TOPICAL DESERT ISLAND DISCS
Last week, when I wrote about the cast album of Seven Come Eleven, I stressed its topicality. The 1961 nightclub revue mentioned The Peppermint Lounge, the Peace Corps, Mayor Wagner, civil rights, mononucleosis, The John Birch Society – all names that were then making the news.
Revues have often been considered as here-and-now entertainments, never meant to last for the long haul; thus, topical humor has always seemed right for them. The song that Stephen Sondheim wrote in 1965 for The Mad Show — “The Boy from …” — makes more sense and is far more fun if you know a song from 1963 called “The Girl from Ipanema.”
With music by Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyrics by Norman (Whoop-Up) Gimbel, “The Girl from Ipanema” reached number five on the charts that summer. Its single came from an album called Getz/Gilberto, for Stan Getz was a jazz saxophonist and Joao Gilberto was a guitarist and proponent of the Brazilian musical movement called Bossa Nova (Portuguese for “new trend”).
Gilberto did start singing “The Girl from Ipanema,” but soon his wife Astrud Gilberto took over – and it’s generally regarded that her breathy, simple voice is what made the soft and mellow song successful even in an already rock-oriented market.
Sondheim, when asked by his friend Mary Rodgers to contribute to The Mad Show, mainly riffed on the word “Ipanema.” He wrote for a breathy, simple-voiced singer (expertly parodied by up-and-comer Linda Lavin) who said that her boy came from Tacarembo la Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipaszaca Tecasia Junta del Sol y Cruz.
In the mid-sixties, homosexuality wasn’t often mentioned, but Sondheim made his “Boy from” gay. “Why do his friends call him Lillian?” he had his singer ask. About a year earlier, when working on Do I Hear a Waltz? with Mary’s father Richard, Sondheim had tried to inject the lyric “Sometimes he’s homosexual” when telling about an unhappily married couple. His composer (and producer) thought a Broadway audience wouldn’t like it and insisted it not be used. And what Richard wanted, Richard got. His daughter was far more accommodating.
Today’s Broadway musicals tend to avoid topical humor because they are built to run longer. And yet, many lyricists who thought of a good topical joke were hard-pressed to ignore it. These then-in-the-news names tore down the house when they first met audiences, but many haven’t passed the test of time. Here are a few explanations that may make the youngest of you say, “Oh, so THAT’S what that means!”
In The Boys from Syracuse, Lorenz Hart had one of his Antipholi yearn for “Dear Old Syracuse.” One hometown asset that he missed was that “When the search for love becomes a mania, you can take the night boat to Albania.”
There probably was never a night boat to Albania, but in the early part of the 20th century there certainly was a night boat from New York City to Albany. It left from Canal Street at eight p.m. and returned to New York at eight a.m. It was extraordinarily popular with adulterers, for in those days, any couple who wanted a hotel room was often asked for a marriage license. The staff on the ship made no such demands on its, uh, shipoopis.
Hart wasn’t the first to mention the boat. In 1930 – eight years before The Boys from Syracuse — Al Jolson sang “Why Do They All Take the Night Boat to Albany?” The singer suspiciously stated “They all claim it’s just for the sights. Tell me why, then, they travel at nights.” Finally he reached this conclusion: “Seems that each Tom and Dick and Harry is rid of his worries and cares. They found out the Hudson steamers carry a cargo of peaches and pears.”
“Pears” plays better when it’s heard and not read. The ear automatically hears the word as “pairs” – and pairs of people are what made the night boat famous.
But even ten years before that, Broadway played host to a hit called The Night Boat. The 1920 show (with music by Jerome Kern) played 313 performances – then enough to make it crack the list of Broadway’s top twenty-five longest-running musicals. In this one, a man tells his wife and mother-in-law he’s on the night boat to Albany every night because he’s the ship’s captain. Many nautical hi-jinks followed.
There are a few topical references in Sweet Charity. In “Charity’s Soliloquy,” our heroine tells of how she’s been supporting her man — to the point that now “the bum wants to move to Florida.”
Fine — but why did Charity then yell out “Cummon down!”?
In 1966, a now-defunct airline named Eastern barraged the Northeast Corridor’s viewership with endless commercials that showed smiling, relaxed and warm people on a Miami beach pouring piña coladas into their trim and tanned bodies. “Cummon down,” crowed Eastern’s pitchman, infuriating the paupers in New York, New Jersey and New England.
When Gwen Verdon gave opening night theatergoers the all-too-familiar line they’d heard nightly, they responded with warm laughter. What’s more, January 29, 1966 also happened to be one of the coldest days that New York had ever experienced, and Miami looked awfully inviting at that point. Not that anyone in his right mind would right then and there leave a Gwen Verdon-Bob Fosse-Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical.
Another of the show’s highlights was “The Rhythm of Life” which had Charity and newfound beau Oscar attend a church service headed by Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck. That last name is a topical reference in itself; Dave Brubeck was an accomplished jazz pianist and composer.
But in the middle of the song, a great many doobey-doobey-doos were sung. They too brought a good deal of laughter from the crowd, for everyone knew of a then-popular group called The Swingle Singers, which scatted its way through classical pieces.
Then there’s the devilish Mr. Applegate who sings “Those Were the Good Old Days” in Damn Yankees. He details Mankind’s Greatest Hits – meaning “hits” in the killing sense, a la Bonaparte, Nero, Jack the Ripper, et al. He’d prefer a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition, but until he engineers that, he’ll revel in past. “Was anybody happy?” he asks.
This is a riff on bandleader-entertainer Ted Lewis’s catchphrase “Is everybody happy?” He was most popular during the days of vaudeville – which is why he’s referenced when Billy Flynn enters in Chicago. No, Billy doesn’t quite say “Is everybody happy” but his first words are “Is everybody here? Is everybody ready?” If you doubt that Kander, Ebb and Fosse had someone else on their minds, you might take a look at the stage direction: it blatantly says “A la Ted Lewis.”
Belle Poitrine in Little Me starts the show by announcing that the memoir she’s writing will be hot stuff. “Mary Astor,” she says, “meet your master.” The name was not chosen arbitrarily; three years earlier in 1959, Astor’s memoir — My Story: An Autobiography – reached the best-seller lists as one of the first tell-alls. Even now, more than a half-century later, literary agents send their celebrity clients to abebooks.com to find copies that will inspire them to be perfectly frank when relating their own tales.
In 1956, when Betty Comden and Adolph Green made a list of celebrities for “Drop That Name” in Bells Are Ringing, they included the nation’s favorite sweethearts: Debbie and Eddie (meaning Reynolds and Fisher). Alas, when the musical went before the cameras in 1960, the lyric had to be changed to “Lizzie and Eddie,” for Fisher had dumped Reynolds in favor of Elizabeth Taylor. (As if anyone ever called Liz Taylor “Lizzie.”)
By late 1963, Taylor was doing the dumping, sacrificing Fisher for Richard Burton. This happened while Meredith Willson was writing his title song of Here’s Love, a plea for peaceful coexistence between enemies: Miami to Los Angeles; CBS to NBC, et al. He urged making nice between “Elizabeth Taylor to husbands in review.”
At that point, Taylor was only halfway through her marriage-go-round. She’d eventually become Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton” — they wed twice – “Warner Fortensky.” And if you think that twenty-two syllable name hasn’t been set to music, well, then you haven’t heard the off-Broadway cast album of Whoop-Dee-Doo!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.