Musicals and Miss America By Peter Filichia
I’ll offer half-hearted congratulations to Cara Mund, the first Miss North Dakota to become Miss America.
My reservation? As part of the pageant’s Talent Competition, she didn’t sing a song from a Broadway musical.
So with me, Mund’s name is Mud.
To be fair, Mund was brave in defying the advice given by “Pageant Center,” the website that advises Miss America hopefuls. It unequivocally states that “Vocals from opera, Broadway and movie scores are hugely successful.” The reason? “Torch songs and Broadway ballads are so appealing to judges because they invariably convey passion.”
Still, she chose to do a jazz dance to a Michael Jackson song: “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It does conform to the talent competition’s rules that a contestant’s choice must “convey an image appropriate for the titleholder” and “avoid negative or sexual lyrics.”
So, the full-of-woe (but hilariously so) “You Can Always Count on Me” from City of Angels or the semi-salacious “I Wouldn’t Have Had to (Shake It)” from Let It Ride! would not be in the running.
Is this one reason why Hawaii’s Caroyln Suzanne Sapp won Miss America 1993 – because she described her love life by singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’”?
Would you be surprised to learn that no pretty Miss has ever sung West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty”? It certainly avoids negative and sexual lyrics. But how do you solve a problem like Maria’s stating that she feels so sunny, fizzy, funny, fine and pretty that “Miss America can just resign”?
Sixty years and some months ago when Stephen Sondheim wrote that lyric, the idea of Miss America’s ever resigning was absurdly unthinkable. But in 1984, Vanessa Williams – the Miss Syracuse who had become Miss New York and then Miss America – did indeed resign after Penthouse published some very revealing soft-core porno photographs, some of which featured her alone and others with, um, company. The song that she had sung in the talent competition – “Happy Days Are Here Again” – suddenly stopped applying to her life.
The derailment was only temporary. Among other places, Williams was welcomed on Broadway. Ten years after the scandal, she not only starred in the Terrence McNally-John Kander-Fred Ebb musical Kiss of the Spider Woman, but she also recorded it – a rare occurrence for a cast replacement. In 2002, she was the top-billed star from Day One in the revival of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Most agree, however, that Williams’ recordings aren’t up to the ones on the original cast albums: Chita Rivera outshone her as the Spider Woman, especially in the galvanizing “Where You Are,” one of K&E’s best songs. Bernadette Peters was far more bewitching as The Witch, most notably in the musical’s long opening sequence in which she introduced Broadway to rap.
(Funny thing; Kiss of the Spider Woman won the Best Musical Tony, but isn’t as remembered as Into the Woods, which five years earlier had lost the Best Musical Tony. As Barry Bostwick sang in the hilarious 1978 film Movie Movie, “Just Shows to Go Ya.” But Kiss is well-worth investigating, too.)
Two Miss Ohios turned Miss America – Jacqueline Mayer (1963) and Laurie Lea Schaefer (1971) respectively sang The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” and Kismet’s “And This Is My Beloved.” Arizona’s Vonda Kay Van Dyke (1965) did twice as much work as those, for she was a ventriloquist who sang a song from Gypsy with her uh, partner: “Together, Wherever We Go,” of course. That’s quite a departure from what Kimberly Clarice Aiken (1994) chose to sing: “Summertime,” the semi-operatic opening selection of Porgy and Bess. What’s fitting is that Aiken was representing South Carolina, where the Gershwins’ masterpiece is set.
At the start of the nineties, many Miss America hopefuls obviously heard Highlights from Jekyll & Hyde. Six years before the Frank Wildhorn-Leslie Bricusse musical was able to reach Broadway in 1996, a concept album was issued.
Its songs virtually became Miss America fixtures. In 1992 alone, three of the five finalists for the crown embraced a song from the score. Iowa’s Catherine Ann Lemkau warbled “Someone Like You” and Indiana’s Shelli Renee Yoder sang “This Is My Moment,” changing Bricusse’s third word from “the” to “my.”
As events turned out, it wasn’t Miss Indiana’s moment. Miss Florida Leanza Cornett became Miss America 1993, partly because she sang the Jekyll & Hyde song that begins “A new life; what I wouldn’t give to have a new life.”
Cornett certainly got one after the judges chose her.
By the way, if you know and enjoy Jekyll & Hyde only from its three later recordings, you might take to this early Highlights album. It contains seven (out of its seventeen) songs that Wildhorn and Bricusse dropped and/or replaced en route to Broadway.
Kate Shindle – who’s been on Broadway playing everything from Sally Bowles in Cabaret to The Mad Hatter in Wonderland – was Katherine Shindle when she was Miss Illinois in the 1997 competition. What a brave choice Shindle made in tackling “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” a song vividly associated with Barbra Streisand. It obviously served her well, for Shindle was crowned Miss America 1998. In addition to her many on-stage accomplishments in the last twenty years, she’s now president of Actors’ Equity.
Virginia’s Caressa Cameron (2010) didn’t quite do a show song, for “Listen” hadn’t been in the original Dreamgirls in 1981, but was written for the 2006 film. Because lyricist Tom Eyen had died in 1991, composer Henry Kreiger needed a new wordsmith. Little did anyone suspect that a total of five would be needed (or at least got their names on it): Krieger himself, Scott Cutler, Anne Preven, Willie Reale and no less than Beyoncé, who introduced it in the film.
But for the current London production (and resulting cast album), “Listen” has become a duet for the then-estranged Deena Jones (Liisi Lafontaine) and Effie Melody White (Amber Riley, who won the Best Actress in a Musical Olivier Award for her performance. And I am telling you, she did go to the ceremony.)
Many destined to win chose show songs but didn’t sing them. Texas’ Phyllis Ann George (1971) – later an NFL announcer and future First Lady of Kentucky – plunked out “Promises, Promises” on the piano. Colorado’s Marilyn Van Derbur (1958) played No, No, Nanette’s “Tea For Two” on the organ.
But for the most part, singing does the trick. Since 1935, when the pageant introduced the talent competition, thirty-seven winners have made the choice to ride their vocal cords to victory.
However, since 2000, when Miss Kentucky Heather Renee French sang “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard, no Miss America has ever won with a song that had originated in a Broadway musical. Maybe Cara Mund and the sweet sixteen others have avoided the musical theater catalogue because they felt insulted by a song that Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford wrote for their 1978 off-Broadway hit I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on The Road.
The subject of “Miss America” ruminated on the fate of previous winners: “Miss America, where are you today? Four kids and a husband, your trophies tucked away … Everybody envied you when you were just eighteen but now you’re feeling desperate … You’re feeling like an actress in your own depressing soap …”
Despite the fact that the song ended with encouragement to the former winners – “You’ve got time, it’s not too late … You’ve got things to do; it’s all inside of you … You can find a way; you’ve still got today” – and that the song has a lovely melody, we can safely assume that we’re not destined to hear it sung on the stage of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall on the second Sunday evening in September …
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.