Be True to Your Lyrics
What's the worst thing about Good Vibrations? Filichia expounds.
The collaborators tried a number of times but couldn't come up with the right song. Then, one day, Styne showed up with an idea that he'd been working on. He sat at the piano and began playing and singing eight bars that went, "I'm goin' back where I can be me, to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company." Green jumped up, said, "That's it!" -- and in 20 minutes, he, Comden, and Styne wrote what is arguably the best solo 11-o'clock number in Broadway history.
When Milton Rosenstock, the show's original conductor, told this story to me, he related: "Jule always said that the solution is right there in your book. Look to your book!" But when you're doing a "jukebox musical," in which old songs are in search of a story, the solution isn't in your book -- you don't have one yet -- but in your lyrics. That's what Lonny Price and Linda Kline did best with A Class Act: They really examined Ed Kleban's lyrics and fashioned a story from them. (Case in point: They had this song, "The Next Best Thing to Love," in which someone sings about a friendship that was actually more than that. Price and Kline gave it to a woman who had an on-again, off-again, love-hate relationship with Ed. The lyrics matched perfectly.) And though I didn't much care for Never Gonna Dance, I commend Jeffrey Hatcher for noticing that, in one of the lyrics he had in front of him, "Major Bowes" was mentioned -- so he took that as inspiration to make Major Bowes a character in the show. He tried.
There are those who say that the worst thing about the so-called "jukebox musicals" is their use of previously existing songs rather than original scores. Sure, that's horrible -- but far worse is not knowing what to do with those songs. And that's where Richard Dresser and Good Vibrations come in. Dresser did a wretched job of attempting to examine The Beach Boys' lyrics and finding a way of making the words fashion the plot. You know this less than five minutes into the show, when a group of kids sing "Fun, Fun, Fun." On the surface, this would seem to be a rousing beginning that would very well set the tone of an evening full of -- well, fun. But Bobby, our hero, and the high-school grads who sing it in Good Vibrations aren't doing so as if it's a pop tune of the day -- i.e., the newest Beach Boys hit -- but as if they're singing about themselves. So, who is the girl whose "daddy took her T-bird away'? Is she someone in the show? Will she now become an important character? No; she doesn't materialize and is never mentioned again. Seems that Dresser banked on our listening only to the F-word (fun) and none of the others.
Dresser does come up with a good idea for the plot. Caroline is madly in unrequited love with Bobby but he doesn't want her until she's got other boys chasing her. Yes, that's true to life: Many a lad has snubbed a girl only to crave her the moment that she's unavailable. But when Caroline discovers that Bobby has used her to drive him and his buddies Dave and Eddie to California in her car, she tells him never to speak to her again. He tries to reconcile, but she won't hear of it -- or him. He tries again with the same results. So, what does Bobby sing to her? "Do you love me, do you, surfer girl?" Uh, NO she doesn't, Bobby! And one other little thing: Caroline has been making her living as a lifeguard. That's her new California identity; she's not a "surfer girl!"
The boys who populate the California beach take a look at all the female pulchritude in front of them and sing "I wish they all could be California girls." What does this mean? That they wish every girl in the world could be a California girl? Why would they care, as long as there are cute ones right in front of them? Given that the first act of Good Vibrations takes place on the East Coast (which Bobby and his pals can't wait to leave), why didn't Dresser have the guys sing, while looking at the girls in their neighborhood, that they wished THEY all could be California girls like the ones they've seen in those Beach Blanket movies or on TV's 77 Sunset Strip? Now, that would make sense!
The final scene of the show has Bobby and Caroline running into each other on a subway. Some years have passed since they've seen each other, so she asks what he's been doing, and he tells her that he's been studying law. When he returns the question, she says that she's a teacher. What do they then sing? "God only knows what I'd be without you." Well, since each of them hasn't seen each other for years -- and considering that when they did hang out together, they never discussed their career goals -- I'd say that, without each other, Caroline would have turned out to be a teacher and Bobby a lawyer.
How much care did Dresser exercise in spotting songs? When Bobby finally shows interest in Caroline, the girl gets excited and exclaims, "Pinch me!" In a real musical written from scratch, the creators would put a song here. (Exclamation marks are always an indication that a song should begin.) But all Caroline does is walk offstage. You mean that, in the entire Beach Boys catalogue, there isn't one song that would have fit here?
Dresser also fell into the easiest trap of all in jukebox musicals: Using songs as performance numbers that emerge as little more than time-killers. En route to California, Bobby, Dave, Eddie, and Caroline stop at a chili joint where there's live entertainment. The band's lead singer offers a spirited rendition of "Be True to Your School." Now, when The Beach Boys wrote that song, their target record-buyers were kids who were actually in junior high or high school. Dresser uses it in an after-hours place with bar service, and the patrons -- all age 18 and up -- have no interest in being true to their school because they're not in school and they no longer even give it a thought.
Did Dresser even think about what post-high school teens are really like? At one point, he puts these people -- some old enough to vote -- in a bumper-car ride in an amusement park. No: Kids in junior high adore bumper cars because they're the closest they can get to driving real cars. But once a kid has his license -- and there's every reason to believe that each of these young adults has his -- bumper cars are of no interest. Dresser makes another age-inappropriate mistake, but in the opposite direction. What did Caroline's parents say about her taking a cross-country trip with three guys? All right, I can understand the production wanting to save a couple of salaries by not casting parents (although two actors could have been aged to impersonate them), but the just-out-of-high school Caroline should at least have had dialogue that let us know how her parents reacted when she told them she was taking off.
And we haven't even gotten to the level of Dresser's humor. There's the girl who tells her boyfriend that they shouldn't move too fast and then, after a second's pause, negates this by throwing herself into his arms. How many times have you seen that one? Dave and Caroline discuss starting a relationship, and when Dave says "I'd hate for Bobby to find out," Bobby walks in and sees them together. How many dozens of times have you seen this hoary "someone-walks-in-at-the-wrong-moment" bit? Compare this to what Sondheim and Wheeler brought to Sweeney Todd just before Toby sings "Not While I'm Around." Did Toby walk in on Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney chopping up the meat for the pies? No, he's feeling uneasy and infers that something's wrong. This leads him on the path of discovery; that's much stronger writing.
All right, maybe Dresser is to be pitied. He's written three plays that have received more good reviews than bad -- Below the Belt, Gun-Shy, and Rounding Third -- and none found an audience. A guy has got to eat, and the chance to write a Broadway musical where the weekly gross could be in the high hundreds of thousands must have looked awfully good to him. But the problem with asking anyone to write a jukebox musical is that, because of the very nature of the beast, you're not going to get the writer's best work out of him. He's hamstrung from the moment he types "Act I, Scene One" into his computer. The last line of Dresser's program bio states, "He is currently writing the book for a musical about the Boston Red Sox." I know he has been a big Sox fan his entire life, so I'll bet he does a good job with that one. Right now, with Good Vibrations, he's metaphorically three games down in a seven-game series -- but, as we all learned last fall, that doesn't mean he can't come back and win four straight.