So on July tenth, we’ll celebrate Jerry Herman’s eighty-second birthday.
And what do we immediately think of when we think of Jerry Herman?
Title songs, of course.
Herman’s first four Broadway musicals had them: Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame and Dear World.
Mame came close to having a different one; for a while, the musical was called My Best Girl, thanks to one of Herman’s loveliest ballads that includes a delicious “wrong” note that’s absolutely right. But when you have a first-act finale and song like “Mame,” you know what your show’s title should be.
Herman then took a title-song break with Mack & Mabel and The Grand Tour – but when the former musical had its London premiere in 1995, he took the melody of one of his best songs — “Look What Happened to Mabel” – and fit it with new lyrics to create a new title song. Before that, however, he had written a title tune for his final Broadway musical: La Cage aux Folles.
In 1964, Hello, Dolly! became the Number One album in the country, and its title tune became the Number One song, too. “Hello, Dolly!” could arguably be considered Broadway’s most famous title song. Want to hear its spiritual great-grandmothers? Then listen to “Irene” which was an equally big pop hit in 1919, and “Oh, Kay! from 1926. Both have that men-going-crazy-over-a-woman feeling that “Dolly” and “Mame” have.
So does the title song from Wildcat, in which many men laud the former Mrs. Ricky Ricardo. (“Wildcat” was the first of Cy Coleman’s six nifty title tunes; surprisingly, his first half-dozen musicals that made it to Broadway had them but his last four shows did not.)
“Dolly” had the greatest influence on the Broadway musicals that followed it. Don’t believe me? Do the math. (Don’t bother; I did.) In the decade before Herman’s smash opened, only forty-three of Broadway’s 130 musicals and revues had title songs — 33.07%, a little fewer than a third. But in the ten years after Hello, Dolly! seventy-four out of the 146 Broadway musicals and revues had title songs – precisely 50.68%.
Stephen Sondheim’s title songs are, as you’d expect, not in the Jerry Herman vein. “Anyone Can Whistle” is a ballad about a woman who can’t dance a tango or read Greek, but she certainly can come up with a beautiful melody and lyric. “Company”? We luvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv it!
When you plan to reprise a title song no fewer than six times, it had better be a good one – and Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” is exactly that. His “Sunday in the Park with George” will never be confused with “Sunday” in Flower Drum Song; has there ever been a quirkier title song? “Into the Woods” has both the innocence of a children’s song combined with the sophistication that we’ve come to expect from the master.
And then there’s “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which only has a Sondheim lyric set to a marvelous Richard Rodgers melody. The collaborators did not, as every musical theater enthusiast knows, get along; one can almost see the strife in this song. Yes, there’s the usual Sondheim brilliance in it — “Such lovely Blue Danube-y music; how can you be still?” – but there’s also a feeling of let-me-write-anything, give-it-to-him and get-this-over-with in the perfunctory lyric “An old lady is waltzing in her flat; waltzing with her cat.”
A title song is, of course, no prerequisite for success. Show Boat, Carousel, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, 1776, A Little Night Music and A Chorus Line each did quite well without one. A Joyful Noise, Shangri-La, Come Summer, Billy and Anya bombed with them. While one 1968 musical had a title song when it left for its Baltimore tryout – In Someone Else’s Sandals – it lost it when the musical’s name was changed to I’m Solomon. But we can’t pin the failure of the show on that.
On the other hand, if we may jump ahead to the late ‘80s, Grand Hotel got a fabulous title song during its tryout. Maury Yeston had to write it in haste, although you’d never know it. It became one of the most stirring title tunes to open a show.
Quieter — but just as effective in setting its show’s mood — is “The Happy Time.” It’s probably John Kander’s most beautiful waltz, and one of the best of his eight title songs (which, of course, includes “Cabaret”). Kander would have had nine title songs with “Curtains,” a song that he and Ebb definitely wrote (I’ve heard it), but that ditty didn’t make it into the finished show.
Perhaps the most stunning of all the title tunes to open a musical is “Ragtime.” Not only does it have Stephen Flaherty’s terrific melody that’s in a style worthy of its title, but it also sports Lynn Ahrens’ equally superb work in setting up no fewer than three stories.
Other worthy title tunes that open their shows include “The Pajama Game” (despite its having a false accent on its first word) and – come on, it’s a good song – “The Sound of Music.”
Some musicals make their title songs their first-act closers. “Anything Goes” may be the best of that bunch. Some save them as their show’s eleven o’clock numbers, such as “Oklahoma!” (No wonder that our 46th state just had to adopt this title tune as its official song.) Other late bloomers include “Promises, Promises” with a pulsating melody that only Burt Bacharach could have written and the exquisite “My Favorite Year,” another Ahrens-and-Flaherty gem.
“Your Own Thing” is the last song heard in its 1967 musical. As befitting a rock musical that looked at contemporary issues, the song was one of protest that told the so-called “Now Generation” that “There’ll come a day when the world’ll need you / There’ll come a day when the world’ll heed you … You may change someday / You may find another way.” What is now the Then Generation took the song’s advice to heart, for its members became brokers, bankers, traders and presidents.
But there’s no rule for when a title song should be used. One can come in the middle of act one, such as “Guys and Dolls” (a probable 12-to-7 that this would rank high on anyone’s list of title tunes); the jaunty “Here’s Love” (which asks us all to get along); “Take Me Along” (is sweeter than vanilla; want to hug it like my pilla) and “Hair.”
Speaking of “Hair,” have you ever wondered why this song includes that odd lyric “I’m hairy, noon and night?” What else could a hairy person be? But when I first heard the line, I remembered that there had been a play that had run off-Broadway for a week in 1965: Ronald Ribman’s Harry, Noon and Night. In 1977, when I ran into Ragni during Hair’s first Broadway revival, I asked him if that’s what he had in mind, and he excitedly cried “Yes! You’re the first person to ask me that, but that’s exactly what I meant! Harry, Noon and Night was a play I was cast in but then I took another job instead. Writing the lyric was my way of kinda making it up to Ronald.”
Many times a song becomes a title tune because it’s such a good mix of terrific melody and wonderful lyrics. That’s certainly true of “On the Twentieth Century,” “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Over Here!” and, of course, “Camelot.” It’s less true of “Annie,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Oliver!” – as well as Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles.” But as long as there are Broadway musicals, there will always be title tunes.