SHRINK RAP By Peter Filichia
Do psychiatrists really take off the entire month of August?
Judith Rossner certainly substantiated this belief in her novel – called, naturally enough, AUGUST.
However, a 2010 Wall Street Journal article said a psychiatrist’s skipping 31 consecutive midsummer days had become a thing of the past.
That’s good news for our 21st-century musical theater characters, from Diana in NEXT TO NORMAL to Usher in A STRANGE LOOP. Each could certainly use some help every month of the year.
But what about those 20th-century musical theater characters who preceded them? Some who required ‘round-the-year care endured four long weeks without sympathy (and, of course. no tea). They saved a bundle, yes, but they may have experienced a few setbacks.
That Dr. Brooks wasn’t on vacation was a lifesaver for Liza Elliott, who desperately needed him in the first musical to deal with psychoanalysis: LADY IN THE DARK in 1941. Ms. Elliott was the editor-in-chief of successful Allure magazine, but she was haunted by a melody and couldn’t understand why.
We can’t, either, when we hear it: “My Ship” is quite a beautiful song, courtesy of composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Ira Gershwin.
LADY IN THE DARK opened on January 23, 1941, and ran until June 15, when it took a vacation. It resumed on September 1 – meaning that it had missed the entire month of August. Was this Moss Hart’s way of saying that if his psychiatrist could be away in August, he – the show’s director as well as its librettist – could skip popping in every now and then to ensure that the musical was still in good shape?
Dr. Mark Bruckner in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER seems willing to spend August and every other month ensuring that the woman he loves will “Come Back to Me.” Daisy does, but she really shouldn’t; Mark really loves her alter ego, Melinda. If you ask me, Dr. Bruckner should see a psychiatrist.
And you should see your way into hearing some of Burton Lane’s best melodies and Alan Jay Lerner’s best lyrics.
Cora Hoover Hooper’s electorate in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE would have been better off if J. Bowden Hapgood had taken an August vacation. Listen to “Simple” – the lengthiest cut on an original cast album up to that time, weighing in at 13 minutes – and you’ll be able to perceive what WHISTLE’s townies couldn’t. Hapgood is a phony who dazzles with wordplay and eschews logic: “The opposite of left is right. The opposite of right is wrong. So, anyone who’s left is wrong – right?”
(Not necessarily …)
On the cast album of PUTTING IT TOGETHER, hear “Country House,” which Stephen Sondheim wrote for the 1987 London production of FOLLIES.
Phyllis and Ben, married for decades, are in a rut so deep that they may yet journey to the center of the earth. In a half-hearted attempt to save their marriage, each offers a possible solution to what we know are unsolvable problems.
After Phyllis suggests that they purchase a summer place, she says she wants it to be (to quote an earlier Sondheim song) by the sea, at the same moment that Ben states it should be (to paraphrase a later Sondheim song) in the woods.
Eventually Phyllis asks, “You want to see a friendly shrink?” No, Ben doesn’t – any more than he welcomes her proposition to adopt a child or, second choice, a St. Bernard. So, he quickly returns to the idea of a country house, which at song’s end they seem poised to purchase.
You know it won’t solve anything, and frankly, they do, too. Even in 1971, late into their every-day-a-little-death marriage, Phyllis and Ben should have grabbed the chance to get help during a psychiatrist’s 11 available months. Then the couple could limit its unsupervised free-for-alls for August and August alone.
In “Uptown/Downtown,” which Sondheim also wrote for FOLLIES, Phyllis had a chanson-a-clef in which she called herself “Harriet, the neuro from New Rochelle.” Poor Harriet made so many contradictory decisions in her life. “It’s so schizo,” she sang, in a song that was only heard during some days of February and March, 1971 in Boston. So, Phyllis/Harriet didn’t remotely make it to August.
“Uptown/Downtown” – available on the cast album of MARRY ME A LITTLE – may have been Sondheim’s greatest accomplishment as a lyricist; its internal rhymes are not, as the cliché goes, to die for but to live for. It’s excision is inexplicable.
FLYING OVER SUNSET takes us to the 1950s, when superstar Cary Grant received LSD from his psychiatrist. Grant, like so many lonely-at-the-toppers, plaintively and poignantly expresses that he doesn’t have it all in “I Have It All.”
So, Dr. Harris gives Grant LSD, which sends the star’s mind back to his youth when he was merely Cockney lad Archie Leach. Grant’s altered state has him see himself now and himself then. Both versions express such considerable joy in “Funny Money” that Grant is glad to have taken LSD.
At first. Grant may ultimately wish that Dr. Harris had taken a trip in August so that he wouldn’t have taken his own trip.
Tom Kitt’s melody and Michael Korie’s lyrics gave great opportunities to Tony Yazbeck as the adult Grant and Atticus Ware as the young Leach. They excel in voice, yes, but in dance, too, as the cast album replicates their show-stopping tapping.
The title character of YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN ultimately rues that “The Doctor Is In,” for she’s Lucy, his biggest critic. Charlie’s back-to-school “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” essay in September would be much sunnier if Lucy the “doctor” had taken off August.
(But then we wouldn’t have had this delightful Clark Gesner song.)
“You never need an analyst when Bobby’s around,” sing his friends in COMPANY. Well, perhaps they do, considering how neurotic so many of them are shown to be in the Sondheim-Furth masterpiece. Bobby can’t keep Sarah from eating brownies or Harry from sneaking a scotch. Any attempt he’d make to convince Peter and Susan to not divorce would be fruitless. Give Bobby credit, though, for helping Amy in “Getting Married Today” through his pep talk-turned-entreaty.
Do psychiatrists in France sail away during August as well? If so, that’s bad news for the tortured man who regrets that “Mathilde is coming back to me” in JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS.
His non-stop angst shows a fiery love/hate relationship with his old girlfriend. He assumed that she was gone for good, and then she got back in touch. He knows that this mercurial woman is as toxic as mercury, but what can he do, given that she has the music that makes him dance? Only his psychiatrist might know for sure, so for this homme’s sake, let’s hope that it isn’t août.
In MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, Charley Kringas appears on Jeffrey Nye’s talk show and complains that the Franklin Shepard he once knew has changed into “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” Things have gotten so bad between them that Charley needs to “discuss him with my shrink.”
We’re told that this outburst took place in 1973, but we weren’t informed in which month. May we infer that it happened in August? Had Charley’s psychiatrist been on the job, he might have delivered the comfort and advice that would have stopped Charley from making this on-air, live-in-living-color eruption.
Not everyone would willingly go to a psychiatrist, no matter what month it was. Action, a Jet in WEST SIDE STORY’s “Gee, Officer Krupke,” resents that a court-appointed order will “take him to a headshrinker” who, he believes, will judge him “sick.” On the other hand, both Jonathan and Susan in tick, tick … BOOM! know they need “Therapy,” for their song specifically states that they have an appointment tomorrow.
(And not a moment too soon. Even Larson’s music manages to sound neurotic.)
What musical theater character most needs a psychiatrist? Julio from PAINT YOUR WAGON. Any guy who sings “I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me” should be seeking professional help. Maybe the reason that he later sings about “Another Autumn” is because he wants August to end so he can get on the couch. At least Julio’s problems resulted in two beautiful songs that are worth hearing every month of the year.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.