And now it seems a fair enough time to assess the score Julia Houston and Tom Levitt have been writing for their Marilyn Monroe bio-musical, Bombshell. True, we’ve heard some of these songs in brief excerpts, but enough notes have passed before our ears to say P-U! There’s some truly horrific songwriting going on here.
The first song held some promise: Let Me Be Your Star is a power ballad with an impressively catchy hook. The musical style, however, is pure 1980’s, a decade neither Monroe or her would-be portrayer, Karen Cartwright, was alive for. The lyric leads one to believe Marilyn’s career is at an early stage, but Tom’s music is out of sync with the 1940s. Without an allusion to a specific time and place, the song becomes an anthem of Everygirl, which is O.K. only if that’s the point the authors wish to make about Marilyn.
My wife’s favorite of the Bombshell songs she’s heard is the joyful History Is Made At Night. The first sixteen notes are all on the same pitch, but Tom smartly dresses this up with a backing choir doing Modernaires-type chords. That’s a good idea: when your melody’s going nowhere, make sure your harmony’s going somewhere, at least. And a hit Gene DePaul song from the period, Teach Me Tonight, also starts with the same note seven times, and is exactly the sort of song Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe might have made love to. So, at first glance, History Is Made At Night seems like an apt invention for this spot. At second glance, though, the original and its simulacrum seem far too similar. Both use teaching as a metaphor for sex, but the Sammy Cahn lyric has a blithe jocularity to it, and a bunch of three-syllable rhymes. Julia’s lyric makes very little of the metaphor. It says next to nothing, and then says it again and again.
Did I see producer Eileen Rand openly dabbing her eyes at Second-Hand White Baby Grand? Wow: somebody thinks this is a good number. Certainly, there’s a place for metaphor in musical theatre. What I don’t buy, for a moment, is that Marilyn would express such a metaphor. Julia’s lyric sounds more like one of the zillion Monroe biographers, making an arty pronouncement about her.
In a similar ilk is the way-too-serious DiMaggio cri de coeur, Lexington and Fifty-Second. Does anybody believe the Yankee Clipper would really talk this way, or think this way? Or know that address? Chorus boy Sam Strickland surely could have said something about this to Tom, especially since his first words to him, before romance bloomed, assumed he was a fellow gay sports nut. Yeah: gay sports nuts think other gay men are into sports all the time; that’s why they’re called nuts.
The dead giveaway that Tom and Julia know nothing about baseball is a kitschy and witless number called National Pastime. The best thing it can do is make reference to the best comedy song Monroe ever sang, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.
Joltin’ Joe and the blonde bombshell share a quiet moment in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, about the romantic pursuit of anonymity. I’m no expert on these icons, but the idea of Marilyn Monroe aspiring to be an ordinary person sounds so wrong to me, it’s laughable. A shame. In a different context, with different characters, this might be a lovely song.
If Bombshell is content to play fast and loose with biographical facts, then maybe the intention is to serve up yet another campy portrait of an idol. If so, there shouldn’t be three women vying for the lead role; all it takes is one good drag queen. That might justify Darryl Zanuck, of all people, getting a snappy patter in his steam bath, surrounded by unclothed chorus boys. Pure hokum, but a way to go now that we live in an age where Marilyn Monroe is no longer turning men on.
Julia and Tom’s main mistake was starting with a flimsy idea for a show, and then writing songs for various spots in Monroe’s life, rather than starting with an effective story outline and letting the plot’s emotional hills and valleys motivate book-driven songs. Assuming they might need, at some point, something akin to Marilyn’s Heat Wave, they serve up clichés of Latin music in Twentieth Century Fox Mambo. Is nobody bothered by the fact that this song is not a mambo? “Mambo,” here, sounds like a nonsense word merely tacked on to the end of lines. It’s Twentieth Century Fox that serves as the title of this song, and it might sound like a good pun to those who are unaware that sexy women weren’t called foxes during Marilyn’s life.
I have trouble keeping that song straight from the appropriately-titled Let’s Be Bad and I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn’t Love To Howl. I can’t help wincing at false rhymes, and gotcha/Sinatra has to be the nadir of Julia’s career. (Also wrong: fiery/hire me.) But now I’m reminded of their awful angels-on-a-staircase number from Heaven On Earth. It’s a song that’s rather similar to the same actor’s big number in Catch Me If You Can, utilizing all sorts of anecdotal examples from the earth’s long history, none of them surprising or amusing.
The higher you get, the farther the fall
Now I’m kicking butt and taking names
‘Cause even St. Joan went down in flames
Napoleon Waterlooed and Genghis Khan sure hit a slump
I might say “You’re fired”
When you have expired,
It started back with Moses when he led around the Jews
And climbed way up that mountain to pick up God’s Daily News
He schlepped up Mt. Sinai – cried and begged on their behalf
He almost dropped those tablets when he saw that golden calf
Now we teach the Ten Commandments every Sunday in our schools
Cause the game ain’t worth winning if you’re breaking all the rules
I guess the constitution to some is too complex
They think our founding fathers fought so they can forge some checks
They see themselves as Robin Hood stealing from the rich
Paying back the things they take; well, payback is a bitch
Cause the world ain’t Sherwood Forest
You can’t give away those jewels
There’s only so long one can wait around, hoping a song like that will get funny.
Smash! (the song), for a chorus of Marilyns (huh?) uses a growl-y motif that plays up and down a diminished chord. It’s catchy because we’ve heard this sort of thing a thousand times before: boilerplate sexy. What seals the song’s fate as a forgettable throwaway is the utterly generic lyric. Julia could come up with nothing interesting to say here about the oft-written-of subject of lust. (Maybe she should have a hot affair, or something.) So the whole ditty exudes déjà vu.
Then she stretches out a metaphor over too great a length of time in the plaintive ballad, Never Give All Your Heart, a sentiment attributed to “the Irishman,” “Mr. Yeats.” This may be literally true, but boy, does it feel wrong. So many have given that advice, it’s odd for anyone to attribute it, albeit correctly. But if that song’s too smart for its own good, what is one to make of the Bollywood number, A Thousand and One Nights? The title’s Arabic, the style is Indian, and both cultures have every right to be offended that they’re being confused for the other.
Post-death, Marilyn is able to belt out, in a style that didn’t exist pre-death, a finale called Don’t Forget…Me. Ellipses must be inserted because Tom’s tune separates the final word as would never happen in normal speech. Makes it sound as if Marilyn wants us to forget somebody else (assumedly, Jayne Mansfield. Done.) but not her. Julia and Tom should be cut a break here because the song was written on such short notice, but the whole drama of the song’s creation is an example of why composers in the theatre virtually never orchestrate their own songs: there often isn’t time. Had composition and orchestration been handled by different people, the final result wouldn’t sound like generic 1990s elevator music. (The end of a genre, it seems: when’s the last time you heard music in an elevator?)
Years from now, when people talk of Bombshell (and they will talk of Bombshell), it’s obvious there’ll be added emphasis on the first syllable.