Do you know or remember the three suggestions that Oscar Hammerstein made to the staff of GYPSY after he’d attended a tryout performance in early 1959?
One: Fix the loose doorknob on the set. Two: Move “You’ll Never Get away from Me” from the middle of the scene to the end. Three: Give the audience the chance to applaud Ethel Merman at the end of “Rose’s Turn.”
Believe it or not, this last point had thus far been deemed unnecessary even by this theatrically erudite and experienced group. It didn’t bother Jule Styne, who’d composed five musicals, had produced four others, and had performed in both capacities for HAZEL FLAGG.
Neither bookwriter Arthur Laurents nor director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, each of whom had conceived and delivered on WEST SIDE STORY in addition to multiple other credits and successes, hadn’t seen it as a problem.
Even co-producers David Merrick and Leland Hayward, who could boast of having amassed fifteen previous productions by themselves or with others, didn’t question it.
Oh, Stephen Sondheim – Hammerstein’s protégé – was at that meeting, too, of course, for he’d written the (excellent) lyrics for GYPSY. But with “only” WEST SIDE STORY on his resume, he could be pardoned for not being theatrically savvy enough to know that the applause was necessary.
Whatever the case, Merman was soon getting her well-deserved hand.
If it’s not a tale as old as time, it’s been told quite a few times in the last sixty-one years. So if you’ve heard it, pardon me. But have you ever heard what happened after Sondheim went to see Hammerstein’s new musical some months later in 1959: THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which next week will celebrate its sixty-first year anniversary.
My question is: did Sondheim ever tease his mentor with two questions that he might well have asked?
You’ll recall that in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Act One, Scene Seven has Fraulein Maria planning to have the von Trapp children change out of their constricting uniforms and into less formal play clothes. For the first time in a long time, they’d be able to romp around the countryside and enjoy themselves.
But Frau Schmidt tells Maria that “The von Trapp children do not play.” Their father believes that marching is fun enough.
What to do, what to do? Luckily (and perhaps too coincidentally), Frau Schmidt tells Maria that she’ll be getting new curtains for her bedroom. So in Scene Nine, the Captain, his fiancée and good friend see Maria enter with the children, who are, as librettists Lindsay and Crouse wrote in their stage directions, “dressed in play clothes made from the curtains we have seen in Maria’s bedroom.”
But here’s the thing: GYPSY starts Act One, Scene Five – the Chinese restaurant scene – with Rose and June (as Laurents’ stage directions say) “wearing coats made of the hotel’s blankets.”
So after Sondheim saw THE SOUND OF MUSIC, did he give his mentor a playful poke in the stomach and joke – I reiterate: JOKE — “Did you steal that idea from my show?”
And while we’re at it, did Sondheim follow it with an equally playful jab as he teased “And did you get that song title ‘Maria’ from me, too?”
For twenty-six months earlier, Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein wrote their own “Maria” for WEST SIDE STORY.
Again: my verbs of choice are “joke” and “tease.” In actuality, Hammerstein had more of a right to call his song “Maria” for he was writing about a genuine person whose name was just that.
(Although Rainer – Maria’s last name in the musical – wasn’t her real one. It was Kutschera. Lindsay and Crouse were obviously going for something more euphonious.)
Given that Laurents didn’t retain the heroine’s name that Shakespeare used when musicalizing ROMEO AND JULIET (not that the Bard has ever received credit on the window cards or cast albums), the librettist could have chosen any three-syllable Latina name: Lucia, Camila, Sofia or, for that matter, Anita. Had he done so, Sondheim and Bernstein could still have had their beautiful song without any other word compromised.
For all the talk of how sentimental Hammerstein was and how Sondheim hasn’t been, there’s a tiny irony in that Hammerstein’s “Maria” is occasionally biting while Sondheim’s is utterly love-at-first-sight romantic. Needless to say, there’s good reason for the differences in the songs; each had to function and make sense in the show for which it was written no matter what the title. Musicals need more than a one-size-fits-all approach.
And if Sondheim had joked about “Maria,” Hammerstein, had he lived past 1960 (and don’t we all wish he had?), could have had two chances to return those playful pokes to Sondheim’s belly.
For CINDERELLA in 1957, Hammerstein wrote “Impossible” for The Fairy Godmother to sing to our poor put-upon heroine before both came to the conclusion that “It’s possible.”
Five years later, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, Broadway heard a Sondheim song also titled “Impossible” that eventually had a father and son decide that “It’s possible.”
Hammerstein’s “Impossible” achieves the goal for which the best musical theater writers aim: it moves the action forward. Cinderella is drab and exhausted at the song’s start and all dolled up by its end.
Sondheim’s “Impossible” doesn’t even attempt to do that. As he’s said on many occasions, his songs are divertissements to give the audience time to catch its breath from laughing so hard at Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s hilarious book.
Hammerstein needed to live until 1984 to make his next tease. “You thief!” he could have joked to Sondheim. “You stole my title ‘Sunday’ that I used in FLOWER DRUM SONG!”
Although they’d previously reached the same conclusion that something seemingly impossible could become possible, they had much different goals with “Sunday.”
Hammerstein had a just-engaged couple thinking about “Sunday, sweet Sunday, with nothing to do.” It led to a big choreographed number.
Sondheim’s “Sunday” is the unforgettable first-act closer of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. It was choreographed as well – not as a Big Numba in A Great Big Broadway Show, but with serious and specific musical staging.
Georges Seurat moves all the subjects (i. e., actors) of his masterwork into the places where we have been accustomed to seeing them in “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte” – a/k/a “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
The result is a stunning tableau that mirrors the famous painting. The song is stunning as well, with phenomenal harmonizing from its first-rate cast.
By the way, wouldn’t SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGES – yes, plural “Georges” – have been a more accurate title? Seurat’s first name was indeed Georges with an “s” on the end. More to the point, the show gives us two distinctly different Georges; Seurat in Act One and George in Act Two, a revolutionary artist in his own right who’s living in 1984.
If you’re going to argue that the Act Two George doesn’t spend Sunday in the park, keep in mind that he does wind up there at the end of the show where he hears Dot sing one of Sondheim’s most glorious songs: “Move On.”
Anyway, during the times I’ve talked to Sondheim, I’ve never asked him if he made any such jokes to Hammerstein or even if he noticed that he’d later used titles that his mentor had – not after what had happened when I asked him this question:
“In FOLLIES,” I began, “when you were writing ‘The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,’ did the character of Buddy get his name then-and-there because you saw a good joke in the song – when Buddy sings ‘She says that anybody’ followed by the Sally stand-in responding ‘Buddy-bleah!’?”
Sondheim said in an astonished voice “I would never make a writer change a name for a lyric. His name was already Buddy.” I won’t say that the stare he gave me was akin to what God must have flashed to Lot’s Wife seconds before he turned her into a pillar of salt. But he did look a little bit insulted.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.