So did you remember to talk like a pirate on “International Talk like a Pirate Day”?
No? Did you even know there was such a thing?
Well, there is, and has been for more than a quarter-century. Back in 1995, two Oregonians deemed September 19th as the day when people should greet each other with an “Ahoy!” rather than a “Hello!” An endearment such as “My good friends” would be replaced by “Me hearties!”
If you didn’t know about this august September day, you’re more than a beat behind Sara Bareilles, who contributed the song “Poor Pirates” to SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Deep in the song, she actually includes the complaint “Hardly anyone celebrates our holiday, ‘Talk like a Pirate Day.’”
It is sung, of course, by Patchy the Pirate. If you watched SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS as a kid or with your kids, you know him to be the show’s host. He’s the guy with the eyepatch on his right eye and a hook on his right arm – well, at least on some shows. For whatever reason, every now and then, that patch and that hook would take a left.
Although Patchy was denied appearing in the films about the proud member of the phylum porifera, he appeared in the Drama Desk-winning 2017 Best Musical.
In “Poor Pirates” Patchy sought our sympathy for him and his fellow swashbucklers. His jaunty and tuneful waltz began with accompaniment from a concertina (a pirate’s favorite instrument). Shortly after he established that he and his fellow buccaneers hated being “treated like sewage that smells,” both orchestra and pirates joined the song. “We’ve got pirate parades to which nobody comes” is one of their laments, as is “Captain Bob Hook: no one knows his first name.”
Captain BOB Hook? No, Bob isn’t the first name of the pirate who bothers Peter Pan. His first name is James, as was established by his creator known as J.M. Barrie.
(By the way, the “J” in “J.M. Barrie” stands for James. Interesting, isn’t it, that this very meek and mild author named his pirate king after himself?)
Perhaps Bareilles didn’t know that Captain Hook already had a first name and decided to give him one. On the other hand, maybe she was referencing a different Hook. After all, if The Wicked Witch of the East can have a sister who’s The Wicked Witch of the West, then Captain James could have a brother named Captain Bob.
However, despite Captain Bob’s recent mention on Broadway, Captain James remains the more celebrated Hook. That’s because of Cyril Ritchard’s unforgettable performance in PETER PAN that began captivating Broadway and TV audiences in the mid-fifties.
True, Ritchard’s characterization isn’t reminiscent of such pirates as
Black Bart, who routinely chopped off the hands of his enemies, or
Ching Shih, who did even worse by decapitating hers (yes, HERS). Ritchard played Hook as utterly foppish. As many have wondered how Mary Martin could lead a brigade of boys, even more have questioned how Cyril Ritchard could boss a boat of buccaneers.
At least Captain James had a fine appreciation for music, as was shown by his enjoying a tango, a tarantella and a waltz. Although the first two Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh songs were in place before PETER PAN left for its San Francisco tryout in the summer of ‘54, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the third when director-choreographer Jerome Robbins sought their help.
Ritchard won a 1954-1955 Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony for his performance. This begs the question “Featured Actor? Who’s the leading man of PETER PAN if not he?” Ah, these were still the days when billing ruled the rules. Ritchard was under the title, Martin above it. If Ritchard had had as many lines as Iago and as many songs in a Bruce Springsteen concert, he’d still have been deemed featured because he followed the title.
Still, Ritchard’s winning surprised no one, partly because the ceremony took place on March 27, 1955, only twenty days after PETER PAN had been broadcast and had reached a record sixty-five million viewers. What did surprise many – and still does – is what would happen on July 1 at The Donaldson Awards.
Never heard of them? They were established in 1944 by The Billboard (as the publication was known then) and named for William Donaldson, who’d founded it. Although The Billboard covered all genres of music, The Donaldsons were solely awards for theater. It’s a reminder of how vital theater music was in the pop world at that time (although plays were awarded in many categories, too).
“Everybody who has a part in the making of a Broadway season from producers to stagehands” had the chance to vote, wrote The Billboard’s Bob Francis (who, in fact, had initiated the awards eleven years earlier).
Francis reported that Ritchard won as 1954-1955’s Best Actor in a Musical. Ah, justice is served! Perhaps Walter Slezak didn’t think so; he’d won the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical for FANNY as an aging man who nevertheless believed that it was, as he sang in his first number, “Never Too Late for Love.” On this summer night, he was denied, although Francis clearly mentioned that he lost by “a handful of votes.”
Fine – but on that same night, Ritchard ALSO won The Donaldson as 1954-1955’s Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Two awards for the same performance! How strange (nay, incompetent) that Francis made NO mention of how odd and probably unprecedented this situation was.
Finally, no mention of pirates on Broadway would be complete without mention of “Pirate Jenny,” the showpiece from THE THREEPENNY OPERA. You undoubtedly know Lotte Lenya’s rendition, be it from the 1931 film version of the famous 1954 off-Broadway revival. But did you know that in a 1976 revival, Ellen Greene sang Ralph Manheim and John Willett’s new lyrics for “Pirate Jenny”?
Yes, the future Audrey of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS on stage and screen stole the show as easily as Black Bart stole from black freighters.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.