I don’t know about you, but I tend to listen to a cast album while I’m showering and shaving. As a result, from whatever disc I choose to play, I usually hear the Overture (if there is one), a want-song from the hero and heroine, a charm song and perhaps a Big Production Number. And by then, I’m returning the shaving cream to the medicine cabinet, drying myself, removing the disc, replacing it into its jewel case and filing it alphabetically.
As a result, I don’t just give short shrift to songs in a show’s second act (if there is one) but no shrift at all.
Well, that was the case until recently, when I decided to second-act my albums.
“Second-act” is a venerable and veritable verb among older theatergoers. When they were young and couldn’t afford the price of a Broadway musical – but still wanted to see the show – they compromised both the show and their integrity by waiting until intermission. As it waned, they walked in with the theatergoers who’d paid their money, come out to get a breath of fresh air (as fresh as it can be in midtown, anyway) and truly belonged there. The “newcomers,” if you will, saw Act Two: hence, “second-acting.”
Half a show is better than none.
But second-acters saw less than half, of course, because virtually every second act ever written has been shorter than the first. But even 40% of the show is better than none.
Many second-acters boned up on what the missing first act had offered. This was particularly true of revivals, where many went to the library and read Act One and/or listened to some of the cast album before tackling Act Two.
The apotheosis of second-acting arguably came in 1966, with the Jerome Coopersmith, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical The Apple Tree. That it was a three-act musical that allowed second-acters to see, say, 60% of the show and not just 40% was not its only asset. The Apple Tree deals with three separate stories; you needn’t see the first act to know what was going on in Acts Two and Three. Yes, the first one – “The Diary of Adam and Eve” – has always been acknowledged as the best of the three, but “The Lady or the Tiger?” and “Passionella” had plenty of pleasures to offer as well, especially in Mike Nichols’ spirited production. Barbara Harris won a Tony®, and “I’ve Got What You Want,” a marvelous double-entendre piece, was the highlight of the second act while Alan Alda (who was good enough to win a Tony®) played a rock-star-from-hell who sang a terrific Dylan parody (enhanced by an on-target orchestration by the always great Eddie Sauter) called “You Are Not Real” to the shallow and superficial Passionella.
On the other hand, those who second-acted Anyone Can Whistle may well have cursed Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim for constructing a three-act musical. The 1964 nine-performance flop flummoxed many who saw the whole thing, so imagine walking in after that convoluted first act and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Probably many who second-acted literally did wind up second-acting – by fleeing at intermission and not staying for the third frame.
And maybe they didn’t, for Act Two has four of the score’s best songs: “Come Play Wiz Me,” in which Lee Remick vamps Harry Guardino before she drops the façade in the title song. Angela Lansbury gets the song that Sondheim specifically wrote for her in Philadelphia – “A Parade in Town” – while Harry Guardino gets a great solo in a song that could have been an anthem for the upcoming hippie movement: “Everybody Says Don’t.”
It’s harder if not impossible to second-act now. After 9/11, ushers were trained to give a stern eye and a “May I see your ticket, please?” command to all intermission-returnees. In fact, those Aladdin theatergoers at the New Amsterdam who take to the sidewalk at intermission find that when they return, they’ll have to offer their tickets to be scanned once again. So if you leave even for a moment, don’t leave your ticket inside.
You will, needless to say, have more latitude when second-acting your cast albums. There are many ways of approaching this practice. You can of course literally start with a second-act opening. Some of the best openings would include the Entr’acte to Superman, which swings in that way that Charles Strouse best knows how to do; “Come Follow the Band,” the barn-burner from Barnum and Working’s “It’s an Art” in which waitress Delores Dante (literally) waltzes through her job, which she loves.
Stephen Schwartz’s accomplishment proves to be even stronger when you read Dante’s remarks in Studs Terkel’s book. Many have assumed that Schwartz was stretching things when he rhymed “barmen” with “Carmen” in order to say that Delores feels a kindship with Bizet’s character. No, Delores says that right in the book.
And what rhymes! “Though the chef may be deaf, I stay diplomatic. If I give him static, he might burn the haddock” is just one unassisted triple-play that Ruth Sherwood should immediately memorize.
You can go to the other extreme and play the final numbers from shows, especially the eleven o’clock numbers. We often think of them along the lines of “Brotherhood of Man” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – both Frank Loesser and both, in that order, the best two ever. Also give a listen to Kander and Ebb’s The Happy Time, in which three generations of the Bonnard family sing about the values of “A Certain Girl.” Here you have a grandfather played by a performer who’d already won a Tony® (David Wayne for Finian’s Rainbow), a star who’d win a Tony® for this very show (Robert Goulet) and a young actor whose Tony® was eighteen years down the line: Michael Rupert for Sweet Charity. And while we’re on the subject of Wayne and Finian’s Rainbow, don’t ever miss the chance to hear that masterpiece of wordplay that came in the show’s second act: “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near).”
But there are great eleven o’clock ballads, too. Try “I Never Know When (to Say When)” from Goldilocks. It’s a tender, wistful cri du coeur from, of all people, Elaine Stritch. Yes, we associate her with far more raucous or cynical fare: “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “The Little Things You Do Together” and “Broadway Baby.” But the lady could be a lady when she had to be, and this song of regret and the loss of a good man is a great one.
But if you just want to mix and match second-act material, I’ve got a few songs to suggest:
“El Sombrero” (Wildcat). Here’s evidence that this show wasn’t just a vehicle for Lucille Ball’s vast talents, for she barely appears in this one.
“Has I Let You Down?” (House of Flowers). Pearl Bailey is less Madame Fleur and more Pearlie Mae in this song to the point where she even blatantly demands that her back-up chorus girls behave themselves and remember that it’s the boss’s number.
“I Can Play This Part” (The Goodbye Girl). This ballad may be too rooted in show-biz lingo to be sufficiently appreciated by the masses, but I’m not worried that you won’t get the references. David Zippel certainly knows his theatrical onions, and Marvin Hamlisch wrote a lovely melody to match.
“He Had Refinement” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). People are always saying that “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls is the funniest song ever, but I always rebut with this one. Many women suddenly and staunchly state that the men they’ve lost were “saints,” and Cissy – the inimitable Shirley Booth – is in this camp. But by the song’s last section, you may judge the love of her life as more of a sinner.
“Kiss Her Now” (Dear World). After Jerry Herman wrote the snazzy New York-centric Dolly and Mame, who would have predicted he could write in a tender, French-tinged fashion? Here’s an older woman convincing a young man not to make the mistakes of youth. He’ll take her advice by song’s end.
“Melisande” (110 in the Shade). No, not Melisande Scott, Ella Peterson’s assumed identity in Bells Are Ringing, but the name that The Rainmaker chooses for plain ol’ Lizzie Curry in hopes that she can reinvent herself. What a marvelous piece of bravado by Schmidt and Jones, who usually employed a softer voice when writing. To quote the song, “Great God Amighty!”
“What More Do I Need?” (Saturday Night). If you know and love “Who Wants to Live in New York?” from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, you’ll equally enjoy this Sondheim hit that the composer-lyricist obviously had in mind when writing some decades later.
“My True Love” (Phantom). Not The Phantom of the Opera, mind you, but just-plain Phantom – the musical that composer-lyricist Maury Yeston and bookwriter Arthur Kopit wrote around the same time as Andrew Lloyd Webber started working on his. The Lord must have been on the Lord’s side, for Lloyd Webber beat the boys to Broadway. Luckily, many organizations in the ‘90s decided to take on the Yeston-Kopit version instead of waiting for the Lloyd Webber to become available. Smart move; it still isn’t. Here’s a glorious waltz that Christine sings just before she sees The Phantom without his mask, at which point, as you can imagine, the music stops.
“The Next Best Thing to Love” (A Class Act). If there were a Tony® for Best Song (and there should be; after all, Hollywood has as Oscar® category for one), I suspect that this ballad would have been the one award that “The Producers” wouldn’t have won in 2000-01. Ed Kleban of A Chorus Line fame wrote both music and lyrics to buttress his fine idea that friendship is too light a word for what certain people feel for each other.
“Our Time” (Merrily We Roll Along). Perhaps the loveliest song to ever conclude a Sondheim musical – and a nice one to conclude this article.
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.