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Catching Up

As he cleans house for the holidays, Filichia offers us a column full of tasty tidbits. logo
'Twas a few nights before Christmas, and I thought I'd better clean up for the holidays. That meant clearing out all those old newspapers that had been piling up. There was the issue of USA Today that included the story, "Send a Melt-in-Your-Mouth Message." It said that, for $9.49, one can order an eight-ounce bag of M&Ms with a customized message on each piece of candy, eight characters or less per line. I wish I'd known about this earlier, because I would have loved to have sent a bag to Jerry Herman at the Goodspeed Opera House for his October 27 opening. For what would look more natural on M&Ms than Mack & Mabel, right down to the ampersand?

Another newspaper had a story about the upcoming movie of Rent. Won't it be wonderful to see a cast do this show without microphones bisecting their cheeks? Yet another newspaper had a story that came out of Branson, Missouri: "The inventor formerly known as Andrew Wilson has changed his name to 'They.' Last week, Taney County Circuit Court Judge Jim Justus granted the name change. Next, They, 43, took his documents to the motor vehicle department and got a new driver's license bearing his new name. They said 'people often make references to an anonymous 'they," saying "They do this" or '"They're to blame for that"' Who is this "they" everyone talks about? "They" accomplish such great things. Somebody had to take responsibility,' They said."

So how does this affect all of us who love Broadway? Well, I don't know about you, but I'll never be the same when hearing such show songs as "Find Out What They Like and How They Like It," "The Night They Invented Champagne," "They Couldn't Compare to You," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "They Didn't Believe Me," "How Did They Build Titanic?" "Where Was I When They Passed Out the Luck?" not to mention "And They're Off" and "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be."

Then I ran into the New York Times sports section from the day after the Red Sox beat the Yankees four straight after three straight losses. I've been thinking: With a TV-remake of Damn Yankees in the works, don't you think the show's conflict should no longer be between the New York Yankees and the Washington Senators but between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox? I'm not necessarily asking that the show be updated to the present day; it's fine with me if it's kept in the '50s, when the Red Sox were almost as woeful as the perennial cellar-dwelling Washington Senators. But in 1949, the Sox were in first place, two games ahead of the Yankees with only two games to go in the season. As luck would have it, the two teams had been scheduled since the beginning of the season to play each other for the final two games. You guessed it: The Yankees won both and it was The Year the Red Sox Lost the Pennant. I think that would still be bothering Joe Boyd quite a bit in the mid-'50s and could motivate him to sell his soul to Mr. Applegate.

I also put away a number of books that had been on my counter. Among them was Fine and Dandy, Vicki Ohl's biography of Kay Swift, the female composer who made a nice splash on Broadway with her 1930 musical Fine and Dandy (which recently got a fine and dandy recording on PS Classics). What interested me is that Swift was a great friend of George Gershwin and often submerged her career to advance his, even becoming his amanuensis. Ohl mentions that Kay certainly loved George and there was a time when she thought they might have married, but the best Gershwin did was name his 1926 show Oh, Kay! after her. What Ohl doesn't discuss is that in 1931, when Gershwin wrote Of Thee I Sing, his brother Ira wrote a certain lyric in "A Kiss for Cinderella" where President Wintergreen tells of how he's chosen Mary Turner for his first lady, forsaking all others. He sings, "So I'm saying goodbye to them in the customary way. My regards to Arabella, and to Emmaline and Kay." Did George ask Ira to do his dirty work in kissing off Ms. Swift for him?

Time to file the delicious How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by Marc Acito. I smiled as I remembered Acito's hero, a high school drama club stalwart, saying such lines as "I saw Fame and realized my destiny was to live in New York and wear leg warmers." I nodded again when I remembered the book's hero becoming unnerved because a jock said that A Chorus Line was a great PLAY, as opposed to a musical. And I agreed wholeheartedly with the kids in the drama club who came to realize that although they're called "play people," they are "the realest people." (Even before I cracked open the book, I wondered if Marc Acito was related to Tim Acito, the triple threat who wrote Zanna, Don't! When I saw that Marc had named his hero Ed Zanni, I thought it much too much of a coincidence, so I did some sleuthing. Indeed, these Acitos are cousins.)

Johnny Carson
Finally, I was done, so I turned on the TV and there was Jay Leno, looking slick and Hollywoodian. Seeing him made me flash back to the host who preceded Leno, who's kept such a low profile since his retirement in 1991 that an entire young generation has no idea who Johnny Caron is. But once upon a time, Carson was huge, and I watched him faithfully in his early years when he and his show aired not from sunny California but from the NBC studio at Rockefeller Center. Because it was so near Broadway, plenty of Main Stem celebrities would drop by.

The week after Frank Loesser's last produced musical, Pleasures and Palaces, closed in Detroit, there was star Phyllis Newman on the Carson show doing the title song. The night after the 1964-65 Tonys were given out, there was Best Featured Actress nominee Luba (I Had a Ball) Lisa, who'd just lost to Maria Karnilova, giving the acceptance speech she would have given had her name been called. There was Manolo Fabregas, the noted Latino actor who played Henry Higgins in Mi Bella Dama in Mexico, telling audiences that "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain" had to be changed for Spanish audiences because the translated words didn't rhyme. There was Iggie Wolfington, late of "Shipoopi" fame, now promoting Marathon '33 and making it sound very exciting. There was Eydie Gorme, singing that big hit from New Faces of 1952: "Guess who I saw today, my dear," she began the refrain, "I went in town to buy the kids a thing or two and thought I'd stop to have a bite," she sang, then got an impish look on her face and improvised, "so I bit you." She broke up in laughter, so she started again -- and broke up in laughter again and again and again. Finally, she got through it. But the next time she was on the show, Gorme said that she had received a nasty letter from the woman who wrote the song (though she didn't mention Elisse Boyd by name) for crucifying it.

There was Carson's bandleader, Skitch Henderson, who'd play a game with the studio audience called "Stump the Band." It's just what you assume it is: An audience member would call out the name of a song he thought so obscure that neither Henderson nor any member of his orchestra could identify it. I still remember when a young Korean woman asked for a folk song from her country called -- I'm doing this phonetically, of course -- "Ny-ay-Vay." Literally without missing a beat, Henderson immediately rushed to the piano and began playing a Cole Porter melody, as he sang, "Ny-ay-Vay, you are the one."

Shortly after his production of Oliver! opened, there was David Merrick talking with Carson. (Yes, Broadway's biggest producer of the day was on The Tonight Show; did you ever see Cameron Mackintosh invited on?) After Carson said in an accusatory voice, "Mr. Merrick, what's wrong with Broadway?" the producer sneered, "Oh, for God's sake, there's nothing's wrong with Broadway." Looking back at what was then playing on the street -- the original productions of How to Succeed, A Funny Thing...Forum, Beyond the Fringe, Little Me, A Thousand Clowns, No Strings, Never Too Late, The Beauty Part, Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- I see his point.


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

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