By Peter Filichia —
Tra-la! It’s May! The lusty month, as Queen Guenevere once taught us in Camelot. When the last day of April concludes, many of us find this marvelous musical theater song coursing through our brains.
Perhaps bookwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner was giving us a subtle hint here of what was to come in the queen’s life. For although Guenevere was very much married, she did have lust on her mind long before she saw Lancelot du Lac breathe life into an apparently deceased knight.
But it’s not the only song in Camelot that has May in its title – although the other one uses it in a very different context: “Then You May Take Me to the Fair.”
Here Guenevere feels that at the upcoming jousts this cocky Lancelot should be taken down a peg or two (or even a leg or two). So she challenges Sirs Lionel, Sagramore and Dinadan (a just-starting-out John Cullum) to “bash and thrash him,” “give him trouble,” “pierce right through him,” “disconnect him” and “open wide him.” Anyone who can make that happen may take lady fair respectively to the fair, the ball and the cattle show. (By the way, can you picture Julie Andrews, dressed in a gown either by Adrian or Tony Duquette, at a cattle show?)
I remember that the first time I saw Camelot, I opened the program and felt embarrassed for the typesetters. By this time, I’d memorized the original cast album, so I immediately noted that the people in the print shop had left out “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” (and “Fie on Goodness!” as well). To my astonishment, when the time came for each to be sung, I heard, to quote Morales, nothing.
I later learned that after Camelot had opened, Lerner had decided that the show was too long and that the songs could be sacrificed. Aren’t we glad that he made this decision after the original cast album was recorded? We wouldn’t have known “Then You Make Take Me to the Fair” had it been cut in Toronto or Boston. And the song does have some of the most delicious wordplay that Lerner ever created. It culminates with the knights promising “Milady, we shall put an end to / That Gallic bag of noise and nerve / When we do all that we intend to / He’ll be a plate of French hors d’oeuvres.”
We can also celebrate this month with a few other musical theater songs that mention May. On May 3, here’s the best May way to mark the 56th anniversary of the opening of The Most Happy Fella: listen to Susan Johnson’s Cleo warn the innocent Amy about this Tony who’d left her a mash note. “Maybe He’s Kind of Crazy,” she flatly states in that brass-tacks manner she had.
Johnson was a performer who could be counted on to give it all she had – which is why you should listen to her sing “Give It All You Got” from Oh, Captain! on one of these May days. And how does May fit into that song? Well, the character Johnson played in that saucy romp was named Mae. Close enough.
By the way, “Maybe He’s Kind of Crazy” would be an acceptable song to play on the night of May 5, too – for that’s when we’re expecting a full moon. And isn’t that the time when some people act kind of crazy?
But on May 20 (which, as my buddy Warren Seamans noted, is Eliza Doolitle Day), when we have a new moon – meaning when there’s virtually no moonshine to be had — consider “The Night May Be Dark” from Jennie, the 1963 musical that starred Mary Martin. If we need another connection to May, the show also had a character named Bessie Mae.
This was not an arbitrary choice; Bessie Mae Sue Ella Yeager was a good friend to Martin, so the star liked to acknowledge her by having a character named after her in her shows. In 1949, Martin had asked Rodgers and Hammerstein to honor her pal in South Pacific. That’s how “Ensign Sue Yaeger” was born.
On May 15, you might pay your respects to the great actor Edmund Kean, who died 179 years ago on that date. But we have a happier “Mayfair Affair” on tap in the gloriously rich and rococo music in Kean, the 1961 musical that must be heard.
The same day, mark what would have been the 122nd birthday of Yiddish theater legend Menasha Skulnik. He was already 75 when he starred in The Zulu and the Zayda, but you’d never know it from the spirited performance he gives on the original cast album. “May Your Heart Stay Young,” he hopes in a klezmer-filled song.
On May 21, in honor of the 53rd anniversary of Gypsy’s opening, play “May We Entertain You.” It’s the first song on the album after that famously thrilling overture, and we won’t blame you if you simply continue listening all the way until the final “For me!”
For what would have been Queen Victoria’s 193rd birthday on May 24, play “I Think I May Want to Remember Today.” You may know it (or should) from Starting Here, Starting Now, but David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr. originally wrote it for a 1968 musical called Love Match — about the romance between Victoria and Albert. That explains the lyric, “Albert, my how you’ve grown!”
On May 28, play “Maybe” from Annie — but keep the album on to hear “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.” In it, Molly sings “You’ll stay up till this dump shines like the top of the Chrysler Building” – a structure which, in fact, opened on this date in 1930.
What’s the most beautiful song involving the word “may” that precious few know? Easily “Maybe Some Other Time” from What Makes Sammy Run? Journalist Al Manheim wants screenwriter Kit Sargent; at the moment she prefers up-and-coming movie producer Sammy Glick. The Ervin Drake song is beautifully sung by Tony-nominee Sally Ann Howes and Tony-winner Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo – although you might better know him by his stage name: Robert Alda, the original Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls.
Other May songs? Well, there are a few May-ors worth hearing.
There’s Mayor Matilda Hyde singing “You’re the Devil in Disguise” in All Shook Up. And we have a couple of May-ors from New York: Mayor William Russell Grace, who, in 1886, welcomed “The Most Expensive Statue in the World” to New York Harbor in Miss Liberty. Jack Whiting played an unnamed Mayor of New York in Hazel Flagg, singing one of Jule Styne’s most delightful soft-shoe melodies in “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York.”
May all these songs help you to have a great May – and I don’t mean maybe.