Lehman Engel called them "tune detectives." These were the composers in his BMI workshop who'd listen to someone else's song, then would slowly raise their hands and remark, "You know, your bridge sounds a lot like..." Sometimes Gershwin, sometimes Lloyd Webber but, more often than not, Sondheim. If the person at the piano had just emulated Jerry Herman via a rich-with-melody, old-fashioned, razzmatazz tune, he was immediately dismissed, not as an Uncle Tom but as an "Uncle Jerry." It it wasn't long before Engel would point to these student critics and shriek in his Southern-tinged voice, "Tune detectives! That's what you all are! Tune detectives!"
This sort of thing didn't just go on at BMI. How well I remember being in the audience the night that Michael Devon scored a triumph at the ASCAP Workshop with a number from his musical version of Sheila Levine Is Dead and Well and Living in New York, a show that would have got on if its talented author hadn't died. Devon musicalized the hapless Sheila, who had definitely decided to commit suicide but then decided in an up-tempo song that the world wasn't so bad--that it's pretty great, in fact, once you decide "I Don't Want to Live Anymore," because you can enjoy the weather, the food, et al. After the final note, a young writer in the audience immediately turned to another and snorted, "He scanned that song to 'The Physician,' " citing the Cole Porter song from Nymph Errant.
For that matter, doesn't Richard Rodgers' "Honey Bun" sound a bit like Porter's "You've Got That Thing?" And doesn't the Bobby Vinton hit "Blue Velvet" have notes identical to Porter's "No Lover" from Out of This World? But, lest Porter seem like a perpetual victim, let it be noted that his title tune for 1955's Silk Stockings sounds a bit like 1947's Top 10 Hit "Golden Earrings."
Yeah, we're all tune detectives. How well I remember saying to William David Brohn--who orchestrated Miss Saigon--"So, when you first heard 'The American Dream,' did you tell the songwriters that four measures sound like 'Who's Sorry Now?'" He laughed in recognition before admitting that he did not. When I first heard "When Mabel Comes in the Room" and the song came to five bars of the coda, I cried out "That's from 'A Certain Girl' from The Happy Time!" And my first experience with "If He Walked Into My Life" reminded me of Jackie Gleason's theme song, "Melancholy Serenade." (To tune detectives, Jerry Herman has long been Public Enemy Number One. Legal case in point: Herman had to pay $250,000 to Mack David, who wrote the 1948 pop hit "Sunflower," the opening notes of which sound perilously like Herman's title tune to Hello, Dolly!
It wasn't the first time that things got litigious. Back in 1922, Fred Fisher, who'd collaborated with Jerome Kern in 1907 on "I'd Like to Make a Smash Hit Mit You," said that Kern had stolen his bass line and used it on his smash hit "Ka-lu-a." Fisher sued for a million, and he won...$250. A portion of "Raining in my Heart" from Dames at Sea sounds like the title song from Mr. Wonderful. Some of "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" sounds like the title song from Cabaret. There, at least, John Kander was stealing from himself; but doesn't the song's dance music sound a little like "The Washington Square Dance" from Call Me Madam?
Over the last couple of decades, Jerry Herman has been eclipsed by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber as the most cited tune thief. The number of times tune detectives have mentioned Puccini as the source of Webber melodies has surpassed even the worldwide performances of Cats. Soon after The Phantom of the Opera opened, I kept hearing people cite songs from Brigadoon and How to Succeed as Webber influences. Even Billy Crystal's character in the movie Forget Paris pointed out, after seeing a performance of Phantom, that "Music of the Night" sounded like "School Days" to him.
Critics sometimes put their tune detection on the public record. John Simon noted that "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods has the same first six notes as "The Candy Man." Going back earlier, Norman Nadel of the World-Telegram & Sun, when reviewing Sweet Charity, was a bit more discreet: He just claimed that one of Cy Coleman's songs sounded like "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee." (I suspect he meant "If My Friends Could See Me Now.") Going back much earlier, a Reading, Pennsylvania critic said that a song in Jerome Kern's 1917 musical Have a Heart sounded like "The Merry Widow Waltz."
Within 10 minutes of my meeting Dick Vosburgh, the marvelous lyricist of Hollywood-Ukraine and Windy City, he'd gleaned my depth of affection for musical theater and was asking me, "Did you ever notice that 'Someone Nice like You' from Stop the World--I Want to Get Off sounds an awful lot like 'Shall I Take My Heart and Go?' from Goldilocks?" (In fact, I had.) My buddy Dan Marcus, who plays a policeman in Urinetown, mentions that whenever he hears the song that begins, "Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water," what he wants to sing next is "there'll be sun" from Annie's "Tomorrow." And I see his point.
There are also crossover tune detectives. They know TV ("Don't you think 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' theme sounds a lot like Li'l Abner's 'If I Had My Druthers?' ") Others know Hollywood. ("Have you ever noticed that the first three notes of 'Goldfinger' are the exact same first three notes of 'Moon River?' ") Some know pop music, too ("Badfinger's 'Day after Day' has an instrumental section analogous to the 'Who's got the bed' sequence in 'Four Jews in a Room Bitching.' ") Others even delve into TV ads ("Ever notice that the FAB commercial sounds a lot like 'Waiting for Life to Begin?' from Once on This Island?")
And so it goes. The beginning of the B-section of "I Know a Girl" from Chicago sounds like the beginning of the B-section of "I'm the Greatest Star" from Funny Girl. A portion of "Give A Little Whistle" from Wildcat is a little bit like "A Little Girl from Little Rock" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The opening notes of Lolita, My Love's "Going, Going, Gone" sounds like City of Angels' "All Ya Have to Do Is Wait." The refrain of "Home for the Holidays" sounds like "The Music of Home" from Greenwillow. The first few notes of "God Is Good" from Look to the Lilies sound like "Stop, Time" from Big.
Well, it's been said--as David Ives reminded us in All in the Timing--that if you put a chimpanzee in front of a typewriter long enough, he'll type Hamlet. Considering that there are far fewer notes in the scale than words in the language, there can only be so many melodies. Let's give composers credit for coming up with as many variations as they have.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]