The Big Bajour
By Peter Filichia —
Forty-seven years ago this week, musical theater enthusiasts added a new word to their foreign-language vocabulary.
They’d already learned “L’chaim!” from Fiddler on the Roof, “Dis-Donc” from Irma La Douce, “Moritat” from The Threepenny Opera, “Rahadlakum” from Kismet, “Abbondanza” from The Most Happy Fella, “Preludium” from The Sound of Music and — from My Fair Lady — “take” instead of “tike.”
But in addition to those words from seven different tongues, on Nov. 23, 1964, they learned another from the Romany language that gypsies speak.
It means “swindle.”
It was also the name of the 1964 musical in which Cockeye Johnny Dembo and his son Steve – as well as their rivals The King of Newark and his daughter Anyanka – try to pull a bajour on the gajos – non-gypsies – who populate New York City. Soon Emily Kirsten, a Ph.D. who’d made gypsies the subject of her thesis, and her mother had become involved.
Bookwriter Ernest Kinoy and composer-lyricist Walter Marks adapted Joseph Mitchell’s short stories about gypsy life that had captivated many New Yorkers in The New Yorker. Alas, they neglected one that involved a young gypsy woman who wanted to break away from her family’s larcenous ways. Their musical would have fared better than 232 performances had they retained that plot, as trite as it sounds. But instead, they tried to make thievery cute. To theatergoers who’d paid good money for their tickets, stealing was simply unsavory.
Still, Bajour is a most entertaining original cast album. How could it not be with Chita Rivera as Anyanka? Also in attendance as Emily is Nancy Dussault, who was fresh from portraying Maria in The Sound of Music (which had followed her smash debut in Do Re Mi). Portraying Johnny is Herschel Bernardi, who’d later have his biggest success as Tevye in Fiddler. The The King of Newark is played by Herbert Edelman, who had one of the most entertaining cameos ever as the Telephone Man in Barefoot in the Park.
Marks’ score got good marks from most critics. Howard Taubman in the Times said he “gives signs of being a comer.” John McClain of the Journal American said it was “a noble first effort.” Norman Nadel of The World-Telegram & Sun insisted that “he can snap out choice lyrics,” while Mike Gross of Billboard thought that his score had “verve and spark.” Most significantly, Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune not only called Marks “a bright beginner,” but also gave him a vote as Best Lyricist of the Season when Variety took its Critics’ Poll at season’s end.
And why not? Marks shows a talent for deft wordplay. Sings Johnny, “When you pull a bajour, income is the outcome.” The gypsies insist that “ill-be-gotten gains can still be gotten” in New York. Snarls Anyanka, “I’ve got more callous malice deep inside than ever lived in Dr. Jekyll’s hide.” (Maybe Marks had a thing for hides; he later cites it in another skillful way after Emily worries about “Living Simply” with Lou MacNiall, the police detective who’s investigating the gypsies – and to whom she’s attracted. But she fears that if they marry, “I’ll be darning your socks and damning your hide.”
Marks also gives some stirring music to the gypsies (“Move Over, New York” and the title tune). Rivera gets a lovely song in “Love- Line,” in which she reads Emily’s palm, and a come-down-to-brass-tacks “Mean.” Dussault’s music ranges from plaintive (“Must It Be Love?”) to pulsating (“Love Is a Chance”). Everything is well-orchestrated by a man more famous for having accompanied Judy Garland: Mort Lindsey. He does a fine job, making particularly good use of a flute, piccolo and bongos. What a shame that Lindsey never again gave his talents to Broadway orchestration.
Granted, Dussault also gets one of Broadway’s strangest pieces of special material. Emily, a would-be anthropologist, sings, “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” in which she tells of her previous difficulties of finding a topic for her “diatribe on why a tribe is there” in Africa. In describing life in the jungle, Dussault replicates the sounds of wild birds, poisoned darts, boa constrictors, gorillas, quicksand, laughing hyenas and stampeding elephants. You may love or hate “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” but you will never, ever forget it.
But Marks also honors the musical theater demand that a song move the action forward. In “Words, Words, Words,” Emily gives Johnny a word-association test, although she winds up revealing more of herself. (We do see, however, that Johnny is delightfully amoral when she feeds him “Sin?” and he responds, “Sinatti.”) By song’s end, he gets her to admit that she has a thing for Lou.
In “I Can,” Emily wants to bolster Anyanka’s sagging spirits. Actually, Anyanka is just fine, thank you, but she wants to go to Emily’s mother’s tea party so that she can pull a bajour on the unsuspecting ladies. By the time that stout-hearted Emily finishes her melody that’s reminiscent of “Stout-Hearted Men,” Anyanka has achieved her goal.
One must respect a songwriter who can come up with a winner during the heat of an out-of-town tryout. Marks certainly did with a most entertaining eleven o’clock number called “Honest Man.” Here Dembo and the King of Newark ostensibly make nice while in reality they’re insinuatingly insulting each other. “So I wanna wish you lotsa luck,” they brightly sing — before dropping their voices an octave and sarcastically muttering “Lotsa luck.” They follow this with two other echoes that contradict their previous (allegedly sincere) statements.
Lindsey has them go off in a nice blaze of a ride-out, but Marks makes room for an encore in which they deliver three more thinly veiled insults. (One of the more suggestive ones was apparently not to record producer Thomas Z. Shepard’s liking, for he demurely let one joke hang in the air and didn’t have his two characters repeat two ribald words.)
Director Lawrence Kasha and choreographer Peter Gennaro apparently knew good talent when they saw it. Kasha cast another future Tevye in Harry Goz (Plainclothesman), newcomer but star-to-be Paul Sorvino (Second Patrolman) and Mae Questel, in her only appearance in a Broadway musical, as Emily’s mother. Of course, Questel had often been too busy to do eight-a-week, what with her providing the voices of Betty Boop, Olive Oyl, Little Lulu and (lest she get into a gender-specific rut) Casper the Friendly Ghost. On this album, she sounds to be a combination of all four.
Among the dancers that Gennaro chose were two who’d later forge careers with Bob Fosse: Gene Foote and Leland Palmer; the latter would play Fastrada in Pippin some years before she decided to give it all up and pursue the religious life.
Gennaro also chose Michael Bennett to dance in his chorus. It was Bennett’s third and final appearance as a Broadway performer — although anyone who knows his musical theater history will tell you that Bennett didn’t retire and shuffle back to Buffalo.
In fact, in the 2001 musical A Class Act, Bennett appears as a character who’s seen reuniting with and old Bajour castmate. Both sing a few bars from the title song with a good deal of affection – which may well be matched by you when you hear the original cast album of Bajour.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com