Our Gods have clay feet.
Wait! What happened? Did I misplace that sign on my desk which reads “Eschew cliché?” Well, yes, that’s literally so.
As we all know, songs in musicals are supposed to be written with all the show-specific parameters in mind. These might include the time and place setting, the diction and sound of the character and the song’s place as part of an emotional journey. The requirements for every song are so different, you’re never going to get the opportunity to reuse any part of a song from one score in another. Right?
Now picture you’re Stephen Sondheim, still in your twenties, during the pre-Broadway tryout of Gypsy. You’ve been collaborating with the experienced Broadway composer, Jule Styne. Someone holding a vinyl record says, “Steve, I got the recording of the overture here” and places the disc on a turntable. Now you’re fairly certain there’s been no time to record Gypsy yet, but you’re hearing the familiar strains of You’ll Never Get Away From Me, played by a lush orchestra. Sondheim was miffed. He realized, then and there, that Styne had recycled Get Away From Me‘s tune from some score that had already been recorded. The original title was I’m In Pursuit of Happiness, from a musical for television, Ruggles of Red Gap, where it had been sung by Peter Lawford. He later learned Everything’s Coming Up Roses had a previous life as well.
Had Sondheim run crying to his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, he would have met a similarly guilty party. He and Richard Rodgers had discarded a song written for Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific, Suddenly Lucky, and refashioned it for the Welsh schoolmarm to sing to Siamese children in The King and I, Getting To Know You. Bringing this full circle, the forty-something Sondheim filled his film score for Alain Resnais, Staviski, with themes that hadn’t made it to the opening night of Follies.
It’s not just composers, refusing to let a good tune go to waste. Alan Jay Lerner adapted old lyrics of his to better effect. Frederick Loewe was upset to find the delightful duet for the old lovers in Gigi, I Remember It Well had already played Broadway with a Kurt Weill melody. That score, Love Life, hadn’t been recorded, due to a musicians’ strike (you’d think somebody would have released a full recording by now).
Confession time: my score to On the Brink contained one retread, and another song that I later tried to reuse. My collaborators had worked with me on previous revues and particularly loved a duet called Subtexts in the Stacks. Now, that number was specific to its setting, a college library, and it made no sense to keep that locale in a show about life after graduation. So, the resurrection involved placing the song on a city bus, when you recognize someone you went to college with, admired, but never had the nerve to talk to: a far more rich area of emotion to mine. Had to lose that title, though; the new one is Thoughts In Transit. As should be obvious, this is one of those titles the lyric doesn’t utilize. More awkwardly placed in On the Brink was Getting Through a sensitive post-breakup ballad. It contains a set of chords in the bridge I was particularly fond of. I tried to fit it into the show I wrote five years later, The Company of Women. But there are a couple of problems. One is that the singer has been having an affair with a married man, so getting through lonely nights must be something that she’s used to. Secondly, the character is black and nothing in the score makes any reference or use of African-American musical idioms. Seems a missed opportunity, and one I’ll rectify if the show ever gets produced.
But back to the sins of the saints: A blog by Diana Bertolini of The New York Public Library alerted me to the existence of a Lerner and Loewe song, What Do the Other Folk Do, cut from Paint Your Wagon. I’ve yet to hear this song, but know well its revamp, What Do the Simple Folk Do from Camelot. I’m amazed that the latter number wasn’t specifically fashioned for Camelot: The assemblage of chords evoke medieval England – or the popular misconception of it – so aptly, as much of Camelot does. It’s hard to conceive how it could have fit in Paint Your Wagon, set in the American West of the Gold Rush era. There, the blog tells me, it was a father-daughter duet. That’s mind-blowing to me. The Camelot version derives its dramatic power from poignant subtext related to the story’s romantic arc. These are characters we’ve watched fall in love, deal with powerful forces tearing them apart and now they’d like nothing better than to recapture the lighthearted feelings from the early part of their relationship. Can non-royal folk do such a thing? Certainly, Paint Your Wagon‘s father and daughter mean a lot to each other, but they don’t share Arthur and Gueneviere’s kind of history.
It would be fair to say Lerner & Loewe had the germ of an idea for a good song, couldn’t make it work in Paint Your Wagon, and then had the perfect opportunity to bring seed to flower in Camelot. But now I’ve used yet another cliché so I’ll drop this to start searching for that missing sign.