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Back to the Future

A recent listen to the Bye Bye Birdie film soundtrack prompts Filichia to muse on prophetic musicals. logo
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the June 25, 1963 opening of the Bye Bye Birdie movie -- which, I must admit, I saw 10 times in a three-week span -- I decided to pull out the ol' RCA Victor soundtrack album and give a listen. Sure, the memories came rushing back, but what really made me smile were the disc's two harbingers.

For those who only know "harbinger" as a terrific boutique record label that serves the Broadway market, it's also a word that means "an event or a person that foreshadows coming events." One occurs in "We Love You, Conrad," the anthem that Adams and Strouse wrote to show how much girls were obsessed with the Elvis Presley-like Conrad Birdie. Who knew that less than a year later, when the Beatles came from England and unseated Presley from his King of Rock 'n' Roll perch, the songwriters would recycle the song into "We Love You, Beatles?" A group called The Carefrees sang it and it reached #39 on the charts in the spring of 1964.

Coincidentally, the other harbinger involved The Beatles, too, in "One Last Kiss" -- a cut that did not come from the actual soundtrack of the movie but was recorded in a pop rendition for the LP. Here, Conrad sings "You know I need your love," followed by three words that weren't used in the movie or on the 1960 original cast album: "Yeah, yeah, yeah," sung by a bevy of girls. This expression would fast become associated -- nay, idiomatic -- of the Beatles after they used them in in their 1964 hit "She Loves You" (not to be confused with our beloved She Loves Me).

These aren't the only harbingers I've caught in the years I've been paying attention to theater. Just last January, when I attended the York Theatre's Musicals-in-Mufti reading of the 1946 London failure Pacific 1860, I noticed that the character originally played by Mary Martin said, "The very first thing the Austrians do in the morning is sing." Little did Martin know then that, 13 years later, she'd have one of her most illustrious roles as one of those singing Austrians. And little did Julie Andrews know in 1962 that she'd have that same role three years later in the film. But in her TV special with Carol Burnett at Carnegie Hall, Andrews portrayed the Mama of the "Pratt Family Singers," a wonderful takeoff of The Sound of Music in which a fetching tune called "The Things We Love Best" stands in for "My Favorite Things" and "Ding Dong Yum Yum" is the "Do-Re-Mi" parody.

Does Maury Yeston get his ideas for musicals from watching movies? Maybe: His new version of the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen just had a successful run in Maine. But there are two more interesting examples to suggest that Yeston does so. In the 1958 film Please Don't Eat the Daisies, a fictionalized version of the family life of Jean and Walter Kerr -- the latter was then the drama critic for the Herald-Tribune -- a cab driver bothers the reviewer with his idea for a musical "about the first few books of the Bible." Nice joke, but Yeston would write a tuner on that precise subject, called One Two Three Four Five in honor of the Bible's first five books. And in the 1972 film version of the 1967 Broadway comedy Avanti, Juliet Mills tells Jack Lemmon that her boyfriend is writing a musical called Splash -- "about the sinking of the Titanic." Of course, this too was supposed to be a gag; but a quarter-century later, there was Yeston's musical, winning a Tony.

The cast of Maury Yeston’s Tony-winning musical
Titanic prepare to go down with the ship
In 1981, Broadway saw Jim Walton as Franklin Shepard, Inc. in Merrily We Roll Along and Victor Garber as Anthony in Sweeney Todd. And in 1989, Walton was on Broadway as Anthony in Sweeney Todd while Garber was at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. playing (you guessed it!) Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along.

During Anyone Can Whistle's nine performances in 1964, no one reacted to the fact that one of the corrupt officials of Cora's administration was called Magruder. But how well I remember the giggles when, in 1974, his name was mentioned in a production at Northeastern University. For, at that time, Jeb Magruder was a famous name as one of the less-than-honest executives in Nixon's Watergate-tainted administration.

In Man of La Mancha, when Aldonza is particularly angry at Don Quixote, she tells Sancho Panza, "Your master's a crack brain." And though the Don has been acting as if he's smoked something strange, I assume that Aldonza meant something entirely different when she made the accusation.

Then there's that line that was written for "The Usher From the Mezzanine" in Fade Out--Fade In but didn't make it to Broadway. Too bad that Carol Burnett's song of yearning didn't ultimately include the lyric it originally had: "The usher turned her flashlight in / To study singing and 'Gunga Din' / Then got a part in a chorus line on Broadway." If Betty Comden and Adolph Green had kept those lyrics, the words "a chorus line" would have had a completely different context 11 years later.

When Sondheim mentioned the noted silent screen star Bessie Love in his 1954 musical Saturday Night, the actress was 56 years old, and not as busy as she once had been in Hollywood. Sondheim couldn't have predicted that they'd both have a credit on a movie that wouldn't be filmed for 27 more years: In 1981, there was Sondheim writing the music for Reds and there was the 83-year-old Ms. Love acting in it, portraying one Mrs. Partlow.

Just recently we lost George Axelrod, who wrote The Seven-Year Itch -- one of the long-running plays in Broadway history, though it's mostly remembered in its 1955 movie version, which starred Marilyn Monroe. What's interesting is that the play script, written in 1952, has the esteemed psychiatrist Dr. Brubaker complaining that his textbook, Of Man and the Unconscious of Sex and Violence, has a cover that misrepresents the seriousness of the tome because it shows a "pretty well disrobed young lady who resembles Marilyn Monroe."

Howard Da Silva and William Daniels as Founding
Fathers Ben Franklin and John Adams in 1776
Some weeks before Axelrod's death, we lost Peter Stone, who wrote about a harbinger in his notes for the published edition of his libretto to 1776. Late in the show, Stone has John Adams say: "Mark me, Franklin, if we give in on this [slavery] issue, posterity will never forgive us." But the line wasn't an accurate quote. As Stone wrote: "The complete line, spoken in July 1776, was, 'If we give in on this issue, there will be trouble a hundred years hence; posterity will never forgive us.' And," continues Stone, "audiences would never forgive us. For who could blame them for believing that the phrase was the author's invention, stemming from the eternal wisdom of hindsight? After all, the astonishing prediction missed by only a few years" in that the Civil War started in 1861.

And so the harbingers go. In the 1973 musical Seesaw, Tommy Tune was cast as a dancer who dreams of having a career as a choreographer. Well, that sure happened and then some, as his four Tonys for choreography can attest. In 1964's Ben Franklin in Paris, Ben (Robert Preston) has a line of dialogue, heard on the original cast album, in which he says "I do, I do" -- which would be the title of his next musical. In the ill-fated 1966 musical Breakfast at Tiffany's, Mary Tyler Moore, as Holly Golightly, was told early on: "You'll be a thoroughly modern lady." Funny how her very next job would be in a movie with the words "thoroughly modern" in its title. And in the notes for the original cast album of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the authors mention that this show, which starred Zero Mostel, was partly based on a Plautus play "with the strangely prophetic title of Mostellaria."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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