By Peter Filichia —
There I was, putting the final touches on my new book The Great Parade: The 1963-64 Broadway Season, which St. Martin’s will bring out next spring. I wanted to check a review of Anyone Can Whistle, so I opened Steven Suskin’s Opening Nights on Broadway, in which he republished bits and pieces of various reviews from 1943’s Oklahoma! through 1964’s I Had a Ball.
You’ve got to open every book somewhere, and I opened it where At the Drop of a Hat preceded Ballet Ballads.
What – no Bajour?
Suskin once addressed this in an interview, saying “Over the years, oddly enough, I’ve had about twenty people ask me, ‘Why isn’t Bajour in Opening Nights on Broadway?’ And the answer is that I went through the reviews about ten times, and nobody said anything that was at all interesting.”
Well, let’s see if we can find something …
First, the facts: Bajour opened at the Shubert Theatre on Nov. 23, 1964, moved to the Lunt-Fontanne on May 10, 1965, stayed until June 12 and finished at 232 performances – then making it the 289th longest-running musical in Broadway history.
It starred Chita Rivera as Anyanka, a Gypsy princess; Herschel Bernardi as Cockeye Johnny Dembo, who’s just moved his rival gypsy tribe to New York and is now considering Anyanka as his daughter-in-law for his son Steve (Gus Trikonis, five years before he married Goldie Hawn).
Most of the plot, however, involved Nancy Dussault as Emily, who has a master’s degree in anthropology but now needs a subject for her Ph.D. thesis. Once she discovers the gypsies, she decides that they’ll serve nicely. Anyanka plays ball with Emily because she wants to pull a “Bajour” – a swindle – to bilk Emily’s mother out of her life’s savings; this way, she can buy her freedom from her father.
That was the plot that bookwriter Ernest Kinoy gleaned from Joseph Mitchell’s much better stories that were occasionally published in The New Yorker. No wonder the show couldn’t even make it to 288th place! But the score, which you can hear on the still-available original cast album, did substantially better with the six New York newspaper critics. (Yes, believe it or not, there were six back then.)
John McClain in the Journal American wrote “The music and lyrics are by Walter Marks, a newcomer to the Broadway battlefield. I believe he has a couple of good pop tunes in ‘Music It Be Love?’ and ‘Love Is a Chance.’ He can also write solid specialty numbers like ‘Guarantees’ even though he seems to be pressing a hit hard with ‘Words, Words, Words.’ But it is a noble first effort.”
First off, “Must It Be Love?” is the song’s actual title. But we’ll cut McClain and/or his typesetter some slack. These were the days when critics had to rush up the aisles during curtain calls to get to their desks and write a review that would be in the paper in literally a few hours.
“Guarantees” doesn’t quite strike me as a “specialty number,” for it’s Emily’s mom’s advice to her daughter about love and marriage. The singer was Mae Questel, a third of a century after she began providing the voice of Betty Boop in that character’s cartoon series.
Opined Richard Watts, Jr. of the Post, “The score by Walter Marks is pleasant, too, although the only song I can remember is ‘You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man,’ sung with gusto by Cockeye Johnny and his foe The King of Newark.”
Actually, the song is simply titled “Honest Man,” and whenever I make a list of Broadway’s best eleven o’clock numbers, I always include it. The two men are ostensibly making peace, saying such things as “I wanna wish you lots of luck” – before muttering “Lots of luck” in a most sarcastic way. The song continues in this vein; after they pleasantly say “You always keep your word and I’m absolutely sure you will,” they growl a disgusted “Sure, you will!”
But the piece de resistance comes when each man sings he’ll uphold his part of the bargain “and I’m sure you’re gonna hold up yours.”
Those expecting to hear “Up yours!” were denied. There was simply silence. Did Thomas Z. Shepard, producing his first-ever original Broadway cast album for Columbia, decide to err on the side of caution and eliminate the potentially offensive expression? Or were these two words even said on stage?
When I saw Bajour during its Boston tryout, the song wasn’t yet in the show. So in 1993 when I met Marks, this was the first question I asked him. He told me that indeed Bernardi and Herbert Edelman (best known as The Telephone Man in both the stage and screen versions of Barefoot in the Park) each sneered “Up yours!” when singing the song, but that Shepard opted to censor it.
John Chapman in the Daily News called “Honest Man” a “delightful duet” while Norman Nadel of the World Telegram & Sun agreed: “When these two pair up on ‘Honest Man,’ a great old tradition of show business springs back to life.”
Then, as now, the review that was most important was the one in The New York Times. Howard Taubman stated that Marks “has provided a number of songs that are useful for vertiginous dancing.”
“Vertiginous!” Doncha love it? The Times cost only ten cents in those days, but it wasn’t above using five-dollar words. Let me save you a trip to dictionary.com: “causing vertigo, esp. by being extremely high or steep.” To quote a lyric from Merrily We Roll Along, whose score will never be confused with Bajour’s, “Now you know.”
Taubman didn’t leave it at that. Later in his review, he wrote “Marks, who is not afraid to try ambitious rhymes, has provided Miss Dussault and Mr. Bernardi with ‘Words, Words, Words,’ which examines gypsy folkways.”
Actually, it does much more than that. First off, it’s a clever premise: Emily is giving Johnny a word association test to see what makes him tick. “Heart?” she asks. “Break,” he answers. “Law?” she asks. “Break” he again answers. And yet, lest Johnny come across as too anti-establishment, when Emily asks him “Sin?” he says “Cinnati” – revealing an endearing amoral innocence.
Eventually Johnny wrests Emily’s notebook from her, and gives her the test. His asking “River?” “Bay?” and “Rock?” all result in her giving the same answer for each: “Hudson.” What’s funny from a contemporary standpoint is that Emily dreamily swoons in the way she says “Hudson” to “Rock” – indicating that she thinks he’s hot stuff. Ah, we were so naïve then!
But Emily has another man on her mind, which we learn when Johnny asks her “Kiss?” and she says “Lou” – meaning Lou MacNiall, the detective who is both literally and figuratively on the gypsies’ case. We’re always hearing how musical theater songs should advance the action forward, and this song does precisely that in letting us know Emily’s feelings for Lou.
“In ‘I Can,” Taubman wrote, “he has provided Miss Rivera and Miss Dussault with a mocking march of fortitude.” Yes, but here’s another example of a song moving the action forward. Anyanka wants to be invited to the tea party that Emily’s mother is hosting in order to set the wheels of the Bajour in motion. When the song starts, Emily has no idea that that’s on Anyanka’s mind; when the song ends, Anyanka has her invitation.
“In ‘Mean,’” Taubman writes, “Marks helps Miss Rivera to demonstrate how nasty gypsies can be.” What he doesn’t say is that Marks gets off a clever line when he has Anyanka
say “I’ve got more callous malice deep inside than ever lived in Dr. Jekyll’s hide.”
Wrote Taubman, “In ‘Living Simply,’ he has done a neat spoof, which Miss Dussault, Mr. Burr and three policemen harmonize engagingly.”
Mr. Burr is Robert Burr, who came to Bajour fresh from understudying Richard Burton’s Hamlet (and what a thankless job that must have been!) to play Lou MacNiall. It’s a nice waltz, but once again, Marks comes up with a fine lyric: after Lou talks about a nice suburban marriage and life, Emily counters, “And while I’m darning your socks, I’ll be damning your hide.”
(Lotsa “hide” imagery in Marks’ lyrics, no?)
Taubman accounted for the most and least sold tickets for a show, but the critic most people liked to read was Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune. (Note that we don’t have a theater named for any of the other five critics cited here.) And it was Kerr’s opinion that “Lyricist-composer Walter Marks is a bright beginner. Mr. Marks makes rhymes. This would not be so unusual in itself if it weren’t for the fact that lyricists don’t do it much anymore, and there is instant gratification in hearing such close couplets as Miss Dussault’s devout wish to ‘write a diatribe on why a tribe is there.’ As she says, or rather sings, ‘on my safari there’s no one to be sorry if I rot with dry rot.’ Easy? Perhaps. But lately very rare.”
Little did Kerr or the rest of Broadway know what was coming in the way of lyrics. After Spring Awakening opened, I wrote that I counted fifty-nine imperfect rhymes – and I’ll bet I missed a few because they were so off the mark that I couldn’t even realize that they were meant to be rhymes.
By the way, the song that Kerr cited was “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” I’ll only say this: I have never found anyone who doesn’t have a vivid reaction to this four-and-a-half-minute showpiece. Some think it’s hilarious; some think it’s atrocious; some think it’s genius; some think it’s garbage. Whatever the case, you’re not a true musical theater aficionado until you’ve at least given yourself a chance to hear this, uh, song. And that finishes up MY review of Bajour.