“The Music Man – what else?”
So says Jeffrey Sheldrake in the 1960 Oscar-winning Best Picture The Apartment. The quip comes after he’s just handed over his theater tickets to Chuck Baxter, who then asked what Broadway show he’d be seeing.
In 1959, fifty-eight years ago this week, on September 12th right here in front of the Majestic (where The Music Man was then playing), The Apartment began filming. During the next four months, Fred MacMurray – a quick replacement for Paul Douglas, who’d unexpectedly died – said these words to Jack Lemmon.
But hold on, Mr. Sheldrake! This was The Golden Age of the Broadway Musical, so “What else?” could have had many impressive answers on June 15, 1960, when the film officially debuted, through the rest of the year, when it was probably still in theaters.
First and foremost, there was West Side Story. To the surprise of many of today’s musical theater aficionados, it lost the Best Musical Tony to The Music Man.
(Political elections always tell us how many votes the runners-up received; wouldn’t it be nice to know just how far or close West Side Story came to claiming that Tony?)
Whatever the case, Leonard Bernstein’s music, which will receive a lot of attention this year – 2017 leads to the composer’s centennial – sounds as fresh as when it debuted sixty years ago. No wonder that Sam Byck in Assassins, when sending Bernstein a taped message, told him “You’re a genius!” for writing “tender melodies to cherish for a lifetime.”
Others playing included future Tony-winner Bye Bye Birdie and future Tony-nominees Once Upon a Mattress, Take Me Along and Gypsy. The first three would have been ideal for Chuck, who offered the extra ticket to Fran Kubelik, the young woman with whom he’s fallen in love but doesn’t love him back (yet). His seeing Albert and Rosie, Dauntless and Winifred as well as Sid and Lily start on their marital road would have cheered Chuck, who might have dreamed that the same lovely fate would be in store for him.
Gypsy doesn’t end as happily or romantically, but it’s still the best musical of the four. There have almost been more cast recordings of that score than the other three combined. Most prefer Ethel Merman’s original and Angela Lansbury’s revival as contenders for the best, no?
Chuck would have identified with Birdie’s “Baby, Talk to Me,” Albert’s plea to Rosie; he wants Fran to talk to him more and more. Notice that this is the first song to be showcased in the overture, which suggests that it was expected to be the show’s hit song. I asked composer Charles Strouse about this and he said, yes, that’s what he’d anticipated. As Ain’t Misbehavin’ taught us, “One never knows, do one?” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” which wasn’t even in the overture, was destined to be the big hit along with “Put on a Happy Face.”
Once Upon a Mattress has The Greatest Set of Lyrics by a One-Hit Wonder: Marshall Barer. He worked on six Broadway shows, but this was the only one for which he was the sole lyricist; most of the others were revues to which he’d contributed.
Barer’s other five ran an average of seventy-five performances, but Mattress played Broadway for more than a year and has rarely been out of the public’s consciousness since its 1959 debut. There have been one Broadway revival, three TV specials and tens of thousands of stock and amateur productions. Listen to “An Opening for a Princess,” “Shy” and “Happily Ever After” and you’ll understand why.
And yet, of these three Tony nominees, Take Me Along arguably has the best score. If Bob Merrill could musicalize Eugene O’Neill’s serious play Anna Christie, he could certainly thrive with O’Neill’s only comedy: Ah, Wilderness! It has The Best Reprise in Musical Theater History: “Staying Young” in which Nat Miller (Walter Pidgeon) abandons the denial he had when he sang the complete song earlier in the show.
By June 15, 1960, The Sound of Music ‘s “Do-Re-Mi” was being sung by little kids all around the country. Even if you feel the song is oh-so-sticky-sweet, admit that the idea and inspiration behind it are brilliant.
How Oscar Hammerstein must have tortured himself to find a different meaning for “la” before settling for the desperate “a note to follow sol.” It would have been too much for Maria to know a certain Gershwin musical from 1919 to sing “La, as in La, La Lucille.” Besides, that would have killed the “brings us back to doe” rhyme needed for song’s end.
“Do-Re-Mi” is not to be confused with Do Re Mi, the musical that opened on December 26, 1960. It’s one of the precious few musicals to get seven approvals from the critics who then reviewed for the – yes! – seven daily New York City newspapers.
Given that by that date the “Do-Re-Mi” song had received thirteen months of attention on TV, radio and recordings, why didn’t composer Jule Styne, lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green – and even bookwriter Garson Kanin who penned the novella Do Re Mi that inspired the musical – opt for a new title? They must have inferred that they had a hit song in “Make Someone Happy” for they even arranged for it to become the show-closing reprise. So why didn’t they choose that as a title?
Irma La Douce has a number of glorious melodies: “The Bridge of Caulaincourt,” “Our Language of Love” and the title song. The surprise is that “From a Prison Cell,” sung by demoralized inmates, is the most beautiful of them all.
Chuck would have attended Camelot soon after its December 3, 1960 opening, so he would have heard “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness,” which would be excised around the time winter exited Camelot on March 2nd. They’re terrific songs, but bookwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner yearned to shorten his lengthy show. Luckily he didn’t drop the two before the original cast album was recorded, so we can now and forever enjoy and appreciate them.
Wildcat opened in December, too, but considering what a big star Lucille Ball was, I almost feel that Sheldrake wouldn’t have given up his tickets to that show even to consort with Fran.
There is one (and only one) musical that both opened before The Music Man and was still running after Willson’s hit had closed: My Fair Lady.
Have you ever noticed that the two shows have a few commonalities? And I don’t just mean that Henry Higgins and Harold Hill have the same initials.
Both men are wary of the female sex. Henry however seems more intractable (“I shall never let a woman in my life”) than Harold; “The Sadder but Wiser Girl for Me” indicates that he entertains the possibility of becoming involved with someone as long as she’s smarter and more experienced than the average lass.
What’s more, both musicals had leading men who weren’t natural singers. (You don’t own any solo albums by Harrison or Preston, do you?) Thus they were given songs that relied more on patter (“A Hymn to Him” and “Ya Got Trouble”) than melody (the exceptions being “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and small sections of “Till There Was You” and “Goodnight, My Someone”). All, of course, are worth hearing.
There’s also one musical that Messrs. Sheldrake and Baxter couldn’t have seen until the decade was coming to a close, but one with which they would have greatly identified: Promises, Promises – the musical version of The Apartment.
Funny; Promises’ bookwriter Neil Simon, composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David chose to change The Music Man tickets to ducats for The New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. That inspired one of the fine score’s best songs: Chuck’s delight when he learns of Fran that “She Likes Basketball.”
When you think of it, the tickets didn’t have to be switched from a show to a game, for the word “musicals” scans perfectly with “basketball.” Perhaps the creators felt that “She Likes Musicals” would be too self-referential.
That’s true … but there were some wonderfully good musicals playing during the Promises, Promises run that Chuck would have enjoyed, and even Fran would have preferred to an evening with that skunk Sheldrake.
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.