Show Tunes for Friendship Day By Peter Filichia
As much as I enjoy Lorelei Lee – be she played by Carol Channing on the original 1949 cast album or Megan Hilty on the 2012 Encores! recording of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – the benign gold-digger will never convince me that “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
A person is.
So let’s celebrate our friends on this Sunday, August 6, which is Friendship Day around the world. If you’ve been a bit curmudgeonly lately, let show tunes that center on friends put you in a perkier mood.
(Don’t they almost always?)
Let’s start at the very beginning of time. In The Apple Tree, you’d think that Eve – literally The First Lady – is speaking of First Man Adam as well as The Snake when she sings “Friends.” No – Mark Twain, who wrote Eve’s Diary, gave lyricist Sheldon Harnick the inspiration to write a song that was far more inventive. The naïve Eve is looking into a pond, notices her reflection, likes “who” she sees and assumes that they’ll now be “Friends.”
Plenty of people will tell you that Cole Porter’s “Friendship” comes from Anything Goes – and will “prove” it to you by taking out their charming and intimate-sounding 1962 off-Broadway cast album and/or the big and brassy 1987 Broadway revival cast album with no less than Patti LuPone. On each, “Friendship” is prominently listed, so how could anyone doubt?
But in actuality, when Anything Goes made its 1934 debut, “Friendship” wasn’t part of the show. Ethel Merman was, but she wouldn’t sing “Friendship” for five years, until Cole Porter wrote it for her and Bert Lahr for their 1939 hit DuBarry Was a Lady.
The DuBarry duet became an Anything trio, for it nicely expresses how Reno Sweeney, Billy Crocker and Moonface Martin are getting along. As a result, “Friendship” has been part of Anything Goes in virtually all subsequent revivals.
On the subject of Cole Porter, there’s “The Friendliest Thing” in What Makes Sammy Run? The title refers to a benign euphemism for carnal intercourse.
Wait a minute, you’re saying – Cole Porter didn’t write What Makes Sammy Run? – Ervin Drake did. Right you are – but I always think of Porter when I hear this excellent song, for I do believe it’s one that the legendary composer-lyricist would have admired or even had wished he’d written.
I hope Porter at least got to hear “The Friendliest Thing.” He died on October 15, 1964, only a matter of months after Sammy’s February 27, 1964 opening. Porter was terribly infirm by then and a recluse as a result of his amputated leg, so chances are that he didn’t see the show. Perhaps someone at least got him a copy of the original cast album.
During early childhood, which of us didn’t have an imaginary friend? (Well, I suppose that the better-adjusted of us didn’t.) But Rod of Avenue Q is a little long-in-the-tooth to have one in “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada.” There’s no such person, but Rod wants his neighbors to think there is, lest they assume that he’s – horrors! – gay.
Luckily, Julie Andrews has The Boy Friend who’s very real. Of course, they’ll endure a bit of strife, mixed messages and conclusion-jumping, but Sandy Wilson knew how to make it all end happily in Britain’s biggest Broadway hit of the ‘50s.
“I am my own best friend” claim both Chicago’s Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly after their respective setbacks. Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera sing it on the 1975 original cast album while Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth represent the revival of twenty-one years later. And here we are, almost twenty-one years later still, and Broadway audiences continue to hear this duet eight times a week in the longest-running American musical.
However, if you saw the show from August 8th through September 13th, 1975, you did not hear “My Own Best Friend” as a duet. During this five-week span, Liza Minnelli spelled an ailing Verdon as Roxie, but only after she’d asked (or more likely) demanded that she do the song as a solo.
Bob Fosse acceded – possibly because Minnelli was being a great friend in agreeing to start rehearsals on a Tuesday and begin performances on Friday.
When I asked Chita Rivera about her being bumped from the number, she said “Awww, Liza wanted to do it” in a dismissive no-big-deal voice that assured that she wasn’t at all rankled. How’s that for a good friend?
Verdon had a number of great numbers in Chicago, but none arguably eclipsed her tour-de-force in Sweet Charity that acknowledged her pals Nikki, Helene and all the other dance hall hostesses at the Fandango Ballroom. Hence, “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” her quintessential Act One showstopper in which she celebrated the night she would almost-but-not-quite enjoy with Italian film idol Vittorio Vidal.
There are those who’ll tell you that Pearl Bailey was often unfriendly, but her endearing rendition of “What Is a Friend For?” from House of Flowers may well be another example of what a good actress she was. It’s just one gem in the Harold Arlen-Truman Capote (yes, that Truman Capote) score.
That Sweeney Todd regards the tools of his (barber) trade as “My Friends” isn’t in itself ominous. And yet, the way he uses these friends against his enemies will turn out to be decidedly unfriendly.
At least Jack of Beanstalk fame has a friend who has some life in him: Milky White, his beloved pet cow. “I guess this is goodbye, old pal; you’ve been a perfect friend,” he mourns early in Into the Woods. Abel Frake in State Fair does Jack one better, for he believes that his pig is “More Than Just a Friend.”
Any mention of pigs makes me think of “Yer My Friend, Aintcha?” from New Girl in Town. If you’re in a funk about friends or anything else, try listening to this one for it may make you smile when you hear its misplaced modifier.
It happens after the very earthy Marthy (Tony-winner Thelma Ritter) and the equally coarse Chris pledge friendship despite their reservations. Sings Marthy, “A guy said you ain’t fit for pigs down Larry’s bar.” That rather sounds as if genuine porkers hang out at Larry’s establishment.
Of course, what Marthy meant and should have sung was “A guy in Larry’s bar said you weren’t fit for pigs.” That wouldn’t make it any more of a compliment, but at least it would have made for a grammatical improvement.
Sad to say, at least two of the “Old Friends” in Merrily We Roll Along don’t pass the test of time. Don’t let this happen to you! Get in touch with your friends on Friendship Day and, better still, listen to these songs together, wherever you go.
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.