Don’t you just love when a Broadway lyricist thinks of A Great Idea for a Song?
We’re not just talking about clever “squabble-Bob’ll”-type rhymes but an idea for a song that wouldn’t occur to a run-of-the-mill lyricist.
My nominees for Greatest Song Idea of the Decade? In the forties, E.Y. Harburg for “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near)” (FINIAN’S RAINBOW). The fifties? Oscar Hammerstein’s teaching seven kids the musical scale via “Do-Re-Mi” (THE SOUND OF MUSIC, as if you didn’t know).
Although the sixties had more than nine-and-a-half years to go when BYE BYE BIRDIE opened, no one for the rest of the decade had an idea as original as Lee Adams’ “The Telephone Hour.” The seventies yielded Stephen Sondheim’s “Who’s That Woman?” (FOLLIES) – also known as “The Mirror Number” for good reason – and the best reason why this was that decade’s winner.
Fred Ebb’s “The Grass Is Always Greener” (WOMAN OF THE YEAR) was the showpiece of the eighties. The final decade of the last century saw Maury Yeston get the honor for “Mr. Andrews’ Vision” (TITANIC), and, for the first decade of this new century, Craig Carnelia’s “At the Fountain” (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS) was the one to beat (and no song did).
You, of course, have your own Great Ideas on the Great Ideas for Songs. And while this second decade of the twenty-first century won’t be over for nearly thirteen more months (for a decade doesn’t end with the “9” year but the “0” one — because there was never a Year Zero, was there?), you may well agree with me on Jan. 1, 2021 that the 2011-2020 decade’s Greatest Idea for a Song came from two-time Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Kitt: “Laundry for Two” from SUPERHERO.
Kate Baldwin sang it then and now on the just-released original cast album. She does it splendidly, as you’d expect from one of our current most prized musical theater actresses. In the three Broadway productions that Baldwin was with from Day One, she received Tony nominations for two of them.
Here she plays Charlotte who laments doing “Laundry for Two.” There was a time that she did laundry for three: herself, her husband and son Simon (Kyle McArthur, in a most impressive debut).
Then her husband was killed in a hit-and-run accident.
“I keep trying to run towards the future but I can’t shake the past,” Charlotte thinks out loud after she’s taken the clothes out of the dryer. She’s “trying to lose myself in the blues and the whites,” but can’t shake the blues at all.
Charlotte tries to rationalize. Laundry for two, after all, “doesn’t cost as much and there’s less to fold … use a bit less bleach.” Yet a single mother can only think that way for so long. What’s more, she realizes that the day will come when she’s doing laundry for one, for looking at Simon’s clothes makes her see that “he grew from small to large in the blink of an eye.”
She catches herself and gets back in control of herself by the end of the song. She has to. She has no choice. “But I get laundry for two –and dinner for two.”
Even without this effort, SUPERHERO would have contenders for The Decade’s Greatest Idea for a Song. Simon wants back “My Dad, the Superhero.” He recalls the comparatively carefree days when he thought “If it’s late at night and you’re still not home, I know that you will be all right.”
And then came the day when Dad wasn’t able to come home: “‘Cuz it didn’t take Lex Luthor to send you on your way; just a car that didn’t see you on that breezy autumn day.”
So Simon has had to create in his head a new Superhero: Sea-Mariner. “He can heal the world’s suffering and pain,” sings Simon, who wishes he had that ability for both him and his mother.
For every protagonist there’s an antagonist, so Simon invents Crush. Simon knows the best way for such a cur to display his villainy is to have him capture a fair maiden. That way Sea-Mariner – Simon’s alter-ego – can rescue her. Simon has fantasies along these lines, as we’ll soon see.
A son’s having a vivid imagination is nice, but, as every mother will tell you, only to a point. “What’s Happening to My Boy?” Charlotte wonders in song. She knows the answer to her own question: “So young, yet he’s seen so much.”
What parent won’t relate to Charlotte’s “I try to talk to you, but you’ve got nothing to say”? They’ll also nod their heads in recognition when they hear her state “What are you hiding?”
Simon will divulge to his mom that he wants to fix her up with Jim, “The Man in 4-B” (the always superb Bryce Pinkham). Charlotte resists the set-up before admitting that the guy “does have an air of mystery.”
Lady, you don’t know the HALF of the half of it. The musical (or at least the liner notes) will show this to be quite an understatement.
“How Do You Do This Again?” Charlotte anxiously wonders before going on her first date since her husband’s death. “I never thought I’d have another night like this” she mourns before admitting “It’s nice to be wrong for a change.” You go, Charlotte!
In the grand tradition of musicals having a romantic subplot, Simon believes Vee (the spunky Salena Qureshi) his girl of choice who doesn’t seem to be inclined to choose him. When she’s threatened by her ex, Simon decides “I’ll Save the Girl.” Writers of musicals long ago realized that some songs in a show should move the action forward. So Kitt has Simon go from wishing he could do something to keeping Vee safe to staunchly deciding he will.
Thus the action moves forward – alas, only to have it move backward again when Simon backtracks and feels that he doesn’t have the wherewithal to save Vee. How sad to see him retreat into the cocoon he thought he’d shed.
(Isn’t adolescence maddening?)
Well, “It’s Not Like in the Movies” Jim admits in what’s probably the first song in a musical to mention CGI. In fact, what does eventually happen is not unlike the plots of certain movies we see today.
Kitt has Simon and Vee bond in “If I Only Had One Day,” which has a similar feel to “Poems” in PACIFIC OVERTURES. In fact, after Vee sings that she’d “binge on ice cream”, she actually says to Simon “Your turn” as Kayama and Manjiro do in the Sondheim masterpiece.
(Simon’s response may surprise you, for it might seem to be an answer given by a Baby Boomer.)
Their relationship may be accelerating, but Charlotte and Jim feel they’re “In Between.” PAINT YOUR WAGON has a song by the same title, but Kitt’s will never be confused with it. Charlotte notes that “Days, weeks and months, they go by in a blur and you cannot find the present tense.” Both she and Jim agree that each of their lives is “not black or white – it’s in between.” They’re on the same page, yes, but in separate books on different shelves.
Kitt’s music is up to his lyrics. It’s pop rock that’s distinctive for the adult and teen characters. A highlight occurs in “It Happens to You,” for when Charlotte imagines sex with Jim, Kitt’s melody really soars.
It comes back to earth when Charlotte must remind Simon in the show’s title song that “Superheroes can be folks who keep their feet on the ground whose superhero strength is just to face another day.”
A woman likes that deserves to have laundry for three – and to have Simon and Jim do it for her.