A question that invariably comes up, whenever Encores does a good Golden Age musical, is “Why can’t they write ‘em like that any more?” Sometimes, I take a little umbrage, since I’ve endeavored to make sure my shows are full of Golden Era virtues. But this time the show is Bells Are Ringing, a Star Vehicle.
The star was Judy Holiday and ace musical comedy writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green had known her for many years. They’d created sketches for and with her early in their careers, so they were intimately acquainted with all the voices, characters and physical antics she could do. I’ve written about Bells Are Ringing before (here). After hearing On the Brink star Amanda Green discuss their talents, it’s clear Comden and Green were at their best when they were tailoring material for a specific idiosyncratic actor, someone whose abilities they knew well: Rosalind Russell, Carol Burnett, Bert Lahr, Phil Silvers and others.
So, could we write ‘em like that, today? One problem is that today, when a funny person has achieved star status, the last thing they want to do is eight shows a week on Broadway for the better part of a year or more. For example: Amy Poehler is someone who performed a song I co-wrote especially for her long before she was famous. Today, she has her own TV series, one that pays her far more than Broadway could. It’s inconceivable that she’d return to the stage at this point in her career.
And what star could sell tickets? In the Golden Age, you could put Mary Martin or Carol Channing in a show and people would stand on lines around the block to buy tickets. The past few Broadway seasons have seen some sure-to-sell-out movie stars appear in limited runs, but never in a musical. For pampered Hollywood personalities, singing and dancing is hard work … too hard.
In 2000, I had the wonderful experience of writing for three comediennes I knew well: Tom Carrozza, Mary Denmead, and Gail Dennison. They’re not household names, so only a passel of fans would buy tickets just to see them. Area 51 was therefore produced in a very small theatre for a rather limited run. For me, it was an especially valuable and joyous experience, because I got to do what Comden & Green used to do: fashion gags for the specific shtick I knew Tom, Mary and Gail could do. The process builds confidence: it’s easier to write a comedy song knowing you’ve got the clowns who’ll knock each punch line out of the park.
I thought I’d quote a bit of Gail and Mary’s duet, Work Your Wiles, but on second thought, it seems unwise: Without them doing it, with their fierce comic skills and crazy characters, a line like “you have room to go with your gut/so go perfume the crack of your butt” just sounds gross.
Instead, here’s a song from Bells Are Ringing with me on piano: