By Peter Filichia
A great big Broadway show’s overture starts with a majestic flourish that indicates that something important is going to happen. That’s followed by the snazziest tune in the score before the tempo slows down and the Big Ballad comes in.
And yet, that third component doesn’t happen in the new #MWBVault release, Woman of the Year, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s eighth Broadway musical. The overture to their 1981 hit does have a slower interlude at one point, but it’s not for a Big Ballad; instead we hear a gavotte-like tune we’ll later learn is called “Happy in the Morning.” After that, the overture returns to slam-bang excitement before its stirring ta-daaaaa ending.
Don’t blame Kander. He certainly did give Woman of the Year a Big Ballad, one that orchestrator Michael Gibson could have included in his overture: “Sometimes a Day Goes By.” Coupled with Ebb’s poignant lyric, this song has been since sung in plenty of cabarets. What’s more, it was selected from literally hundreds of K&E songs for the 1991 revue of their work And the World Goes ‘Round. The luscious tune was an important reason why Kander and Ebb’s work in Woman of the Year resulted in their second Best Score Tony Award.
After the overture, many a musical starts with “merry villagers” who tell you the charms and wonders of the place they live: “Christopher Street,” “Perfect Young Ladies,” “Down on MacConnachy Square.” Woman of the Year instead has Tess Harding (Lauren Bacall) tell us her inner thoughts as she’s being given an honor by an organization far more lofty than the Halsingborg Arts Council Amateur Theatre Group. And it’s a song of revenge.
No, Tess is no Sweeney Todd, but she’s pretty angry at her husband Sam Craig. In fact, only seven words pass before she describes him with a vulgarism. Seven words! Even Hair, The Book of Mormon or Oh! Calcutta! didn’t offer profanity that early. But here’s Bacall using a four-word expression rarely uttered by a Southern belle.
It sets the tone for what’s to come. No Broadway score — not even the one in which Jets kill Sharks (and vice versa) – has ever had such a collection of belligerent titles: the assertive “When You’re Right, You’re Right,” the dismissive “See You in the Funny Papers,” the condescending “So What Else Is New?” the mean-spirited “I Told You So,” the snarky “It Isn’t Working” and the downright rude “Shut Up, Gerald.”
That a woman is too busy with her career to devote herself to a marriage — which rankles her husband — is a true New York problem. Ebb was famously dour, and that came through in this quintessentially New York show. Although only three of his fourteen Broadway musicals were set in the city, he was at home literally and figuratively with powerful Manhattanites, whom he knew as a jaded and exasperated people.
Bookwriter Peter Stone obliged by pitting one New York entertainment giant against the other in a tussle worthy of Madison Square Garden. In this corner, there’s TV anchorwoman Tess Harding (Bacall), and in that corner, nationally syndicated cartoonist Sam Craig (Harry Guardino), whose sardonic comic character Katz is one of those seen-it-all, hard-to-impress New Yorkers whose catch-phrase is “So what else is new?”
If the names of the two leading characters sound familiar, you probably recall them from Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr.’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1942 film Woman of the Year. There, however, Tess (Katharine Hepburn) served as a political columnist and Sam (Spencer Tracy) toiled as a sportswriter. Tess didn’t think much of sports and said so on a radio show. In the musical, Bacall’s Tess does much the same in criticizing Sam’s occupation (“I’m getting sick and tired of the funnies”) – and on national TV, yet. That makes Sam retaliate by giving his comic strip an unflattering new character: Tessie Cat, who parodies guess-who.
So that’s why Tess is profane in her opening song? Hardly. Before the Act One curtain rises, Tess and Sam have been married for eight months. We’re soon into a flashback to see how it happened in “It Isn’t Working” via Stone’s Tony-winning book and Ebb’s most acerbic set of lyrics. Tough as Tess is – as we hear her defending her assault on the comics in “When You’re Right, You’re Right” — she does melt the first moment that she meets Sam. Suddenly she’s admitting “I was wrong.” Although the Woman of the Year musical opened nearly four decades after the film’s debut, Hepburn has no such moment where she folds simply because Tracy is attractive to her. That the musical’s collaborators went that route does seem retro today (and even then); that a character played by Bacall, then fifty-six years old, would put her trust in love at first sight is equally dubious.
But it’s a witty song nonetheless. When history buffs listen to “When You’re Right, You’re Right,” they will immediately recognize such late 20th century in-the-news names as Nasser, Haldeman and Erlichman. But they won’t know Alexi Petrikovic, whom Tess describes as “that Russian dancer (who) said he was bored at the Bolshoi and I told him ‘Defect.’“ Actually, he’s a fictional character, and his dilemma on whether or not to leave the Soviet Union will be a big issue (and production number) in Act Two.
Young ‘uns will be Googling Nasser, Haldeman and Erlichman along with plenty of others. Most of the people Ebb cited – Nixon, Brezhnev, Reagan and now E.L. Doctorow – have gone to that great open-air theater in the sky. So what else is old? Many of the comics that Sam and his buddies mention – B.C., Pogo, Maggie and Jiggs – have now long since been retired. Ebb had to be happy that two strips were still in existence when he started writing; after all, Dondi is a perfect rhyme for Blondie.
Ebb did more than just provide lyrics. On this album, he gave us one of the great joys of musical theater by having us hear a songwriter perform his own work. Such experiences are usually relegated to demos, but here’s Ebb showing us his way with a song by portraying Katz, Sam’s comic strip star. See if you don’t laugh just from hearing his first words to Sam after his creator has summoned him up: “WHAT,” he dryly says before a you’re-bothering-me pause, “do you want?”
Soon he’s referencing a lyric from Lady in the Dark: “Sing the song Ira Gershwin designed where the moral was Jenny should not have made up her mind.” Given that Lady in the Dark was on Broadway when the Woman of the Year film was, too, this had long ceased to be a tourist-friendly lyric by 1981.
Yes, Woman of the Year is a real “New York show.” And yet, the song for which it’s most remembered is its eleven o’clock number which takes place in faraway Colorado. Tess flies there to visit her ex-husband Larry and his second wife Jan (Marilyn Cooper). The new little missus is mortified that someone so glamorous should be in their modest mountain home. Just the thought of it would make her hair curl if she didn’t already have curlers in her hair.
So it’s Country Mouse vs. City Rat. Each, however, points out the pleasures that the other has had denied to her in “The Grass Is Always Greener,” which has each deciding that the other is living the ideal life. Tess stresses the joys of cooking, cleaning and sewing while Jan is more impressed with Sardi’s and Rona Barrett.
Marilyn Cooper was once an up-and-coming star; see and hear her leading-lady stint in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. But that was 1962 and by 1979 she could only land a job as an understudy in Ballroom. Now with Woman of the Year, she would appear in merely one Act Two scene and song. But she made the song a stunner. Even with so little on-stage time, Cooper received a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and gave one of the greatest acceptance speeches of all time: “I’m a poker player, and I say if you sit at the table long enough, you’re bound to come up a winner.”
And yet, when any interviewer asked Cooper about her triumph, she would always modestly point out, “Well, it IS a duet ….” Yes, let’s not forget that Bacall won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony, too. Even now, more than a third-of-a-century later, I can still see, during the song’s rapturous applause, Bacall and Cooper pretending to exit only to have Bacall cock her head in a let’s-give-’em-a-little-more gesture. The well-deserved encore turned out to have a punch line that topped all that had come before. And despite the show’s dated references, Woman of the Year is a Kander and Ebb score that deserves an encore, too.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.