I’m not breaking my no-politics-rule. You can safely read on. But I do like to commemorate a holiday (I assume we all have today off, because why would a democracy make it difficult to vote?) and so, if there’s some overlap with Election Day in my usual discussion of musicals, all the better.
I’ve thought, from time to time, of starting a completely separate blog for politics, but there are so many. This musing on musicals is comparatively unique. What connects the politics and musical-writing is that they involve choosing words, carefully, for maximum effectiveness, usually with an emotional component. And I’m reminded of my year-I-graduated-college investigation of the advertising industry, which would seem to involve something similar. Two people effectively talked me out of it. One was a writer of musicals who’d spent considerable time on Madison Avenue and hated the idea of my talents going to the Dark Side. The other honestly told me that every adman (as they were called back then) has an unsold novel in his drawer. Advertising was where you went if you crash-and-burn with non-commercial creation.
But I’ve been lucky enough to do three musical comedy things in the business world. These were Industrials, a little-known genre that’s the subject of the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway. Companies sometimes see the benefit of using musical theatre talent to help get their message across in an amusing and tuneful way. One of my gigs was for a motorcycle dealership in New Jersey, and it was the sort of thing to which the word “gonzo” gets applied. A handheld camera skittered around the establishment, and I was caught improvising a jingle on a portable keyboard, “If you want to look gnarly, ride a Harley.” And very few of you will recognize you’ve just read the world’s most subliminal political message.
Campaigning for Congress makes for a fantastic number in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Fiorello. “The name’s LaGuardia,” the titular character sings, and then spells out the whole thing. He continues,
Now here’s another name!
T-A-M-M-A-N-Y! What’s that?
Wrong! The answer’s tyranny!
Tammany spells tyranny like R-A-T spells rat!
Now, there’s a double “m” in Tammany, and a double “l” in gall
Just like the double-dealing, double-crossing, double-talking, double-dyed duplicity of Tammany Hall!
Then, Fiorello delivers the same speech in an Italian neighborhood, entirely in Italian. And finally in a Jewish neighborhood, entirely in Yiddish. This leads to a spirited dance that may have inspired songwriters Bock & Harnick to write two later musicals involving Jews, Fiddler on the Roof and The Rothschilds.
This sequence always seemed to me an only-in-New York thing, the way a candidate would have to speak three different languages. But my family recently knocked on doors and met voters who spoke neither English nor Spanish, so I can no longer say “unique New York.” Not that I ever could. Try it; it’s hard.
I treasure my tradition of walking to my polling place. Just the other day I met the granddaughter of a musical theatre writer, reminding me of my old neighborhood – or should I say precinct? – where the esteemed grandmother lived and I once ran into Tom Jones at the local copy shop. He saw that I was picking up a script and we amiably chatted about writing musicals. A chance encounter with the author of the longest running musical of all time! These are the people in the neighborhood!
No serendipity is involved when an outfit like The Dramatists Guild puts together a panel discussion with the likes of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Sheldon Harnick. Who better to discuss the pressure writers of their generation felt to have extractable out-of-context “hits” emerge from their show scores? My favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser, had died but Comden quoted him as suggesting that all the plot-related material be put in the verse and a more generic refrain could become the hit record: “Thanks for electing me governor. I owe it all to you campaign workers” might be a long recitative, but then comes “How I’m doing? Hey-hey. Feels great to be with you.”
I’ve paraphrased Betty paraphrasing Frank badly. But there’s a wonderful show tune from the 60s that does just that, and I remember knowing only the chorus from radio play:
That entire clip seems so distant from our contemporary entertainment scene. Ed Sullivan, a host with not a modicum of charisma, introduces us to a musical we’ve probably never heard of, and two British actors whose names ring not a bell. And people watched this! It was a top-rated show.
Broadway, and musicals in particular, held an important place in American culture only 55 years ago. My how the once-mighty have fallen! But here’s how audiences are like voters. We get the government, and the entertainment we deserve. If you don’t like the bums in Washington, it’s your duty to vote them out. If you don’t like, for example, shows with wholly unoriginal scores (such as jukeboxes and performer revues), vote with your ticket purchase to an original musical.
If I ruled the world, there’d be some sort of a penalty for presenting a show with an unoriginal score. Jukeboxes are made up of songs that have already earned millions of dollars for their authors, while we creators of new songs persevere in poverty. There should be a Robin Hood principle of robbing the rich – perhaps a fee assessed for using old rock hits – to give to the poor, which might take the form of a fund to produce truly new musicals. I realize this is a radical proposal, but Musical Theatre, our beloved art-form, is imperiled by competition from things like The Cher Show and Summer.
Get off the soapbox, Katz. A literal soapbox appeared in a production I saw of Of Thee I Sing, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I’m struck by how many Pulitzer-winning musicals concern politics: There’s the aforementioned Fiorello and the most recent victor, Hamilton. Stretching it just a little, Rent shows young people taking the streets to protest and my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, ends with characters cabling the White House, “Watch out!” The film version actually shows Robert Morse cleaning the windows of the Oval Office, with the implication that he’ll soon take over the president’s job. As a Charles Strouse number goes, “Boy, do we need it now!”