Sixty years ago this week, one of the most anticipated events in the history of television took place:
PETER PAN in color.
The first two broadcasts of the musical version of the James M. Barrie classic in 1955 and 1956 had to settle for black and white. But by 1960, color TV had made its way into many more homes. This gave Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard the chance to take a rainbow tour with their respective roles as Peter and Captain Hook.
Martin once again sang the ebullient “I Gotta Crow,” the soaring “I’m Flying,” the soft-shoe “Wendy,” the defiant “I Won’t Grow Up,” the spirited “Ugg-a-Wugg,” the haunting “Distant Melody” as well as “Neverland,” as beautiful a melody as Jule Styne ever wrote.
She also duetted with Ritchard in the coloratura-ful “Mysterious Lady,” one of Captain Hook’s few singing opportunities. Writing for a villain is never easy; characters who are out for no good tend NOT to sing. Composer Moose Charlap and lyricist Carolyn Leigh ameliorated the problem by making their Captain Hook a fan of fine music.
He tells his crew “I must think! Inspire me! Play, you dogs!”
His boatswain Smee asks “What tempo, Captain?”
“Tempo, tempo, tempo,” Hook muses, before deciding “A tango!”
And the pirates oblige (with a pretty good one at that).
So if a tango is Hook’s first choice, let us, to commemorate the broadcast’s sixtieth anniversary, play some others that Hook might enjoy. They won’t be hard to find, for composers writing for Broadway have long embraced the form, be they those just starting out (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, “Hernando’s Hideaway,” THE PAJAMA GAME) all the way to those who’d been around the Broadway block dozens of times (Richard Rodgers, “No Other Love,” ME AND JULIET).
You might rebut “Hook’s dead!” Yes, a semiaquatic reptile had decided that the guy sure looked like croc food to him. Captain dear, oh, we hope you’re down there listening, for these are for you:
Because the tango originated in Buenos Aires, let’s start with EVITA. Given that it’s a dance associated with passion and romance, Andrew Lloyd Webber was wise to choose a tango for Eva Duarte when she came on to Juan Peron in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.”
The sixteen men in IRMA LA DOUCE showed their passion for the one woman in their cast in “She’s Got the Lot.” Although the musical takes place in Paris, there’s room for a nice Spanish pun: “You cannot resist the way she makes café au lait!” – with “Au lait” a homonym for “Ole!” an exclamation that’s part of the tango lexicon. If Captain Hook got to hear that smart lyric, he’d undoubtedly give out with one of his distinctive “heh-heh-heh-heh” laughs.
You wouldn’t think that a song called “Garbage” would be a tango. But in DEAR WORLD, when The Sewerman mentions “pâté de foie gras, Thursday’s gardenias, ribbons and orange rinds, a volume of Chaucer bound in Morocco,” he’s referring to a time when he could still be passionate about his work, for what people were throwing away was then classier than what he’s been lately collecting. Thus Jerry Herman decided to have fun by having him romantically nostalgic.
Considering that BALLROOM was all about dancing and romance, the inclusion of a tango is no surprise. It’s an instrumental, which you don’t find in abundance on cast albums. But there is REDHEAD’s “Pick Pocket Tango.” It’s great dance music, although we’re just going to have to imagine how splendid Tony-winner Gwen Verdon must have been.
Much harder to picture, however, is Ethel Merman doing a tango. And yet, she was certainly part of one in HAPPY HUNTING. Maybe Fay Apple in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE could dance a tango as easily as she could read Greek, but it somehow doesn’t seem the ideal dance for The Merm.
Ah, but the song was called “A New-Fangled Tango.” As the lyrics taught us, “There’s nothing to it. You just sort of stand there and just sort of do it.” Merman could manage that. And to make matters even easier for her, she and some chorus members were packed in an elevator. No wonder that at one point she exclaims “Who’s dancing?!”
Although we’ve oft heard that “It takes two to tango,” some musical theater tangos have involved three. Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim wrote a fine one for DO I HEAR A WALTZ? “No Understand” features Stuart Damon, who’d recently been the Prince in the 1965 remake of CINDERELLA, dealing with two women: Carol Bruce, whose “Bill” in the 1946 revival of SHOW BOAT is in the running for the definitive version, and Fleury D’Antonakis, who brings to mind a subsequent Sondheim lyric: “Whatever happened to her?”
“The Great Lover Tango” in IRENE also involves a threesome: Monte Markham (who stayed with the show only two months before leaving to become TV’s new Perry Mason) consorts with Carmen Alvarez and Janie Sell. The former had appeared in Broadway musicals from A (THE APPLE TREE) to Z (ZORBA); the latter won a Tony in her next musical: OVER HERE!
In “Tango: Maureen” in RENT, Mark and Joanne ruminate on the performance artist they both love. The tango suggests that each would prefer to be dancing with her instead of with each other.
Jonathan Larson wrote a marvelous joke: Joanne establishes that she learned to tango “with the French ambassador’s daughter in her dorm room at Miss Porter’s” before Mark admits he received his training “With Nanette Himmelfarb, the rabbi’s daughter at the Scarsdale Jewish Community Center.” Moral of the story? You need not to go to the loftiest or most rarefied schools to learn what you need to know.
What musical has the shortest tango? The fifteen-second section in TAKE ME ALONG’s reprise of “Staying Young.” Nat Miller starts the song as a 4/4 ballad, insisting that “everyone around me’s getting old – but me.” As proof, he offers that he gets “looks from girls, from sweet things in curls – some of them as young as forty!” And to prove that he still can feel passion, he changes the tempo to a genuine tango before he calms down again and admits that “everyone around me’s getting old – LIKE me.”
Did Fred Ebb write the lyric to CHICAGO’s “Cell Block Tango” before John Kander set it to music? If Ebb went first, he may not have had a tango in mind; perhaps he wrote it as “He Had It Comin’,” which is the song’s logical title – at least until Kander said to him something like, “You know, setting it to a tango would be fun because, as Jerry Herman wrote in ‘Dancing’ in DOLLY, that form of music is ‘filled with passion seething.’ And these ladies have committed crimes of passion.”
By the way, an early draft of CHICAGO shows that Mona in “Cell Block Tango” didn’t kill Al Lipschitz, that “real artistic guy” who “was always trying to find himself” and found “Ruth, Gladys, Rosemary and Irving.” Mona originally landed in jail because of a bridge game she and her husband Arthur were enjoying with neighbors. When she mistakenly played the wrong card, Arthur stood up and slapped her. In response, she picked up one of the sculptures they owned and beaned him to death. That sculpture was by Jacques Lipschitz (1891-1973), a Cubist artist who was popular in the twenties.
(The rewrite is more believable, isn’t it?)
Even if Captain Hook had access to the entire Masterworks Broadway catalogue, he might miss a tango or two because some song titles indicate otherwise. Despite the title “Ballad of Immoral Earnings,” as the Brecht lyric was translated in the 1976 revival of THE THREEPENNY OPERA, the Kurt Weill melody is distinctively a tango. MILK AND HONEY’s “Hymn to Hymie” is hardly a hymn, although widowed Clara certainly prays that her late husband will take pity on her and give her permission to remarry. She uses a racehorse as a metaphor: “I’m too old for Hialeah, but too young to shoot.”
Well, these should keep Captain Hook occupied for a while. As for me, given that his next request was for a tarantella, you’ll excuse me while I go on a search for those so I’ll be ready for PETER PAN’s sixty-first anniversary of its color broadcast.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’ll be contributing to the new magazine Encore Monthly starting in January.