The New Walter Mitty
By Peter Filichia —
Most long-time football fans don’t realize it, but they know a song from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
How can this be? The musical version of James Thurber’s short story only ran 96 performances during the 1964-1965 season, and off-Broadway at that. While Columbia did record the cast album, no pop singer ever recorded any of its songs.
Ah, but in the late ‘60s, the National Football League used Mitty’s first-act closer, the stirring march “Confidence,” to open every one of its Sunday broadcasts from September through December.
“Confidence” would seem to be an apt title for a song to introduce gridiron warriors. But the irony is that Earl Shuman’s lyric wasn’t used at all; just Leon Carr’s terrific melody.
Those who know the song can now become reacquainted with it. Those who don’t can have the pleasure of meeting it. The original off-Broadway cast album of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is now once again available.
Long before “The Impossible Dream,” James Thurber gave us “The Secret Life” – which involved milquetoast Walter Mitty’s mental flights of fancy while his harridan wife harassed him. To escape her tirades, he imagined himself a naval hero, ace surgeon, expert marksman and wartime pilot.
The 1939 short story in The New Yorker became one of the most famous of its day, and led to a fleshed-out 1947 film in which Danny Kaye portrayed the dominated husband. This Walter inadvertently fell into a plot involving the Dutch crown jewels and witnessed a murder to boot.
The movie-makers moved the story to New Jersey and New York from Thurber’s setting: Waterbury, Connecticut – the same town that Sid Miller disparages in Take Me Along. (“The women are fat in the ankles, and they all kinda droop in the can. And the men are all boobs.”) Carr, Shuman and bookwriter Joe Manchester moved it back to that sleepy town, but did substantially more than that. They had to, for Thurber’s story only gave them six pages of material. Musical theater writers who adapt a known property are often urged to “make it your own,” and certainly these three let their imaginations soar.
Their first masterstroke involved their answering a tough question. How could an audience possibly care about the henpecked and cowardly Walter? Their solution – and a brilliant one – was to give the Mittys a child. This way, Walter would become a great and attentive father to a daughter who adores him. It also resulted in a charming song called “Walking with Peninnah.”
Walking with WHOM? you’re asking, and understandably so. The authors chose Peninnah as the moniker that Walter and his wife named their daughter. “Peninnah” has a Biblical history; she was one of Elkanah’s two wives. There’s also a distinguished contemporary storyteller named Peninnah Schram. Still, many of us have gone through life without meeting a single Peninnah, so the authors might have been wiser to choose Lucinda, Yolanda, or any other three-syllable name whose accent is on the middle syllable. Nevertheless, Carr’s melody for “Walking with Peninnah” is one of those can’t-get-it-out-of-my-headers that you’ll whistle while walking.
The second masterstroke concerned the song “Aggie,” the name that the authors gave to the wife whom Thurber simply called Mrs. Mitty. In the musical, Walter looks back on the past and remembers when he and she were deeply in love. That’s important, for Walter wouldn’t have knowingly married a shrew. Virtually every miserable couple was once a couple deeply in love, and “Aggie” wisely points this out to us.
Thurber didn’t tell us how old Walter was, but the authors provided their third masterstroke by setting the show on Walter’s fortieth birthday – a time when a man must face that his life may well be half-over. Walter assumed, as so many of us do, that “by forty, I’d be a millionaire once or twice.” Instead, forty has only come to mean “a wife, a child, a mortgage and a second-hand Chevrolet.”
So the authors had Walter seek solace by going to Harry’s Bar where he meets various customers who give him the aforementioned “Confidence.” As a result, without consulting Aggie, he sells their house, cashes in their insurance policies and quits his job.
What’s more, he gets involved with a hot-to-trot entertainer fancifully named Willa DeWisp. As if we didn’t know, she admits it’s a stage name. Although she has a boyfriend named Irving (who sings that plaintive “Willa” about her), she believes “Marriage Is for Old Folks,” a nifty jazz waltz, punctuated by the jazz waltz’s most valuable instrument: the flute.
That brings us to Walter Mitty’s orchestrations, by no less than Ray Ellis. He’d arranged songs for Johnny Mathis and Doris Day among countless others. Not long after he provided arrangements and conducted Barbra Streisand’s third album, he went to work on Walter Mitty. He gave a potent bass to “Two Little Pussycats,” sung by two barflies. (A just-starting-out Rue McClanahan was one of them.) Bongos galore are heard on Willa DeWisp’s nightclub number “Fan the Flames.” Ellis also made room for the de rigueur instrument of ‘60s off-Broadway shows – the xylophone. And what would a musical involving fantasies be without a harpist running up and down the strings?
The show also musicalizes two of the story’s fantasy sequences where Walter performs a medical miracle and faces a firing squad. (For the latter, the musical’s creators added a delightful twist to what Thurber wrote; you’ll hear it.) As it turns out, Willa’s “Fan the Flame” is one of Walter’s fantasies as well. Apparently Walter is an Eartha Kitt fan, for Willa’s delivery is very much like the one we hear from Kitt in New Faces of 1952.
The plot certainly thickens when Aggie finds Walter in Harry’s Bar. Will the newfound “Confidence” stay with him? Will this mouse devour the hawk? You won’t be able to tell from this cast album that the show has a very smart surprise ending. But you may well eventually learn about it, because this recording could spur new productions of the show. But even right now, thanks to the re-release of the cast album, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a new life. One needn’t fantasize any longer about the score; it’s here to hear.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.