.
Bye Bye Birdie changed a city in one lyric too. Spanish Rose on the Broadway cast album sings that she hails from “Allentown, P.A.,” but on the London disc, she calls “Pittsburgh, P.A.” her home. Londoners probably didn’t learn of Allentown for at least two more decades, until Billy Joel started singing about it.
Earlier on the London disc in “An English Teacher,” Rose doesn’t dream of marrying Albert and becoming “Mrs. Phi Beta Kappa” but “Mrs. College Professor.” Phi Beta Kappa, you see, is an organization that is (to cite another Strouse-Adams show) All-American.
If Londoners don’t know American cities, they can’t be expected to know American schools, either. So on the Broadway cast album of Do Re Mi, after Tilda Mullen decides to send her brother Benjy to college, Hubie Cram orders “One Yale.” The university in question becomes “One Oxford and Cambridge” on the London edition.
So what’s the London cast album that morphed the most from Broadway to Britain? My guess is Little Me, which recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its Broadway opening. (And thank the Lord, the cast album of this remarkable Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh score is still in print.)
Leigh, a lyricist with a decidedly American sensibility, had much reworking to do before the show opened at the Cambridge Theatre on Nov. 18, 1964.
We find differences right from the opening number, “The Truth,” in which movie personality Belle Poitrine describes the memoir she plans to write. Many proper names are eliminated: Doubelday’s, then a prominent American bookstore; Mary Astor, the Oscar-winner who wrote the great-grandma of best-selling tell-alls; Casey Stengel, arguably the New York Yankees’ most famous manager; Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin probably didn’t sell many copies in Victorian England; and Brendan Behan.
Not that the famous Irish writer-lush wasn’t famous in Britain; he was probably more well-known there than he was in America. After all, in the London Flower Drum Song, he’s even mentioned by the “Irish Colleen” in “Gliding through My Memoree” in place of “Erin Go Bragh.” But Behan had died from alcoholism fewer than nine months before the London premiere, and at a terribly young 41; Leigh probably dropped the lyric out of respect.
Does England not have Boy Scouts? On Little Me’s Broadway cast album, George Musgrove tells Belle Poitrine, “You ain’t no Eagle Scout” — but in London, he proclaims “You ain’t no sweet Girl Guide.” And in “Be a Performer,” the London Little Me teaches us that the expression “up the river” – meaning incarceration – hasn’t made it to England. “Up to Holloway” is used instead, referencing the prison located on Parkhurst Road in London.
One song from Little Me came close to getting a new title as well as a new lyric. Leigh had been told that the expression “On the Other Side of the Tracks” — meaning living in the less desirable part of town — was unknown in England. “So,” as Cy Coleman told me in 1989 before a preview of City of Angels, “Carolyn found that there was an idiom ‘At the Very Top of the Hill,’ which was a way of saying high-class living. So she started work on changing the song, until enough people told her that the British would pick up on what ‘the other side of the tracks’ meant. So she kept it.”
But if we’re looking at the most necessary change, that has to be the one in Flower Drum Song. Sammy Fong, who wants to marry Linda Low, is hamstrung by a venerable Chinese tradition: he was promised at birth to Mei Li, a woman from the old country. He tries to weasel out of it by singing “Don’t Marry Me” to her. On the Broadway cast album, after Mei Li says that she wants her kids to be “sliding up and down their father’s knee,” Sammy cautions “They’ll get splinters in their little fannies.”
All right: aside from the fact that I have no idea what he means – do you? – the London cast album has him insist instead that “They’ll get splinters in their little panties.”
And for good reason: while “fanny” in America is a slang word for one’s gluteus maximus, in London, it means the female genitalia. ‘Nuff said.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.