MISTAKES WERE MADE By Peter Filichia
If you’re traveling through the Southwest and saunter into a Navajo gift shop, you may decide to buy a handsome rug only moments before you decide not to.
After careful examination, you may notice a tiny flaw in it. Check another rug and you’ll discover a defect in that one, too – and the next one as well.
These aren’t the result of shoddy workmanship. The weavers of this Native American tribe purposely put an imperfection in each rug they make. They believe that God is perfect and no one else can be. As a tribute to His (or Her) infallibility, the Navajos want to reiterate human beings’ imperfections by making deliberate errors.
No, nobody’s perfect, as Michael and Agnes reminded each other in I DO! I DO! So we can’t expect perfection from those who create our musical theater, can we? Every so often even the best of them make mistakes in ALMOST flawless songs. Maybe a DNA test would show there’s a little Navajo in each of them.
Frank Loesser knew the score when it came to writing a score. So in GUYS AND DOLLS, there was no problem in “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” when Sky Masterson sang “I thought I knew the score,” for this guy’s been around lots of Manhattan blocks. But to have Sarah Brown repeat Sky’s line is wrong, for this missionary would be the first to tell you that she doesn’t “know the score” – unless she’s talking about the music in the hymnal that contains “Follow the Fold.”
In “It’s a Bore” (GIGI), we see that Honore is an old man who thinks young while Gaston is a young man who’s already old in spirit. So when Honore points out the pleasures of Paris, Gaston immediately sees a problem with his reasoning – starting with Honore’s praising of trees.
“What color are the trees?” Gaston asks in a bored voice. “Green!” exclaims Honore in an excited one. “What color were they last year?” again gets the answer “Green!” as does “And the next year?” “Green!” – all leading to Gaston’s deciding “It’s a bore!”
Um, don’t the leaves in Paris change to yellow, red and orange for at least one season? And aren’t trees leafless for yet another? With all the things in the world, couldn’t lyricist Alan Jay Lerner have found something that truly is never-bending constant?
While we’re at it, what does Gaston say after Honore asks him to consider the pleasures of wine? “It’s red or white.” Wouldn’t you think that a Frenchman would know enough to mention rosé, too?
In Lerner’s masterpiece MY FAIR LADY, he has Henry Higgins mention in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” that he’s also become “accustomed to the tune she whistles night and noon.” All right, I’ll grant you that anyone can whistle, but did you ever hear Eliza do so even once while she was with Henry?
Lerner was also the librettist for MY FAIR LADY. He missed the chance to write a funny scene in which Henry was trying to read while distracted by Eliza’s chirping away.
“To the right! Ever to the right! Never to the left! Ever to the right!” sing the anti-independence delegates of the Continental Congress in 1776’s “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” Now Sherman Edwards was enough of a history buff that he’d occasionally teach the subject. And yet, he apparently didn’t know that the term “right” for “conservative” and “left” for “liberal” didn’t come about until 1789 – and in France yet?
Just before that country’s revolution, members of the French National Assembly were positioned on different sides of the room. Supporters of the king were situated to the right and those who wanted to dethrone him were seated on the left – thirteen full years after 1776.
Sometimes lyricists overcompensate when giving their less-than-royal characters teddibly good grammar. There are at least three examples of lyricists putting a preposition before a pronoun when their characters would relegate them to the end of a sentence.
Lynn Ahrens has her expectorating New York Giants’ baseball fans razz a Boston Braves’ player with “Go back to where your mother once came.” Jerry Herman has rough-and-tumble Horace Vandergelder ask “To whom can you turn when the plumbing is leaking?” Comden, Green and Styne gave Georgina Franklin a fine opening song in “My Own Morning” but this turn-of-the-last-century daughter of a slave wouldn’t say “No one to whom I’m beholdin’.”
(In fact, in 2004 when the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey produced the show and had Amanda Green – co-lyricist Adolph Green’s daughter – spruce up the lyrics, she dropped this one.)
Overcompensation also comes in what characters say. In LITTLE ME we hear “No man is a true pariah deep down inside; no man is a true Uriah Heep down inside.” What a clever and brilliant rhyme! But then again, clever and brilliant is what lyricist Carolyn Leigh usually was, as well as well-read. That’s why she knew about the ‘umble Cockney character Uriah Heep from DAVID COPPERFIELD.
After Leigh thought up that uber-deft lyric, she must have danced in delight around her apartment for a good twenty minutes. Yes, but the flaw here is that the people singing it are poorer and more unfortunate souls than Ursula ever referenced in THE LITTLE MERMAID. We don’t believe that they have a working knowledge of Charles Dickens.
“Big News” is a terrific song in PARADE and Evan Pappas, playing reporter Britt Craig for the Atlanta Constitution, delivers it splendidly on the original cast album. But the song is in the wrong place, for it follows the scene where Mary Phagan’s mother is told of her daughter’s murder for which Leo Frank is arrested. So when Craig starts the song, we naturally assume that THAT’s the “Big News” that Craig is referencing. No – he’s sarcastic that there never IS big news in Atlanta, which is why he’s relegated to reporting on such weighty matters as a kitten up a tree and the mayor’s mother’s broken toe.
The song should come during the opening scene, when Britt is bored in covering the Confederate Memorial Day Parade for the umpteenth time.
James Thurber’s title character in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is a henpecked milquetoast that we really can’t respect. Librettist Joe Manchester’s 1963 musical version gave us a reason to like and care about Walter: Peninnah, a 10-year-old daughter that Walter loves and who loves him back. (The kid might be the one reason why Walter stays in his horrible marriage.)
But good Lord, did Manchester really need to name the girl Peninnah? It’s a Biblical name that means “pearl,” but who was named Peninnah in 1963? How many Peninnahs have you ever known?
We start questioning Walter all over again for either giving that name to his kid or caving in to his wife’s demands that this will be their daughter’s name. There are plenty of three-syllable names that a 10-year-old in 1963 could have: Patricia, Rebecca, Christina, Theresa, Virginia – all of which show up in the list of the most popular girls’ names of 1953. Manchester should have opted for one of those.
(By the way, appearing in one song on the WALTER MITTY original off-Broadway cast album is a pre-GOLDEN GIRLS Rue McClanahan. Although she shares a duet, you won’t have any problem recognizing her voice.)
Another naming problem comes in SHENANDOAH’s “Why Am I Me?” Here two tween Civil War-era boys question their existence; one wonders, “Why am I Gabriel?” while the other responds, “Why am I Anderson?”
This’d be all right if the latter lad were named Anderson Cooper, but the kid’s full name is actually Robert Anderson (not to be confused with the playwright who wrote TEA AND SYMPATHY).
Doesn’t a little kid refer to himself by his first name and not his last? But “Robert” only has two syllables, and lyricist Peter Udell needed three to match up with Gabriel. What would have been wrong with Anthony, Benjamin, Joshua, Samuel, Thaddeus among plenty of others? As Sondheim once wrote “So many possibilities.”
But wait! In Japan, artists practice “Wabi sabi” in which they too purposely incorporate deliberate imperfections. It’s meant as a tribute to God, yes, but it’s also to make show that things can be beautiful despite imperfections.
So let’s enjoy the aforementioned songs for all the wondrous wordplay they give us rather than concentrate on what they don’t.
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.