Having a Halloween party? Many of my friends do, although they do demand that their guests come in costumes that were seen in Broadway musicals.
My favorite memory: I was dressed in Hugh O’Brian’s John Adams costume from his summer stock tour of 1776; Raymond Wood was attired as a Munchkin, even though he was well over six feet tall. A woman decked out in Dolly Levi’s red outfit walked past us, and Raymond groaned with lust – before adding, “I’d look good in that dress.”
This occurred at my late great friend Terry Helbing’s party, where invitations always specified that we should come with the name of a show song that was genuinely scary. “I don’t mean a scary song like when the Judge whips himself in Sweeney Todd,” Terry said. “I mean a song that, like such movies as Killer Klowns from Outer Space and They Saved Hitler’s Brain, is so bad it’s good – but in its own way is very scary. And I don’t mean anything like ‘Three for the Road’ from New Faces of 1952 or ‘Mata Hari Mine’ from To Broadway with Love. Those songs are flat-out parodies. No, I’m talking about a song that the songwriters thought was good when they wrote it, only to find out it wasn’t when they put it in front of an audience.”
Terry would always have each one we suggested, for his original cast album collection was oh-so-complete. He’d play each one, which would get guffaws from the newcomers and knowing nods from the cognoscenti. At the end of the evening, we’d vote on which song was the scariest. The one who’d suggested it went home with all the leftover candy.
Let’s face it: all show songs are not created equal and some are of course better than others. True, one man’s “Meat and Potatoes” from Mr. President is another man’s “Poison Ivy” from Smokey Joe’s Café. But some songs are really so bad that they entertain on their own terms.
Over the years, here are some of the songs I suggested for Terry’s parties – and some that might be worth a ninety-nine cent investment for you to play at your own Halloween party this week.
“I Wouldn’t Have Had To” (Let It Ride!) – Mabel, who hangs around with horseplayers, makes her living as an ecdysiast, as Gypsy Rose Lee might say. No – Gypsy tells us “at these prices, I’m an ecdysiast,” so Mabel, who doesn’t command high prices, must be a stripper. She would have preferred to be in Sadlers Wells Ballet, but fate conspired to have her “sing at suppers with only tassels on my uppers.” Now she’s met a poet — if you can call a guy who writes those little verses in greeting cards a poet – and tells him how much better her life would have been had she met him first. The raucous Livingston and Evans music suggests that she’s really right in her element at “Minsky’s, au naturel.”
“Where Is the Tribe for Me?” (Bajour). Nancy Dussault, whose previous job was playing Maria in The Sound of Music, got very different songs to sing in this musical. She played Emily, an anthropologist who found that every time she came up with a topic for her Ph.D. thesis, someone else had already thought of it.
So now she was considering going to Africa, where she imagined the sounds of wild birds, jungle cats, boa constrictors, gorillas, elephants, hyenas and tse-tse flies – all of which she demonstrated by making the sounds of these beings. You gotta hear it to believe it.
“The Only Dance I Know” (Mr. President). Who’d expect that in a musical about a retired president that a belly dancer would show up as an attempt at an eleven o’clock number? Princess Kyra didn’t even have anything to do with the ex-prez, but was once involved with his son. Now she’s accused of lewd and lascivious conduct, but she tries to defuse the charge by teaching everyone her dance. But doesn’t everyone require a costume? “You don’t need an Arthur Murray,” she insists. “Just a fringe that’s on a surrey.” No, don’t blame Rodgers and Hammerstein for that lyric; it was written by – yes! – Irving Berlin.
“Arrivederci, Virtue” (Bravo, Giovanni). God bless George S. Irving, a real pro who was saddled with some pretty junky songs in his sixty-plus year career. Masterworks Broadway is proud to have never sunk to the depths of “The Butler’s Song” from So Long, 174th Street; this one is as low as the company goes. Any song that has a lyric “Thirty days for illegal laryngitis” is asking for trouble.
“Christine” (Christine). Have you ever seen Pillow Talk, the ‘50s comedy in which Rock Hudson plays a songwriter who plays around with women, too? For each female, he writes a song in her honor, so when he’s romancing Eileen, he writes “You are my inspiration, Eileen. A perfect combination, Eileen.” In order to seduce Marie, he writes “You are my inspiration, Marie. A perfect combination, Marie.” And when he moves onto Lola – well, you get the point. Listen to the title song of Christine and see if you don’t see a similarity.
“Hello, Waves” (Flora, the Red Menace). One would think that this song from Kander and Ebb’s first show would have been enough to keep Hal Prince from inviting them to write Cabaret. Harry is a stutterer, and wants to rid himself of the affliction. He’s read that ancient Greek Demosthenes put pebbles in his mouth to cure his ailment, so he does just that when trying to seduce Flora. The supposed fun of the song is that when he sings “Hmhmhm, mhmhm, hmhmh, mhmhm, hmhmhm,” she knows exactly what he’s saying: “Don’t take that tone with me,” she admonishes. Oh well; Kander and Ebb proved a Dorothy Fields lyric: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”
“She Hadda Go Back” (Here’s Love). Fred is in his apartment with his friends while waiting for Doris to arrive. She’s already late, and Fred tells his “jarhead” buddies why: “She Hadda Go Back,” he sings, because “she forgot her gloves” – or for some other stereotypical feminine reason: putting on perfume, checking her appearance in the mirror, et al. So the song, in addition to being atrocious both lyrically and melodically, was worse because it was insulting. Fred also said that his unerring knowledge of the female species would ensure that he could predict the precise second that Doris would finally arrive. Damn if his doorbell didn’t ring at the moment he predicted. He opened the door — and there he saw a Girl Scout selling cookies. All that for that? And how was this relevant to a musical version of Miracle on 34th Street?
“Stuck-Up” (Now Is the Time for All Good Men). Mike is the hot new schoolteacher in a small Indiana town, and many a lass has her eye on him. Eugenie is especially smitten, and shows up at his house one Sunday morning to do what wouldn’t be called “The Lord’s work.” When Mike doesn’t respond, she accuses him of being “S-T-U-C-K-U-P.” Best line (or worst, depending on your outlook): “Now honey lamb, if you don’t say ‘Yes,’ you’re a J-A-C-K-A-S-S.” (An irony: the score also includes a song called “Halloween Hayride,” but no one ever suggested that one for Terry’s Halloween party.)
“Gigi” (Gigi) – Now wait a minute, some of you are saying, this is a great song, certainly one that was good enough to win an Oscar in the 1958 Academy Award Best Song race. Indeed it was, and I hold neither lyricist Alan Jay Lerner nor composer Frederick Loewe responsible for its being on this list. But listen to Daniel Massey’s rendition on the 1973 cast album and wait for the middle of the song when the orchestra takes over; check out the different ways he yells out the word “Gigi!” But please don’t be drinking anything while you’re doing it, because all that liquid will be soon spurting from your nose.
By the way, one year Terry’s friend Bill Schelbe decided that he’d have his own party too and use a similar theme. It would take place the day after Halloween, which is All Saint’s Day on the Roman Catholic calendar. Each invitee was instructed to dress as his favorite saint. I simply wore a St. Louis Cardinal baseball cap and left it at that. (Three other guests did, too, though many went the toga route.)
Bill also demanded that we think of a show song that referenced a saint. “Nothing as obvious as ‘St. Bridget’ from Mame,” he warned us. “Something like ‘Just You Wait,’ in which Eliza sings, ‘Go to St. James so often I will call it St. Jim.’”
I won for suggesting “The Little Woman” from Jimmy. If you know the song, you might see why that was a good suggestion. If you don’t know it, you might have the same opinion of it as I do: it’s so good, it’s good.