That’s the response I got last year when I made a passing reference to Elizabeth Taylor.
There was a time when this could have never happened. Taylor, the recipient of three Oscars, was a world-famous movie star and the first one to get a $1 million salary for a film (CLEOPATRA).
But the question-asker was twenty years old. Were others of her generation unaware of this once-household-name legend? I started a quest to see if others in her age group would know Taylor.
Of the twenty-six I’ve since asked, only one has.
And yet, the violet-eyed Taylor won’t completely fade into obscurity. For in addition to all the ways we can access her films, we’ll always be able to hear her name on original cast albums.
Ms. Taylor is part of the marvelous title song of HERE’S LOVE. Meredith Willson, in his musicalization of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, urged détentes between competitors at least through the holiday season; during December, only love should flow between Dallas to Fort-Worth and CBS to NBC. In one couplet, he mentioned “husbands false to husbands true; Elizabeth Taylor to husbands in review.”
The reason? Back in late 1963, Taylor seemed poised to wed for the fifth time, then to CAMELOT’S Richard Burton. She would eventually marry three times more (including another one to Burton fewer than sixteen months after they’d divorced).
By the way, in the actual Broadway production of HERE’S LOVE, after this Taylor couplet was sung, there was an extra bar of music that you won’t hear on the original cast album. Someone with that production decided that the line was funny enough to get a laugh from the audience (which it did); thus, an additional measure was inserted so that the crowd’s response wouldn’t obscure the next lyric.
Taylor’s marital parade also became the subject of “Elizabeth,” a delightful song in WHOOP-DEE-DOO! If you’d care to hear the names of her eight husbands chronologically listed, here’s a musical way to do it.
There’s fun to be had in seeing what musical theater songs tell us who was considered beautiful in the eras in which their shows were written.
The quickest to do so is BLOOD BROTHERS, the 1983 musical whose opening song is “Marilyn Monroe.” It’s a jaunty song, and yet a poignant one, for Mrs. Johnstone says that her husband first became interested in her because she resembled the star; then, after she’d aged and had given birth to seven children, he left her for someone who resembled Marilyn Monroe.
Twenty-eight years earlier – in 1955 — Cole Porter included in “Stereophonic Sound” in SILK STOCKINGS: “If Zanuck’s latest picture were the good old-fashioned kind, there’d be no one in front to see Marilyn’s behind.” In the same song, he also mentioned another fifties’ beauty queen: “If Ava Gardner played Godiva riding on a mare the people wouldn’t pay a cent to see her in the bare.”
(How prudish was Hollywood in those days? M-G-M demanded that “to see her in the bare” be changed; Porter obliged and wrote “They wouldn’t even care.”)
Two decades before that, Porter mentioned Greta Garbo, but not in conjunction with her beauty: “You’re Garbo’s sal’ry,” he wrote in “You’re the Top” in ANYTHING GOES. But Mae West was the one he most kept in the public eye: in the ‘30s (“If Mae West you like” via the title song of ANYTHING GOES), the ‘40s (“Mae West is at her best in the hay” in “Farming” in LET’S FACE IT) and in the ‘50s: “gay Mae West” (who knew?) in “They Couldn’t Compare to You” in OUT OF THIS WORLD.
(Do you know this terrific patter song? It has a lyric that made me fall off my chair. Yeah, people say that all the time, but this was one of only three times that it’s ever happened to me, thanks to “Though I liked the Queen of Sheba, she was mentally an amoeba.” I first heard it when I was a sophomore in high school and for the first and only time I was glad I was taking biology.)
In PAL JOEY, Lorenz Hart’s 1940 lyric for “Zip” mentioned strippers – or shall we say ecdysiasts, as Gypsy Rose Lee preferred? When Hart put his pen to work, he didn’t immortalize the former Louise Hovick in this song, although she was then very much on the entertainment scene. Was Lee jealous that she was shunted in favor of Margie Hart, Sally Rand, and Lily St. Cyr (the last of whom millions of people still know from THE ROCKY HORROR [PICTURE] SHOW)? After all, “Lee” is hardly a tough word to rhyme, and vocalists always prefer to sing a word that ends with a vowel.
In 1967, “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore” (HOW NOW, DOW JONES) had Brenda Vaccaro and Marlyn Mason (whom you may know from the Elvis Presley movie THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS) rue that men on Wall Street are obsessed with their careers and thus not interested in love. They sing “Sophia Loren and Lollabrigida could walk through the door, and they’d only get frigida.”
(If Lollabrigida means nothing to you, she was Gina, who starred in BUONA SERA, MRS. CAMPBELL, a 1969 film to which MAMMA MIA! owes a lot.)
Ms. Loren can also be found in “Passionella,” the third-act story in the 1966 musical THE APPLE TREE. Here Passionella’s fans told her, “I don’t love Sophia; I don’t love Bardot; I love Passionella.”
Barbara Harris, who won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony for this show, then delivered a most deliciously icy reading when responding “I know.” (That’s also the title of the song.) Loren and Bardot are now octogenarians, but reminders of their appeal and beauty live on through Sheldon Harnick’s lyric.
The big hit song from LI’L ABNER has Marryin’ Sam informing a young resident of Dogpatch about “Jubilation T. Cornpone.” On the soundtrack from the 1959 film (but NOT on the 1956 original cast album) Sam delivers his explanation to Zsa. This must be a reference to a woman surnamed Gabor – for how many other Zsa Zsas have you ever heard of?
Alexandria Zuck is better known by the name Hollywood bestowed on her: Sandra Dee. She’ll never be forgotten thanks to GREASE in which Betty Rizzo mocks her for her Puritanical values in “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.”
(The actual Sandra Dee couldn’t have been too miffed by the song; she eventually made this the title of her autobiography.)
“Look at Me” also includes the equally demure Annette without mentioning her last name. This one must really flummox those in their twenties – or even fifties. Annette was Annette Funicello who never reached the heights of fame and fortune that the others on this list did. But this standout star of TV’s THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB became many a Baby Boomer’s first love.
Rizzo also sneeringly mentions Doris Day, probably for playing virginal heroines for most of her career. Case in point: Day portrayed a woman petrified to give in to a mogul played by Cary Grant in THAT TOUCH OF MINK when she was approaching her FORTIETH birthday.
That 1962 movie might well have been the film shown on the flight that Mr. McIlhenny took to Venice in DO I HEAR A WALTZ? Stephen Sondheim’s hellishly clever lyric in “What Do We Do? We Fly!” has a bunch of tourists complaining about air travel – including McIlhenny, who laments that the film shown on the flight meant “Ninety minutes of Doris Day.”
Lauren Bacall, who’d later be cited (and Tony-victorious) as WOMAN OF THE YEAR thanks to a hit Kander and Ebb musical, gets a mention in EVITA – but in a different way from all the others. She’s become a verb as Mrs. Peron demands that her dressers and designers “Lauren Bacall me.”
In the ‘90s, Madonna got a mention as Bernadette Peters’ Paula unfavorably compared herself to the star in “A Beat Behind” in THE GOODBYE GIRL. David Zippel’s lyric fits well on Marvin Hamlisch’s bouncy melody in this MUCH underrated score.
One didn’t necessarily have to be known as a beauty to be cited in a musical theater lyric. In KINKY BOOTS, Cyndi Lauper in “Land of Lola” had her hero cite “Ginger Rogers’ savoir faire.” But for the most part, it’s beauty and sex appeal that gets a celebrity into lyrics.
Before we close, let’s remember two “Beautiful Girls” from entirely different eras: Delilah and Lorelei. They provided Stephen Sondheim with two of his most felicitous lyrics in FOLLIES. I’d take the time to quote the lines in which they appear, but I know you know them by heart.