The Real Pleasures of Bajour
By Peter Filichia
You know what expression I really hate?
I hope you don’t know what it means – because that would show me that you’ve never used it.
However, I’m sure you do know the term, and I fear that you may have said it from time to time.
For those few who don’t know, “guilty pleasure” can be defined as a piece of entertainment that a person likes while feeling that it isn’t worth liking because it just isn’t good enough.
Where musicals are concerned, I’ve most often heard the unfortunate term used for Bajour. In fact, I’ve almost heard it for a half-century, for Bajour celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on November 23.
And whatever the failings of Ernest Kinoy’s book, I insist that “guilty pleasure” is not a fair way to describe Walter Marks’ score. A listen to the cast album shows that the songwriter had a great deal of skill when adapting Joseph Mitchell’s famous New Yorker stories about Gypsies in Manhattan.
And it’s not as if Bajour had been a disaster. It closed after 232 performances, which means 280 Broadway musicals that had opened in the 20th century had run longer – but 1,411 had amassed fewer performances. So it obviously had some pleasures about which no one need feel guilty.
The reason people put the “guilty pleasure” label on Bajour probably stems from its second song. The overture is stirring enough, evocatively suggesting the Gypsy world we’ll visit in the next forty-nine minutes. (The orchestrator, incidentally, was Mort Lindsey, whom we associate more as Judy Garland’s conductor; this was his only Broadway orchestrating credit.)
Granted, the opening number – “Move Over, New York” — does introduce some scurrilous characters, headed by Cockeye Johnny Dembo (Herschel Bernardi). He plans to pull many a bajour – the Romany word for “swindle” – from the Bronx to the Battery. Expert musical theater historian Ethan Mordden wasn’t wrong when he wrote “How are we supposed to root for these disgusting thieves?”
Truth to tell, some of Marks’ lyrics couldn’t have sat well with a Broadway audience. “Since a gypsy’s known for stealing; now it’s time we should begin … picking pockets in Pittsburgh, stealing hubcaps in Detroit … Law and order is sweeping the country, it’s loused up the atmosphere.” Hmmm. At least there’s a clever rhyme in “Ill-be-gotten gains can still be gotten here.”
And yet, musically “Move Over, New York” does get the show off to a rousing start. But then comes that second song that’s one of the most eccentric pieces of material ever written for Broadway, one that must be heard to be believed. What’s more, anyone who doesn’t know this song cannot possibly be considered a true Broadway aficionado. It is something that you must experience, whether you savor it or scorn it.
It’s “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” which has anthropology student Emily Kirsten (Nancy Dussault) trying to locate an obscure ethnic group on which she can write her Ph.D. thesis. All that’s left, she assumes, will be one in Africa, where she imagines running into wild birds, poisoned darts, jungle cats, boa constrictors, gorillas, quicksand, laughing hyenas, stampeding elephants and drums.
And just in case we don’t know what she’s talking about, she replicates the sound of almost every one of those dangers.
While some were watching Dussault, they must have assumed that she was having something between a nervous breakdown and a mystic experience. Nevertheless, Dussault maneuvers easily through this ambitious piece of material that deserves our respect for its originality and not our contempt for its peculiarity. And yet, many musical theater savants have judged Bajour’s chain of songs by what seems to be this weakest link. Let’s move on.
Richard DeBenedictis provides some stirring dance music when Bernardi endures “The Haggle” with the King of Newark, well-played by Herb Edelman, who fit in this role between playing the Telephone Man in Barefoot in the Park on-stage and then on film. The two Gypsies are trying to broker a marriage between Dembo’s son (Gus Trikonis, a West Side Story Shark on film and a future Goldie Hawn husband in real life) and Newark’s daughter Anyanka. She was no less than the top-billed legend-in-the-making, one Chita Rivera. She involves Emily and then police lieutenant Lou MacNiall (who’s out to stop that bajour) in the Gypsy’s most famous occupation – reading palms – in “Love Line,” one of Marks’ most soaring ballads.
Marks certainly deserves respect for the inspired idea of turning a word-association test into song. “Words, Words, Words” has Emily giving the test to Johnny, whose cheerful answers reveal quite a bit about himself. “Shop?” Emily asks. “Lift,” Johnny responds. But far more telling is her posing “Sin?” to which he says “Cinnati.” Yes, Johnny’s amoral, not immoral.
There’s fun in Johnny’s giving the same three responses to three different words. Bread, meat and life all spur him to say “loaf.” And when he takes the book from Emily and gives her river, bay and rock, Emily gives the same three responses, too: “Hudson.” On the last one, in fact, she moans with a little lust, for Rock Hudson, who’d just celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday, was still considered quite a catch.
You’ve undoubtedly heard that if a musical theater song can move the action along, so much the better. Marks certainly hit the bull’s eye here. He has Emily reveal that she doesn’t get along with her mother (which will lead to an important plot twist) but she does care for Lou. The song ends with Emily and Johnny’s establishing their friendship: “I like you! I give you my word.”
Less congenial is Anyanka, who proves it by describing herself as “Mean.” She snarls “I’ve got more callous malice deep inside than ever lived in Dr. Jekyll’s hide.” That last word is equally important when Emily declines Lou’s proposal by predicting that if she accepts, “I’ll be darning your socks and damning your hide.”
Also advancing the action is “I Can.” Anyanka begins denigrating herself, hoping that Emily will eventually invite her to a tea party where there will be many Park Avenue matrons the Gypsy can fleece. It takes 2:57 to do it, but Emily finally takes the bait.
The “guilty pleasure” clause has been invoked because of a lyric in this song, too. After Emily instructs “Don’t act weak and frail; nobody’s gonna baby ya. Be like Florence Nightingale,” Anyanka responds “or Florence of Arabia.” Let’s a face it: a lyricist doesn’t use “ya” for “you” unless he needs a rhyme.
But Marks shows he knew how to write an eleven o’clock number, although he didn’t get around to it until late in the Boston tryout. “Honest Man” ostensibly has Johnny and Newark claiming that each will be nice from now on. “I’m absolutely sure you will,” they both state before dropping their voices an octave and sardonically echoing “Sure you will.” Several just-as-amusing answer-echoes follow, although you will find a two-word expression missing, all in the cause of good taste. (Marks tells me, however, that the excision was made for the album, but that the two words were indeed part of the song.)
Back in 1964, once many musical theater enthusiasts heard Emily sing “Love Is a Chance,” they were saying “Wow! What a song for Barbra!” And considering that Streisand was recording for the same company that was releasing Bajour (Columbia), many were waiting for her to cover it. Only later did we learn that she’d auditioned for Emily and was turned down flat, mostly because of her lackadaisical, gum-chewing demeanor at the audition. Chances are the show would have run substantially longer had Streisand taken the part and that she would have been funny in “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” in those days when she wasn’t afraid to show her sense of humor. But of course, in November 1964 the musical question she was asking was instead “Who Are You Now?”
Finally, the question one always asks about Bajour is how to pronounce the title. Is the accent on the first or second syllable? Or, to put it another way, “You say ba-JOUR and I say BA-jour.” Perhaps even Marks doesn’t know, for he uses both pronunciations in the title song. However, let’s not call the whole thing off, for “Bajour” is such a pleasing number that we need not feel guilty no matter which pronunciation we choose.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at http://www.kritzerland.com/filichia.htm and at http://www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at http://www.amazon.com.