You are so fair

It’s OK to disagree. I feel that Sheldon Harnick (of Fiddler on the Roof, and She Loves Me, now playing) is our greatest living lyricist. You probably think Stephen Sondheim is our greatest living lyricist. And that’s fine. We can agree to disagree. What’s not so fine is to hold these two titans to completely different standards.

So, remember the time that esteemed songwriter made a joke about domestic violence? I do. Now, you might believe that wife-beating is so horrifying it must NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT. And, God knows, I’ve encountered enough people who believe Carousel condones or excuses marital abuse – I’ve debunked that before – but at least Hammerstein doesn’t joke about that which must NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT. Brace yourselves, sensitive souls, I’m about to quote two lyrics.

The Very Next Man, from Fiorello:

I shall marry the very next man who asks me
You’ll see
Next time I feel
That a man’s about to kneel
He won’t have to plead or implore
I’ll say “Yes” before his knee hits the floor
No more waiting around
No more browsing through “True Romance”
I’ve seen the light
So, while there’s a chance
I’m going to marry the very next man who asks me
Start rehearsing the choir
Tie some shoes on my Chevrolet
Pelt me with rice and catch my bouquet
I’m going to marry the very next man
If he adores me
What does it matter if he bores me?
If I allow the man to carry me off
No more will people try to marry me off
No more living alone
No more cheating at solitaire
Holding my breath for one special man
Why, I could smother for all he’d care
I’m through being wary
I’ll marry the very next man
No more daydreams for me
Find the finest of bridal suites
Chill the champagne and warm up the sheets
I’m going to marry the very next man
And if he likes me
Who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.
New York papers, take note
Here’s a statement that you can quote:
Waiting for ships that never come in
A girl is likely to miss the boat
I’m through being wary
I’ll marry the very next man

We’re Gonna Be All Right, from Do I Hear a Waltz, “original” version as heard in Side By Side By Sondheim:

Eddie: Honeybunch,
Sad to say, but I have a hunch,
Screen romances went out to lunch,
That’s no reason to pout.
Don’t look bleak,
Happy endings can spring a leak,
“Ever after” can mean one week,
We’re just having a drought.
Smile and sweat it out.
If we can just hang on,
We’ll have compatibility.
No need to worry,
We’re gonna be all right.
One day the ache is gone,
There’s nothing like senility.
So what’s your hurry?
We’re gonna be all right.
Meanwhile, relax!
I’ll take a lover, you take a lover.
When that’s played out,
They’ll get the axe,
We can retire,
Sit by the fire,
Fade out.
We’ll build our house upon
The rock of my virility.
You better scurry,
We’re gonna be all night,
Oh, boy! we’re gonna be all right.
Jennifer: I was told
“Just be faithful and never scold,”
Sounded easy, so I was sold.
I’ve been miserable since.
I was taught
When the prince and the dragon fought,
That the dragon was always caught.
Now I don’t even wince
When it eats the prince.
I know the perfect pair
Their lives are at the pinnacle.
But how do we know
They’re gonna be all right?
The bride is slightly square,
The groom is slightly cynical.
A little vino,
They’re gonna be all right.
She aims to please,
She has a baby,
Then, though they may be
Having fine times,
When there’s a crease,
She has another,
Now she’s a mother
Nine times!
It all went wrong, but where?
Details are strictly clinical.
She’s out in Reno,
The kids adored the flight,
Hey ho, they’re gonna be all right.
Eddie: Things will heal.
I know couples who look ideal,
They no longer know what they feel,
They’ve been practicing charm.
All is well,
‘Least as far as their friends can tell.
Please ignore the peculiar smell,
There’s no cause for alarm.
Mildew will do harm.
Jennifer: What if her brain is dead?
Eddie: What if he’s ineffectual?
Both: They look delicious,
They’re gonna be all right.
They both go right to bed
When they feel intellectual.
No one’s suspicious,
They’re gonna be all right.
Jennifer: Who’s on the skids?
She’ll go to night school–
Eddie: If it’s the right school,
He’ll permit her.
Jennifer: They love their kids,
They love their friends, too–
Eddie: Lately, he tends to
Hit her.
Jennifer: Sometimes she drinks in bed,
Eddie: Sometimes he’s homosexual.
Both: But why be vicious?
They keep it out of sight!
Good show!
They’re gonna be all right.
And so,
We’re gonna be all right.
Hey ho!
We’re gonna be all right!

Now, with the disinterest of a Supreme Court justice or a Solomon the Wise, try to apply a principle as fairly as you can. Is one acceptable and the other not?

Sondheim mavens know the checkered history of We’re Gonna Be All Right. In a brash and somewhat shocking manner, for 1965, Sondheim’s lyric wittily depicts an unhappy married couple. Composer Richard Rodgers, legend tells us, played it for his wife of 35 years and then told his collaborator all the cynical stuff had to be cut. I know a lot of people who are outraged by this. They take Rodgers refusal to include “sometimes he’s homosexual” as evidence of the composer’s homophobia.

(Rodgers, of course, spent two and a half decades collaborating with Lorenz Hart, and their workday often began with Rodgers finding Hart in the men’s room of a seedy bar, asleep on the floor where he’d had gay sex the night before. Rodgers fed him coffee until he was sober and awake enough to write. Sound like a homophobe to you?)

At this point in their careers, though, nobody knew more about writing musicals than Richard Rodgers. No one had done more to revolutionize the form. Sondheim had three hits behind him, and West Side Story was certainly an innovation, but not for its lyrics, the one aspect he was responsible for. I see the cutting of the sardonic stanzas as evidence that Rodgers was a brilliant musical dramatist, and these mockeries just didn’t fit how these characters were portrayed in the rest of the show.

But the Steve-adores insist that they’re brilliant, as they insist that all Sondheim lyrics are brilliant. Day after day after day after day after day after day after day. (“Brilliant!”) And they knock Richard Rodgers as an old fogie – he was 62 – who couldn’t recognize the genius of “Lately he tends to hit her.”

Whup! – there it is: The thing that NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT, joked about. Except here rabid fans nudge each other, “Oh, that Steve! He’s such a card.”

Around the time of Do I Hear a Waltz, female stand-up comedians started to appear on television. Early Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller routines routinely featured self-deprecating humor. In real life, there exist gals who are desperate for dates, and maintain they’re not pretty enough to attract men. Distaff stand-ups asserted themselves by making such jokes themselves: “I’d date anyone with a pulse!” “Is he breathing? I’ll marry him!”

Here in the twenty-first century, that type of humor seems, I don’t know, hoary. (Look it up!) But one era’s comedy often seems not-so-funny a half-century afterwards. And it’s not as if we go around asking writers to rewrite their old jokes for an evolved sensibility.

Except that’s exactly what happened to Sheldon Harnick. Someone he knew had a daughter in high school, doing a production of Fiorello. (And it’s here I stop to exclaim: “A high school doing Fiorello? I want to go to there!”)

In a new era, with a new sensibility, the humor of a World War One-era spinster quipping that she’d happily marry a wife-beater, seemed wrong, and Harnick wrote this replacement:

When he proposes

I’ll have him bring me tons of roses

Sweet scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour

Why should I wait around for one little flower?

Which is significantly less funny. And rather show-specific, as you have to understand that Fiorello LaGuardia was known as The Little Flower. The people over at Encores, who have twice done Fiorello (with the new politically-correct line) are now preparing to do Do I Hear a Waltz. Will they include Sondheim’s “Lately he tends to hit her?” Should they? What do you say?

The jury’s still out.

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