I don’t remember exactly where I was on March 11, 1973, but I certainly know where I wasn’t.
Alas, you wouldn’t have found me at the Shubert Theatre in New York where SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE was happening.
That Sunday night, I was probably in my suburban Boston home watching M*A*S*H and Mannix when I could have been experiencing Mallory, McCarty, McKechnie and McMartin – Victoria, Mary, Donna and John, that is.
Yes, I’d been fortunate enough to have seen them all in the Boston tryouts of COMPANY, FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. But oh, to have been at 225 West 44th Street in New York City, instead of 52 Hemlock Street in Arlington, where I could hear them and a cast of 29 others sing 42 of the master’s songs.
At least, some weeks later the cast album arrived. After I tore the shrink-wrap off the double-record jacket and saw the song list, I shrieked.
“We’re Going to Be All Right”?!
That throwaway from DO I HEAR A WALTZ?
Sure, it’s an okay song. For a special occasion like this, though, why would they choose that one?
And for that matter, a celebration of Sondheim, even at this point in his theatrical career, should have relied on songs for which he wrote both music and lyrics. He prided himself on his composing ability as much, if not more, as his lyric-writing prowess. Because “We’re Gonna Be All Right” had music by Richard Rodgers – who would not rank high on Sondheim’s list of favorite people – that made the song’s selection even more of a mystery.
That wasn’t my only “What?! WHAT?!” Of all people, they chose Nancy Walker to do “I’m Still Here”?!?!
Sure, Walker was terrific in DO RE MI, but that was more than a dozen years earlier, and she hadn’t performed on Broadway since. Yes, ibdb.com says that a Nancy Walker portrayed a Mannequin in FOLIES BERGÈRE in 1964, but that couldn’t be she, could it? The Playbill for FOLIES BERGÈRE offers no bio for her.
But now she would do one of FOLLIES’ greatest songs? With Angela Lansbury and Ethel Shutta on hand – each of whom had done a Sondheim musical on Broadway – why choose Walker, who, yes, had done FORUM in California but didn’t take it to the Lunt-Fontanne.
By 1973, Walker had been relegated to second- or even third-banana status on a sitcom and a weekly TV murder mystery. Last but definitely least, she was doing TV commercials where she portrayed a waitress toiling in a New Jersey diner and promoting a certain brand of paper towels.
That I was able to put the record on the spindle was in itself amazing, considering that my eyes were half-closed with condescension. But one listen to that first song on Side Four showed me how utterly wrong I had been to pre-judge.
“We’re Going to Be All Right” turned out to be The Song of the Year. It wasn’t a mere replication of the matter-of-fact ditty on the otherwise excellent cast album of DO I HEAR A WALTZ? There, Eddie and Jennifer, an unhappily married couple, pretend or want to believe that “We’re Gonna Be All Right.” By the next track on the album – DO I HEAR A WALTZ’s terrific title tune – a listener could be pardoned for not even remembering what had come before it.
But who knew that Sondheim much earlier had written an eight-bar verse that he brought back twice more in the song? What’s more, aside from “We’re gonna be all right,” not one phrase from Sondheim’s original lyric was retained in WALTZ.
Sondheim originally envisioned that Eddie and Jennifer would tell a bleaker tale of marriage. (That’s our boy!) In fact, the twosome wind up divorced. Part of the problem was the fault of the husband: “Sometimes he’s homosexual.”
Would this have been the first time in any musical that the word “homosexual” would have been used in a song? (If you can think of an earlier example, let me know.) Whatever the case, how could Sondheim think for even a second that the famously homophobic Rodgers (not to mention his wife Dorothy) would want this in his show? The composer’s previous collaboration with a lyricist was THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
Sondheim’s original “We’re Gonna Be All Right” also offers wit (“She’s out in Reno; the kids adored the flight”) and clever rhymes (“Their lives are at the pinnacle … the groom is slightly cynical.”) That wasn’t surprising, because this was Sondheim, after all.
How interesting that in three subsequent high-profile revivals of DO I HEAR A WALTZ? (each produced long after Rodgers’ death), this original version has been reinstated. Granted, in the ensuing decades, audiences have long become accustomed to a mention of homosexuality in musicals; now it doesn’t create the pearl-clutching that it would have in 1965. But here’s another piece of evidence that Sondheim was willing to take risks.
Last week I wrote about the advantages of having a song start the side of a record if one wants to play it over and over again, because the band at the edge is wider and easier to positon a needle. Bless the producers of SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE for putting “We’re Gonna Be All Right” in the number one spot.
The second song is still the most glorious opening number of any musical: “Beautiful Girls” from FOLLIES. Here, Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins – two of the original Weissman Girls – were introduced with Angela Lansbury, Hermione Gingold and the aforementioned Nancy Walker. The crowd at the Shubert that night can be heard going – well, wild is much too weak a word to describe the cheers and applause. Let’s call their reaction wild to the umpteenth power.
And my doubts about Walker not doing justice to “I’m Still Here” were more solidified when I thought “This ‘Beautiful Girls’ is quite a hard act to follow. The poor soul!”
And Filichia’s wrong again.
Sondheim stated more than once that he thought Walker’s rendition was the best of them all, and I agree. Just the way she sings “was” on “Three bucks a night was the pay” made it seem as if she’d really had the experience of dancing in her scanties and getting an insulting amount for her troubles and humiliation.
Those of us who saw FOLLIES early in the Boston run – or hadn’t seen FOLLIES at all – found Walker’s rendition priceless for another reason. Until this recording, only those who’d been in the Winter Garden and had witnessed the finished FOLLIES had no idea that there were many more lyrics in “I’m Still Here.” We only knew an original cast album that had been merciless in its amputation of lyrics.
Now we could hear the section that dealt with Gandhi and his contemporaries. Hearing the words “Beebe’s Bathysphere” sent me to the encyclopedia in the long-before-the-Internet days. As for Brenda Frazier, talking to older people who’d lived through her reign as the nation’s most publicized debutante made me understand why Sondheim included her.
Sure, the rest of the album offered songs that I’d only heard once before, such as “Silly People,” which George Lee Andrews had to endure being cut from NIGHT MUSIC, but now getting a second chance to do it here.
SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE also gave me songs I’d never heard before: “Pleasant Little Kingdom,” earmarked for FOLLIES, was cut early in the show’s genesis.
Those were all very well and very good, but nothing could compare to the discoveries of “We’re Gonna Be All Right” and Nancy Walker’s “I’m Still Here.” And how right that Kurt Peterson, who thought of doing the show, made sure that a company recorded it. Bless Masterworks Broadway for ensuring that it’s still here.
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 – is now available on Amazon.