Broadway has seen three songs called “Yesterday,” five titled “Home” and eleven dubbed “I Love You.”
Some might prefer “Yesterday” from ROBERTA to the others. Many will think that “Home” from 70, GIRLS, 70 is the best of its bunch. Yet other musical theater fans may prefer LITTLE ME’s “I Love You” over SONG OF NORWAY’s – or vice versa.
But when you come right down to it, each of these songs, as the titles imply, basically says the same thing.
That’s not the case, however, with two songs called “Keep It Gay.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ditty from their ME AND JULIET has a profoundly different intent from the one Mel Brooks penned for THE PRODUCERS.
There’s good reason why. ME AND JULIET opened in 1953, forty-eight years before THE PRODUCERS debuted in 2001. Many etymologists say that for the most part, 1955 was the real start of “gay” meaning what people think of today.
Oh, plenty of men in the twenties used that word to describe themselves. But the word was usually said in a clandestine way in gay bars, so the general public didn’t know this new definition.
By the time THE PRODUCERS opened, “gay” had long acquired the meaning that everyone in the civilized world knows today. Although Mel Brooks’ smash hit is set in 1959, in “Keep It Gay,” flamboyant director Roger DeBris envisions a production of SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER that will never be confused with APOCALYPSE NOW.
Remember, too, that Max Bialystock sings in “The King of Broadway” that “There was a time when I was young and gay” before he hastily adds “But straight!” If both Roger and Max’s meanings sound a teeny bit anachronistic, well, both men ARE in show business, a not-unknown turf for people who even in the Eisenhower era would use “gay” in a homosexual framework.
On the (very different) other hand, Hammerstein’s ME AND JULIET lyric involves Don Juan’s being pressured into marriage by his latest girlfriend. His response? “Keep it gay, keep it light, keep it fresh” – meaning if the romance ain’t broke, don’t “fix” it with marriage.
As for that OTHER famous Richard Rodgers collaborator,
what went through Lorenz Hart’s mind when he wrote “I’ll wear a top hat and cane in Chez Joey. They’ll pay Joey, the gay Joey.” in “What Do I Care for a Dame?” After all, by the time Hart was writing PAL JOEY in 1940, Hart knew plenty of homosexuals and had undoubtedly known the word “gay” in that context.
Yet Hart, for all his skill and wit, was notoriously reluctant to work, so his choice of words may well be a case of his settling for the easy rhyme rather than troubling to look from H-to-Z in his rhyming dictionary.
Three different musicals of the same story may have resulted in two different reactions to the word “gay.” Most filmgoers attending Rodgers and Hammerstein’s STATE FAIR in 1945 – and even some who saw the 1962 remake – probably thought nothing of Margie Frake’s singing “But I feel so gay in a melancholy way” in the Oscar-winning “It Might as Well Be Spring.”
When STATE FAIR reached Broadway in 1996, some theatergoers may have grinned knowingly after Margie had refused a marriage proposal. Sure, she didn’t love the guy, but one could, to use a favorite expression of excellent musical theater historian Stacy Wolf, infer a “queer reading” of that lyric.
And maybe not, for this stage STATE FAIR was set in 1946. When many see a period piece and hear the word, they put aside their wink-wink reactions and accept “gay” in the old-fashioned sense. So CANDIDE’s taking us back to the eighteenth century where Cunegonde sings “Glitter and Be Gay” doesn’t cause us to raise eyebrows (unless that happens from being impressed with Barbara Cook’s vocal pyrotechnics).
The same is true in “Wasn’t It a Lovely Wedding?” in FIRST IMPRESSIONS, the 1959 musical based on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. When Mrs. Bennet and daughter Elizabeth call the ceremony “a truly gay occasion,” we know that in this nineteenth century tale that a two members of the same sex were not the ones who’d just tied the knot.
Set during the silent movie era is GOLDILOCKS, where George is recuperating from an accident. As nurses fuss over him, they sing “Are we sitting up today? Are we feeling gay? Merrier than May?” When this show played the 1958-59 season, some who had heard the “new” definition may have thought “Merrier than May WHO?”
But even as Broadway moved into the sixties and offered “Time: Now” musicals, lyricists continued to use the word in the old-world context. Angela Lansbury sang “You’ll notice I’m youthfully gay” in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE’s “I’ve Got You to Lean On” in 1964. A year later, Mark Bruckner in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER sang in “Melinda” that the woman was “out for a gay little spin.” As late as 1967 – December, yet – Carolyn Leigh had her heroine Kate sing in HOW NOW, DOW JONES’ “Walk Away” that her one-night stand “was bright; it was gay; it was glowing” despite the fact that the dalliance was with a man: star-to-be Tony Roberts, in fact.
A month later in 1968, JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS, the revue of the Gallic songwriter’s material, had its cast advise in “Brussels” to “pick out a dress so dashing and gay.” Don’t blame Brel for being behind the times; this was Eric Blau’s “translation” of “Bruxelles” in which Brel had made no such statement.
Stonewall happened four months before JIMMY (about Mayor James J. Walker) opened in October, 1969, but the show was set in the teens and Roaring Twenties. Thus Jimmy’s singing that “The Champs-Elysees was never as gay as 72nd Street” (in the fetching “Riverside Drive”) was in period, and no comparison with Fire Island needed to be made.
In 1971, FOLLIES’ “Ah, Paree!” was supposed to be a song sung by Solange LaFitte when she was a Weismann Girl. And when was that? Note that the sash on her dress said “1930.” So when Stephen Sondheim wrote “I’ve been to Moscow; it’s very gay — well, anyway, on the first of May,” you know he purposely chose the word because it evoked an earlier period.
Two years later he did the same for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. You know it takes place in Sweden, but did you realize that it was set in 1900? So because the song “Now” was sung then, having Fredrik sing “The Brontes are grander, but not very gay” was appropriate.
So Alan Jay Lerner, when writing “The Lusty Month of May” for twelfth-century CAMELOT, didn’t mean “It’s gay! It’s gay! A libelous display!” as a double entendre any more than he did when putting lyrics to GIGI’s “It’s a Bore,” set in the early twentieth century. Here young-at-heart older man Honore describes life as “a gay, romantic fling” to which ancient-at-heart young man Gaston rebuts “If you like that sort of thing.” 42ND STREET lyricist Al Dubin was equally innocent when he had Dorothy Brock sing in “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” that “I just wanted someone to be gay with, to play with someone.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that “Hello Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello Love” on the original 1975 cast album of A CHORUS LINE doesn’t include Gregory Gardner’s monologue on being gay, but the 2006 revival cast album does? By then, off-Broadway had played host to Howard Crabtree’s splendid mini-extravaganzas where gay was said and sung early and often. No question about it – musical theater will continue to use, embrace and celebrate the word.
(Especially because, as rhymezone.com tells us, there are 1,352 rhymes for the word …)