This week, you might wish that you lived in Pennsylvania.
(Even if it’s hot as hell in Philadelphia.)
For The Keystone State, as it’s chummily called, considers Flag Day – June 14th – a state holiday. Plenty of Pennsylvanians have the day off from work.
Even if you don’t have the entire day at your disposal, you might want to spend some time listening to songs that specifically deal with our national flag. At the very least, consider listening to songs that reference some facets of it.
The most obvious one, of course, is “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” which you can hear courtesy of GEORGE M! That’s George M. Cohan, who must still rank as our most patriotic musical theater writer.
However, you might not think he was much of a patriot once you’re told the title that he’d originally chosen for the song: “You’re a Grand Old Rag.”
The story goes that Cohan was talking to an aged Army veteran who’d actually fought in the Battle of Gettysburg in The Civil War. The survivor had a flag with him that was very careworn, but that didn’t stop him from having great affection for what he called this “grand old rag.” That inspired Cohan to write the song we know today, but with that title.
Thus, the first two lines were “You’re a grand old rag; you’re a high-flying flag.”
Needless to say, many Americans objected and vilified Cohan for mocking the stars and stripes. So, he decided to change it to “You’re a grand old flag; you’re a high-flying flag.” That made him lose the rhyme, but he did regain his objectors’ respect.
Along the way, a term came into use: “flag-waving.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment; the dictionary defines it as “the expression of patriotism in a populist and emotional way.” Irving Berlin, who was right behind Cohan in expressing patriotism in his songs, referenced the term in MR. PRESIDENT, his final Broadway musical. His eleven o’clock number was “This Is a Great Country.”
It was sung by Robert Ryan – yes, the Robert Ryan best-known for roles in the dramatic films The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge and King of Kings (in which he played John the Baptist). The final lines of the song were, “If this is flag-waving, flag-waving, do you know of a better flag to wave?”
Let’s add to the list “You Should See Yourself,” sung by Charity Hope Valentine (originally known as Charity Agnes Hope Valentine when SWEET CHARITY began its out-of-town tryout in the aforementioned Philadelphia in 1965). She joyously praised her supposed beau Charley (actually only called as “Dark Glasses” in Neil Simon’s script) by singing that “In my flag, you’re the fif-fifty-first star.”
Looks like lyricist Dorothy Fields had an extra syllable that she just couldn’t fill, so she had Gwen Verdon sing that extra (and inexplicable) “fif.”
Actually, someday that line in the song may well be dated, for Washington, DC or Puerto Rico may be represented on the flag as the fifty-first star– or fif-fifty-first star, if you will.
You’ll hear one line from John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in “Simple,” ANYONE CAN WHISTLE’s mammoth first-act closer. (It’s almost 13 minutes long.) “Three cheers for the red, white and blue,” sing the ensemble in the midst of one of the longest musical scenes in Broadway history.
Most people assume that because Sousa wrote both music and lyrics for the spirited march that he indeed penned “Three cheers for the red, white and blue.” No – the actual line he wrote for those eight notes in 1896 was “Hurrah for the flag of the free!” But his lyrics never really caught on, so a lyricist named Charles Burr decided to try his hand at new ones. Time has shown that people prefer his lyric.
Here’s an irony: “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was also known as “The Disaster March.” The orchestras who played for musicals at theaters and the bands providing the music at circuses were told to start playing Sousa’s song when a dire emergency arose. Ushers were told that if they heard it, they were to try to keep audiences calm and have them march out of the theater as soon as Sousa’s march began.
And what does this have to do with ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, you ask? Well, if we’re talking box office, Sondheim’s second Broadway show for which he provided both music and lyrics was indeed a disaster, opening on one Saturday night in April and closing the very next Saturday night in April.
But ho-ho-ho, who had the last laugh eventually? Sondheim’s ambitious score has received three separate recordings of its score, two of which can be found here at Masterworks Broadway.
You could also celebrate June 14th by playing the original cast album of a musical that opened on that date. When you hear the title, you’ll immediately know that this year marks the 67th anniversary of its opening: NEW FACES OF ’56.
As is the case with any of Leonard Sillman’s seven NEW FACES revues, some people did go on to success and some faded away. The Class of ’56 did yield:
- Jane Connell, who portrayed “Wife” in one scene, wished that in MAME that she could have become a spouse. That way her son, the soon-to-be-named Burnside Gooch, could have a different surname and legitimacy. (However, had that happened, we wouldn’t have had Jerry Herman’s excellent song that had Agnes ask, “What do I do now?”)
- Billie Hayes, who can be heard as Mammy Yokum on the soundtrack – not the original cast album – of LI’L ABNER. (You DO know the difference, don’t you?)
- Virginia Martin, who later duetted with Rudy Vallee in “Love from a Heart of Gold” in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING a year before she introduced “On the Other Side of the Tracks” in LITTLE ME.
- Bill McCutcheon, who’d win a Tony for his Moonface Martin in the 1987 revival of ANYTHING GOES. Did the performer who played “Dreamer” in this revue ever dream that he’d win one?
- John Reardon, who performed as “Production Singer” in one sequence, became a fine singer in the original production of DO RE MI. He introduced one of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s biggest hits: “Make Someone Happy.”
- Inga Swenson, who also played a “Wife” in one sketch, would later to endeavor to become one (and succeed!) in 110 IN THE SHADE.
And last but hardly least, don’t miss what you’ll get on Track Three of NEW FACES OF ’56. It starts with “Hello, I’m Maggie Smith” in that now-unmistakable and utterly recognizable voice. When you hear it, you’ll take it at face value, but then you realize that she’s introducing herself to an audience that has no idea who she is.
Oh, but they would, as the years went on. The song she sang in the show is called “One Perfect Moment,” but Maggie Smith has gone on to have many, more perfect moments on screen and stage. Long may her achievements wave!
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.