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most people know this wonderful Noel Coward song from his musical Sail Away from Elaine Stritch’s
wonderful cabaret review At Liberty,
where she still sings it most forcibly, but without the slightly more dulcet
tones of her original recording.
This being a Coward song, it’s filled with
sarcastic jibes at both those “wrong” people who endlessly travel, and the
“right” people in Omaha who stay at home. Indeed there is a sort of dismissive
attitude of all Americans with their rare steaks smothered in catchup; the
right people staying people back home “eat hot donuts.”
Stritch does the song so well, that we truly do feel all the tourist processions of Houston Texans with all the
cameras around their necks seeing Pompeii on the “only day when its up
to”—“with molten lava,” while the right people “sit back home with all their
Kleenex,” is a kind of important distinction. Stritch, after all, plays a
tourist guide, set upon by all those impossible tourists, particularly the
totally obnoxious Sweeneys.
Her best song appears very late in the
show, but it’s a remarkable show-stopper, worth being included in “My Favorite
Musical Theater Songs.”
Stritch began the show in a basically
minor role as Mimi Paragon, but proved so popular that Coward and choreographer
Joe Layton quickly got rid of their lead, Jean Feen, and gave Stritch the major
role. As Stritch admits something to the effect, “That’s the way it is!” And
Coward always argued that his choice had been the right one, even though the
musical lasted only 167 performances at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. It
did slightly better in London, lasting 252 performances. But the song still
exists today basically because of Stritch’s wonderful hollering out of its
lines in her At Liberty performances.
Styne, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, Bells
Are Ringing, 1956
always been somewhat frustrated when people today call the Jule Styne, Betty
Comden, and Adolph Green 1956 musical, “old fashioned” and “out of date,” terms
abundantly used to describe its 2001 revival with Faith Prince and Marc
Kurdisch. Certainly this charmer of a work, about the great new technology of
the day, the telephone and answering services, might be easily be transformed
into a piece about meeting through cellphone or Facebook encounters! People
still want to find their mysterious callers or on-line admirers, that is at the
heart of Bells Are Ringing.
This musical was also about international
celebrity fashion and behavior, which seems to me as current today as it was
back in 1956. So, what’s the problem? Somebody simply needs to imagine an
marvelously updated version, that re-contexualizes its wonderful songs. Maybe
not “bells,” but “ring signals” and “emojis.”
Certainly songs such as “It’s a Perfect
Relationship” is even more appropriate to today’s on-line Facebook and
Instagram relationships; and “Drop That Name” just needs a little dusting off.
But nothing needs to be done to the
heart-breaking song, when Ella Petersen believes that her magical relationship
with the man of her dreams has ended because of the fibs she has told to help
him in his career, needs no alteration whatsoever. “The Party’s Over,”
stunningly expresses it all; it’s a song that even Cinderella could have sung
after running off from Prince Charming. For the “end of the affair,” a theme is
so many musicals that it’s a wonder that the stage genre has ever survived (after
all, it’s at the heart of Show Boat, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I,
My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Gypsy, Follies and so many musical theater
works that it’s almost become a standard trope). Love generally falls apart on
the Broadway stage.
Judy Holliday’s plaintive plea should
become a standard of the musical theater genre itself—even though her
relationship with pretty-boy Sydney Chaplin does end happily; he wants her all
time to call it a day
taken the moon away
time to wind up
make your mind up
piper must be paid
candles flicker and dim
danced and dreamed
seemed to be right
being with him
you must wake up
dreams must end
off your makeup
Holliday sings the song, sung to herself,
so brilliantly that she might have, metaphorically speaking, “owned it,” until
hundreds of other brilliant interpreters came along, including several male
ones. What I find utterly fascinating is that Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis
sang it as it was originally written, keeping the male “him” and talking about
taking off “your makeup.” Singing with Garland, Mel Tormé (on matching
motorcycles) pretended they were at the end of an all-night spree on New
Year’s. Eve, in which the “he” became “we.” Sammy Davis, Jr., on the other hand,
determined, given his macho “Rat Pack” identification, to turn the male
designation to “her” and muttered over the “makeup” line.
So many brilliant women singers,
including Doris Day, Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, and Peggy Lee, reinterpreted
the work to fit their own vocalist stylings. And who might blame them given the
simple beauty of its music and lyrics.
Old-fashioned? Well, if such great songs
are out of fashion, I’m terrified for the fact.
Rodgers and Marshall Barer, Once Upon a
Jackie Hoffman, John Epperson, and many others in the Transport Groups concert
one ever needed a definition of irony, I might invite young students to listen
to Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer’s rendition of the song “Shy” as sung by the
original performer, Carol Burnett.
Burnett brilliantly belts out her “Shy”
song, proclaiming her demure behavior underneath her absolutely hurricane-like
surface, literally, through Joe Layton’s wonderful choreography, blowing the
members of Queen Aggravain’s medieval court off their feet. The young Winnifred
(who likes her nick-name of Fred), is, of course, anything but shy. She has
just swam the moat to apply for the role of princess, and is determined to find
a husband, since, as she finally admits she is “shy” of a man if not naturally
shy in personality.
Not a single courtier will admit to being
Prince Dauntless, and whenever the Prince dares to admit that he is the one,
also desperate for a wife, his imperious mother pulls him away. Winnifred takes
the entire court on a whirlwind dance in order to discover the Prince’s
identity, all the time denying her totally domineering personality.
The song and the musical as a whole is so
close to camp that it later was performed by a group of gay and drag
performers, including John Epperson as the Queen and the wonderful David
Greenspan as the King, with comedian Jackie Hoffman as Winnifred. I’ve included
a selection of songs from that Transport Group’s 2013 production.
But then, nearly everybody, including Dody
Goodman, Imogene Coca, Buster Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, and numerous other
luminaries have appeared in productions of this likeable musical, which, when
first appeared Off-Broadway, was given luke-warm reviews, but was loved by
audiences, allowing to last a reasonable run of 244 performances before it was
revived again and again in theater and in television productions. Tracey
Ullman, performing it in 2005 on television, sang beautifully, but far more
tamely than Burnett and others, almost convincing her
audiences that she might really be a little shy and was just bluffing as the
future Princess that couldn’t sleep.
I saw the 1964 television version with
Burnett, Elliot Gould as the Jester, and others. Bernadette Peters later
appeared in a 1972 TV production as Lady Larken, along with the original cast
members, Burnett, Jack Gilford, and Jane White.
The talented composer, Mary Rodgers,
daughter of one of the titans of composers Richard Rodgers, went on to have a
hit in the Off-Broadway musical The Mad
Show, based on skits from Mad
Magazine, and wrote Phyllis Newman's one-woman show The Madwoman of Central Park West (1979), as well as contributing,
along with Stephen Sondheim, to the short-lived Judy Holliday musical, Hot Spot.
Her son, Adam Guettel, wrote the
successful score for the musical, The
Light in the Piazza, and previously sang in numerous operas as a child
performer before turning to compose many notable classical scores.
Mary went on to write numerous children’s
books, playing down her musical gifts, proclaiming that she had neither the
talents of her father or son. But, to be honest, her crazy fairy-tale musical
was one of my favorites of my youth, and her song “Shy,” I always felt, was a
secret satire on her own father’s similar statement in “I Whistle a Happy Tune”
from The King and I.