My daughter turns seven today and I’m once again facing the challenge of using a personal milestone as the springboard for commentary on musicals. I assume you didn’t come here to read a father’s portrait of a First Grader. This isn’t a personal blog, or a journal, but frequently I note birthdays of musical-makers I admire (Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein, etc.) so why not Adelaide? After all, when we were in Arizona she saw a sign with the number 11 and made up a parody of the Elena of Avalor theme song called Eleven of Arizona. (“You can count it on your hands.”)
“I even named her Desirée” coos an old lady about her grown daughter, as if she prescribed her fate at birth. Adelaide, the name, seems a secret code. Everybody in New York instantly understands the reference to that funny and surprisingly intelligent dame in Guys and Dolls. If I’m stuck in a swamp of uncultured yahoos, they’ll hear the name and think we’ve been creative. It’s also one of the largest cities in Australia, but I never seem to meet anyone who knows that.
I recently got to see some teens perform a couple of Guys and Dolls numbers, and it was no surprise that the lyrics refer to things they do not know: feedbox, galoshes, Ovaltine. Of course, the show came out in 1950; its audience understood every cultural reference. Kids today must google everything. But the creators couldn’t have imagined the show would last this long. Musicals in those days were made to last a season or two.
When Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows were young, Show Boat was an unprecedented success, lasting 572 performances on Broadway. No book musical came close to that record until Oklahoma! in 1943, the first mega-hit, which quadrupled that number. And now it’s no longer in the top 25. Guys and Dolls outlived Klein’s and Rogers Peet and these references became obscure through no fault of its own.
Speaking of teens, has it struck you that, as characters, they’ve taken over Broadway? I’m wondering what it says about our times that our new musicals tend to be about kids. Some titles for ya: The Prom, Be More Chill, Mean Girls, Dear Evan Hansen, School of Rock, Frozen. I could go on, but I think we’re all feeling old enough right now.
When I was born, the idea of a Broadway musical filled with little ones was rather novel, and last spring I got to see The Sound of Music more than a few times, when Adelaide played the littlest Von Trapp. There’s that moment when they’re taught how to sing, and each kid gets assigned a note so that they can be conducted, a young-human keyboard. Adelaide was Doh, the all-important tonic of the scale. The seriousness of her presentation was hysterical; the audience looked forward to the start of the phrase every time, Doh, Mi, Mi; Mi, So, So; Re, Fa, Fa; La, Ti, Ti. Later, I cut up post-it notes to attach to piano keys, so she could play the lyric she’d memorized.
Along the way, of course, I had a few thoughts about The Sound of Music. The whole project started as a straight play created for Mary Martin by the formidable team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Those two had written a play that ran even longer than Oklahoma! At first they asked their old friends Rodgers and Hammerstein for a song or two, but this eventually became an entire score. And Oscar Hammerstein was slowly dying. So, any lyric that seems a bit off, I tend to ascribe to illness. (“Reach your goals in your comfy old Rolls or in one of your Mercedes-es?”) The show’s most cringe-worthy moment is a peppy trio about the rise of the Nazis called No Way To Stop It. A tricky rhyme of derring-do sends our heads to the world of Rodgers’ previous collaborator Lorenz Hart. So we have an oddly unserious handling of a serious subject. Next thing we know, three adults with blinders on are celebrating that all absorbing character, that fascinating creature, that super special feature, me! and I wonder what universe we’re in. So, Hammerstein had the excuse of being on his deathbed, but Rodgers set this all to a merry gallop of a dance tune and has no such excuse.
Star vehicles used to comprise a sizable chunk of the musical theatre world. I’m a little envious of the idea that writers can relax a bit, knowing that the moment Mary Martin or Ethel Merman or Danny Kaye sets foot on stage, the audience is getting precisely what it paid to see. I roll my eyes a bit when a non-star takes on such a role. Sweet Charity, for instance, requires ample wattage, as the title character – originally Gwen Verdon – is on stage for every scene but one. When watching a Fraulein Maria who’s not yet sixteen-going-on-seventeen bravely attempting to scintillate, I think about what a different dynamic it must be when Mary Martin wows a crowd that’s come to see Mary Martin wow. Little Gretl couldn’t steal that show.
But Adelaide, Adelaide, ever-riveting Adelaide is a lightning rod par excellence. Total strangers who did and didn’t know I’m her father commented on how they couldn’t take their eyes off of her. And I guess the implication of today’s post is that I may have to spend the rest of my life creating star vehicles for her. There are worse fates. And, perhaps, someday we’ll say that like many a wonderful birthday cake, it all started with dough.