I guess I missed that day in school

When I look back through the years of excellent lyric-writing, I often marvel at the expected level of audience education and sophistication the writers counted upon.

In W.S. Gilbert’s day, the Mikado name-drops “Bach interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven.” Assumedly we all still know two of the three Bs, but Spohr? Who the hell was Spohr? You could listen to WQXR all day long (as I’ve been known to do), or frequent Carnegie Hall and still draw a blank. But Gilbert’s 19th Century audience got it. This may be hard to believe, but in those days, J.S. Bach was the most obscure of the three.

As a child, I much admired Rodgers and Hart’s 1927 hit, My Heart Stood Still. It contains one proper noun, in “But since your kiss, I’m reading Missus Glyn.” So, I dragged out our family’s enormous encyclopedia and figured out who the hell Mrs. Glyn was.

There’s something mildly depressing about this whole issue. In the Victorian Age, Gilbert wrote for an audience savvy enough to giggle at the mere mention of Spohr. In the Twenties, Larry Hart’s audience emitted knowing smiles at Mrs. Glyn. And then in the 1960s, Alan Jay Lerner could quip “If a date waits below, let him wait for Godot” conjuring a vivid image for the cognoscenti. (Not a vivid image of Godot himself, of course, but the date.)

The thing about those three references is that they were contemporary. As time went by, people forgot who Spohr and Mrs. Glyn were. I feel a certain sadness about that, because the lyricists did a perfectly fine job and the years have not been kind. We now have an audience ill-equipped to appreciate their good work

Back to The Mikado, for a moment. The libretto has a line “My father, the Lucius Junius Brutus of his race” which I think is very funny (and not just because I’ve a very close friend named Junius). This is a non-contemporary reference; we’re expected to know Lucius Junius Brutus from our school studies of history.

Cole Porter was the master of the reference: topical, historical, mythic and biblical. Part of his success lies in his knowledge of his audience, his keen awareness of what they knew. And if you didn’t get the reference, well, you’re screwed, not in on the joke. My head reels over Cole’s expectations of understanding of:

When Salome got John the B. and by the head,
It appears he wasn’t kosher in the bed.
But today who’d be the goy she’d like to land?
Why, the leader of a big-time band.

The minor-key music moves at a fairly swift clip. And the biblical names come at us not only rapid-fire but in unusual ways. Salome, in my experience, is three syllables. I’ve heard it accented on both the first and the second. Porter stuffs her into two quick notes with an accent on the second. It barely registers. Then, humorously, John the Baptist gets abbreviated to John the B. Now, as we know from our familiarity with the bible, Salome and John the Baptist go together, but boy Cole Porter expects us to apprehend things quickly. Though this is a New Testament story, the song now makes a surprising turn towards Jewish terminology. “Kosher in the bed” sets the dirty mind racing. “Goy” – a term used only by Jews to refer to Christians, is particularly wry. (Or rye, if we’re thinking of a bread you don’t have to be Jewish to love.)

Need I point out that Porter was the one top-tier Golden Era songwriter who wasn’t Jewish? Oy!

I like to think we live in a world in which tales from the Bible are still familiar. Alas, Cole Porter’s name-dropping of celebrities give his songs a shorter shelf-life. Take this witty ditty:

Don’t inquire of Georgie Raft
Why his cow has never calfed,
Georgie’s bull is beautiful, but he’s gay!

Let me confess there are two things I don’t know here:

  • I’m unaware of any earlier use of gay to mean homosexual. The lyric, elsewhere, uses it in the old-fashioned happy sense
  • I’m not aware of George Raft being called Georgie. By anyone. At any time.

But here’s the thing: I’m well aware of who Raft was, can picture him, his toughness, his gruffness. And it’s that image that makes the gag so funny.

Those digging through Cole Porter songs who can’t picture George Raft are missing out on some of the good humor here. And I’ve an impulse to make a joke about Good Humor ice cream here, but, alas, few of my readers are old enough to recall that summer delight. Mmm.

Now that this memory has put me into something of a good humor, I’m disinclined to rail against the comparative stupidity of today’s audiences. Before you go and appreciate Golden Era musical theatre – and I hope you do – it might be necessary to, I don’t know, read a book. But I admit you’d have to read quite a few books before discovering what sort of literature Mrs. Glyn wrote.

And if you’re writing – and I hope you are – you’re going to have to have an idea of what references your audience is likely to recognize. When I was writing a show at Columbia, I wrote, “They’ve all studied Skinner” safe in the knowledge that students in the seats would know behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner enough to get the joke. And five years ago, my show Such Good Friends got a rave in Backstage, which noted:

A wily wizard with words, Katz has created a show that, despite his tuneful, toe-tapping music, derives its primary entertainment value from verbal humor. This is the kind of musical that’s not been made for Broadway in a long time. With its witty references to literary figures and historical events, Such Good Friends not only emulates the creative techniques of musical makers of the past but seems written for Broadway audiences of a bygone era — those more homogenous, midcentury New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.

While the critic was amazed and delighted I could drop a reference to Wiley Post (drop like Post himself), this might be an ominous oracle about the show’s future. Producers and artistic directors beyond New York seemingly surmise their patrons are nothing like “New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.”  And that’s a shame.  For a lot of reasons. One of which is, I’d travel anywhere to see Such Good Friends performed again, and, if it was done in a lot of places, then, at long last, I could earn the right to be called peripatetic.

Peripatetic: a word I learned as a kid, when Ed Kleban used it in A Chorus Line.

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One Response to I guess I missed that day in school

  1. Jim Doney says:

    I enjoyed your article and love good lyrics. Porter and Mercer and Hart and I think Ira was the more talented of the Gershwin boys. I once traced Oscar Hammerstein’s reference to “Darby and Joan” in “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”, and found a very interesting account of the phrase going back many years. Thank you. Jim Doney

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