MERRILY IT MOVES ALONG By Peter Filichia
One of the nicest aspects to a New Year is that we all tend to look forward.
It’s a policy to which creators of musicals have adhered for more than the last three-quarters of a century. In that time, Broadway lyricists have not only written funny songs or lovely ballads, but have also created numbers that move the action forward.
Peter Stone, one of our greatest librettists – 1776; need I say more? — liked to say “Lyricists who start writing a song for characters and have them at a different place at the end of the song have really done something right.”
In fact, Stone admitted such a song was responsible for his signing on to write the book to 1776. As he would often say, as he was en route to hear composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards audition his score for him, he was very dubious about the project and didn’t expect to commit to it.
And yet, one reason he said yes was “But, Mr. Adams,” in which John Adams desperately needs a great writer to compose The Declaration of Independence. He respectively asks Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Livingston, all of whom decline the job. Who’s left? By song’s end, Thomas Jefferson has reluctantly agreed to be a patriot first and a lover second all in the cause of American Independence.
Stone signed on, and the rest was theatrical, Tony-winning history — and a show about history.
Plenty of people on the staffs of musicals before and since have known that advancing the action was a good idea at least once in a score. Here are some of the best ones:
“Be a Lion” (The Wiz) – The Big Cat is pretty pusillanimous when Dorothy begins singing to him, but in short order, her encouragement makes him believe that he can become the King of Beasts.
“Chrysanthemum Tea” (Pacific Overtures) — Everyone assumes that the most ferocious mother-character that Stephen Sondheim co-created was Rose in Gypsy. Hardly: Shogun’s Mother wins that dubious honor. Here’s a woman of action saddled with a son of inaction. On the Days of the Rat, Ox, Tiger and Rabbit, he does about as much as Morales in A Chorus Line feels. Mother knows best: “When the Shogun is weak, then the tea must be strong,” she insists, shortly after having poured poison into it. Say what you will about Rose, but she never went that far with Herbie, Louise or even June.
“Show You a Thing or Two” (Bat Boy) – He’s merely Bat Boy when the most maternal Meredith takes him under her, uh, wing; the best the creature can say is “Hee ba ma cat z aba za goose zi bi za wat ba baba ba boose.” In fewer than five-and-a-half minutes, thanks to Meredith’s help and a sharp brain, he’s citing Thoreau, Cocteau, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. Even Evelyn Wood can’t promise such quick results.
“Let Me Entertain You” (Gypsy) – If you only have the original Broadway cast recording that gives us Sandra Church as the newly minted Gypsy Rose Lee, you won’t experience any forward motion. But in the expanded first London cast album, we get more of the Styne-Sondheim song. Zan Charisse as the former Louise Hovick starts out shakily in her Wichita burlesque debut before gaining confidence in Detroit (“I’m beginning to like doing this”) and eventually becoming “The Queen of the Striptease” at the hallowed Minsky’s in New York City.
“Sensitivity” (Once Upon a Mattress) — The aptly named Queen Aggravain doesn’t want to see her son Prince Dauntless married (“Oh, if I were only 20 years younger!” she moans), so she arranges impossible tests for would-be-brides to purposely make them fail and be shown to be unworthy of the throne. Dauntless is especially taken with Winnifred (Sarah Jessica Parker), whom the Queen especially loathes. Thus, she’s looking for something more arduous than The Medical College Admission Test and The Chartered Financial Analyst Exam put together. And that’s when she decides to put together twenty mattresses with a pea underneath.
“Simple” (Anyone Can Whistle) – Considering that this 1964 “song” is one second shy of thirteen minutes, it had better move the action forward. To put it another way: get the original cast albums of that year – Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof and Hello, Dolly! — add up the shows’ three biggest hits — “People,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Hello, Dolly!” – and together they’re not as long as this cut.
Sondheim’s most ambitious work to that point has Cora Hooper Hoover (Angela Lansbury) instruct J. Bowden Hapgood to interview townspeople and assess which are crazy and which are sane. Hapgood does as asked, but whether or not he judged correctly is another story – which is what Act Two and Act Three examines.
“Sons” (The Rothschilds) — Meyer and Gutele are newlyweds at the start of the song; six-and-a-half minutes later, they’re the parents of five pre-pubescent sons who are already helping their father in his business. And that, believe me, is just the start of this gripping story.
“Voices and Visions” (Goodtime Charley) – Joan of Arc is having an understandably hard time convincing the French court of 1429 that she’s the logical choice as the next leader of their army. That she claims to be on speaking terms with God makes her seem even less credible to the powers-that-be. So the Archbishop challenges her: pick Charles the Dauphin out of a crowd; it should be no problem if she really is on speaking terms with The Deity. Whether Joan gets by with a little help from her Friend or does it by way of her own intuition is left up to the theatergoer. But she does come through and identify the real Charley (one Joel Grey, by the way).
“Funny Honey” (Chicago) – At song’s start, Roxie Hart is extolling the virtues of her husband Amos: “Look at that soul!” By the end, she exclaims “I can’t stand that sap!” What happened? Amos had changed his mind about taking the rap for murder once he learned that the victim wasn’t a breaking-and-enterer, but their furniture salesman whom his wife knew well. Amos rats out Roxie. She had it comin’.
“Goodbye, Old Girl” (Damn Yankees) – Now-married-and-fat Joe Boyd becomes (to paraphrase a Pipe Dream song) The Man He Used to Be — only better: Joe Hardy, future baseball superstar. So here we have a rare situation where action moves forward in time, yes, but with a character who has in a sense moved backwards in time.
“The Contract” (Gigi) – This musical, often thought of as a light-hearted bon-bon, is really about the selling of a young girl to an older man. Perhaps Alan Jay Lerner wouldn’t – or couldn’t – be as specific as he’d wanted when he wrote the film in 1958. Fifteen years later, however, when Gigi reached Broadway, he could be more frank, as was Alicia (Agnes Moorehead) when dealing with Honore (Alfred Drake) in a nearly nine-minute negotiation of what Gaston would offer Gigi if she’d become his. If there are theater gods, Heidi Thomas and/or Eric Schaeffer may well be sent to theater hell for abridging this masterpiece in last season’s revisal.
“Do-Re-Mi” (The Sound of Music) – Yeah, yeah, I can hear you moaning now. Familiarity had bred the contempt that many musical theater fans feel for – admit it! — this marvelously clever piece that also achieves forward-motion, too. When Maria Rainer starts at the very beginning, the von Trapp kids don’t know the note “Do” from a female deer; by the end, they’re a veritable septet.
“A Little More Mascara” (La Cage aux Folles) – Neither the original French play nor the famous foreign film shows Albin’s transformation into Zaza. Of course not! Watching his paint dry and seeing him dress would have been a bore. But in a musical, Albin can sing to himself during the transformation, making (and making up) for a fabulous five minutes.
“The Tailor Motel Kamzoil” (Fiddler on the Roof) – A very different kind of dream ballet – for it’s one in which words are just as important as the dance. It’s also a dream for the audience and all the characters — save Lazar Wolf. At the start of the sequence, he’s engaged to Tzeitel; by the end, he’s lost her.
Merrily We Roll Along has two terrific forward-motion sequences: “Now You Know” and “Opening Doors.” The former song takes us through Franklin Shepard’s odyssey from starving composer to promising talent as a result of his revue Frankly Frank. Along the way, he meets Beth, whom he’ll eventually marry.
But in “Now You Know,” a glum Frank is emerging from the courthouse after a bitter divorce from Beth. By number’s end – thanks to encouragement from his friends – Frank’s optimistic and exuberantly dancing with Gussie, who’ll become the second consecutive wife he’ll make miserable.
Actually, the way I listed those two pieces are not in the order they appear in the show. “Now You Know” is set in 1966; “Opening Doors” spans 1958 and 1959. But even a show that tells its story backwards takes the pains to have songs that advance the action.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.