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The Wrong-Note Rag

The Wrong-Note Rag

By Peter Filichia


Faithful readers will recall that two weeks ago I mentioned that I preferred “Together Wherever We Go” on the 1973 London Cast Album of Gypsy. Because it offers all of Sondheim’s lyrics, the cut is nearly a minute longer than it is on the 1959 Original Cast Album.


Many who have only heard the first album wrote in to ask specifically what I meant. Rose, Louise and Herbie respectively sing “If I sing B-flat / We both hit B-flat / We all can be flat / Together!” Nice how there are two different uses of b(e) flat. But that’s Sondheim for you.


What’s funny is that Angela Lansbury, Zan Charisse and Barrie Ingham follow each line by braying out a flat note. And that, my friends, brings us to An Informal and Thoroughly Incomplete Musical Theater History of Sour Notes and Wrong Notes — which are not one and the same.


Sour notes are usually used for humorous effect. There’s one in the 1966 revival cast album of Annie Get Your Gun, when Ethel Merman in “Doin’ What Comes Natur‘lly.” She mentions that her sister Sal had learned to sing off-key, and The Merm, to get a laugh, purposely sings the word “off-key” quite off-key.


However, on the original cast album that Merman had made twenty years earlier, she didn’t do that. Did she get the idea from Betty Hutton, who played Annie in the 1950 film? Actually, Hutton didn’t quite make the commitment to an off-key note, but semi-leaned a little on the side of singing flat. This may represent the only time in her life that Betty Hutton ever did anything remotely subtle.


Comden and Green gave Lillian Hayman the assignment in her big number in Hallelujah, Baby! They also had her make the same sour sound with it. “I Don’t Know Where She Got It,” Hayman’s Momma claims, referring to her daughter’s considerable talent. “She sure didn’t get it from me,” she maintains, for it “seems like I’m always off-key,” singing flat. But Hayman was sharp enough in the role to win a Tony Award.


Bye Bye Birdie’s “Healthy Normal American Boy” has the Sweet Apple teenagers start out sweetly on “Oh, Conrad, we love,” but then they sound as if they come from Sour Apple when they hit the “you” that follows. Maybe they just wanted to show that they possessed even less talent than their idol.


“Sing” in A Chorus Line has Kristine prove that she really can’t when she murders “Three Blind Mice” and “Jingle Bells” with sour notes. But did you know that when the show was trying out downtown at the Public Theatre, Kristine instead sang wrong notes in “A Hundred of Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and “Do-Re-Mi”?


Leave it to Sondheim to give us a little something extra, for in Merrily We Roll Along, he included at least three purposeful sour notes. If you only have the 1981 LP, you only hear two, both in “Opening Doors.” First, producer Joe Josephson screws up the last note when humming “Some Enchanted Evening.” Then a female auditionee for the upcoming cabaret revue Frankly Frank butchers substantially more notes in “Who Wants to Live in New York?”


The third cubic zirconium of the triple crown had to wait until the more commodious CD was released in 1987 with the previously omitted “It’s a Hit.” To enhance the lyric “No more second-hand pianos with six broken keys,” Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration delivers the sound of a couple of them.


An instrumental sour note can be heard fifty-one seconds into the overture of 110 in the Shade when a trumpeter comes out with a real clam (to use the noun musicians like to cite a mistake). One rumor had it that no one had noticed the gaffe until the recording session had ended, and so producers Andy Wiswell and George Marek decided to drop the overture from the record. Others say that the overture was simply played to test the levels of microphones and was never intended to be on the album. Whatever the case, when the CD was released decades later, the overture was included, clam and all.


In On the Town, Leonard Bernstein gave a blatantly curdled note at the top of “I Wish I Was Dead” when one atrocious nightclub singer after another can’t hit the word “blue” correctly. But this brings us to “blue notes,” which are also known in the trade as “wrong notes.”


Such a note comes at a point in a song where you assume the melody will go in one direction, but it instead moves to a completely different one. “Wrong notes,” which can be unexpectedly flat or sharp, are the musical equivalent of bittersweet chocolate bars: tart but satisfying.


There are quite a few of them – as you’d suspect — in “The Wrong Note Rag”’ from Wonderful Town. We’ve all heard the stories that Rosalind Russell told everyone in advance that she couldn’t sing up to the then-current high Broadway standard, so she asked Bernstein for simplicity. He gave it to her in “One Hundred Easy Ways (to Lose a Man),” but in “The Wrong Note Rag,” he taxed her with seemingly more sharps than Alex Sharp has done performances of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the rehearsal hall wall when he first played it for her. Nevertheless, pro that Russell was, she just went out and did it, didn’t she?


Bernstein followed that in West Side Story’s “Dance at the Gym.” During that rinky-tinky tune when the kids dance in a circle to pick new partners, the melody goes flat as the scheme fails to get the Jet boys to dance with the Shark girls and the Shark boys to dance with the Jet girls. On the other end of the spectrum, Frank Loesser’s “Follow the Fold” in Guys and Dolls has his earnest Salvation Army band go sharp as if to suggest higher aspirations.


And while we’re on the subject of that esteemed composer-lyricist: Heart and Soul: Celebrating the Unforgettable Songs of Frank Loesser offers us a bit of “The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Student Conservatory Band” (from Where’s Charley?) In the show, Loesser admits that the band does “play just a trifle out-of-tune.” Well, c’mon, Frank, it’s a student band. They’re kids. They’re still learning. Give ’em a break.


Does the odd and dissonant amalgam of chords in “Zip” in Pal Joey count as wrong notes? The mashup occurs after Melba mentions “the great Stravinsky.” But in the world of Stravinsky, can the amalgam of notes be considered sour?


Pal Joey, of course, brings us to Richard Rodgers, who was well-known for such a musical move. In fact, in his opening night review of the 1963 musical Sophie, Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune took the time to note, “Richard Rodgers is famous for his ‘wrong note.’”


A couple of examples: When Julie Andrews’ Cinderella sings that she’s “In my own little corner in my own little chair,” note the note on the second “own.” In The Boys from Syracuse, “The shortest day of the year has the longest night of the year,” gives you a wrong note on each year. And we’re only into the first two lines of the song. And there are quite a few in “Someone Like You” in the woefully underappreciated Do I Hear a Waltz?


By the way, are you wondering why Kerr would mention Rodgers in a review of a show in which the composer took no part? Sophie had a score by Steve Allen, a ‘50s TV sensation, the first host of The Tonight Show and a prolific songwriter, too. On April 15, 1963, his music and lyrics made it to Broadway through a musical version of the life of vaudeville and Broadway star Sophie Tucker.


It lasted a week – partly because Kerr’s point was that “Richard Rodgers is famous for his ‘wrong note.’ Mr. Allen may become famous for always arriving at the right note, and you have no idea how monotonous that can be.”


Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at and His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order at