Pressed to name the cheesiest musical theater song ever written, Filichia complies.
I wrote back and said that I'm not a fan of Worst Lists, which I think are cruel and unnecessary. After all, nobody sets out to write a bad show, or direct one, or produce one. Sure, I've castigated a show or two in my time (okay, more than two), but I wouldn't be interested in such wholesale condemning. I was especially disappointed with the TV Guide people when I saw Lucille Ball on the list, cited for her last show. When that came up at the editorial meeting, I would have hoped that the brass would have said, "Hey, we can't put Lucy's name on such a list. Let's can the whole idea." But they didn't.
My e-mailer wrote back and rebutted that I did make a list of the Tony-winning musicals I judged from best to worst. True enough; that, in fact, was inspired by an Entertainment Weekly feature that listed all the Oscar-winning films from best to worst. But at least that was a list of winners, and several of the shows--say, the top 10 or 20--didn't mind being on it. A list of the 50 Worst Musicals, in which no one would be cited for excellence and everyone would be damned for incompetence, didn't appeal to me at all.
There was yet another e-mail from the same person, saying, "Okay, so you don't want to give a list of the 50 Worst Musicals--how about just doing the 50 Worst Songs?" Now do you see why I haven't mentioned his or her name? I'm guessing that you'll agree with me that the person missed the point of my response. Nevertheless, I took the high road and politely answered, though my response on why I didn't want to list the 50 Worst Songs was identical to my response on why I didn't want to list the 50 Worst Musicals. More miraculously, I refrained from saying that if I ever wrote a list of The 50 Worst e-mails I received, this person's correspondence would have to rank high on the list.
Anyway, the next e-mail from the person in question was a little playful: "Oh, come on! Can't you give us at least what you consider to be the worst, really bad, really cheesy song?" Ah! Suddenly I was interested--not in giving "the worst" or a "really bad" show song, but in telling you what the cheesiest musical theater song is. It comes from Treasure Island, a musical annually produced by the Mermaid Theatre in London during the '60s before it moved to the West End in 1974. Bernard Miles and Josephine Wilson adapted the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, and composer Cyril Ornadel (who wrote the music for Pickwick, which produced a semi-standard in "If I Ruled the World") and lyricist Hal Shaper shaped the score.
Treasure Island, of course, is the story of Jim Hawkins, who has a map that pirates want. He gets out of town by taking a job as a cabin boy on a ship. At a port o'call he meets Long John Silver, whom, he learns, plans to kill him. So Jim escapes, gets to land, and meets Ben Gunn, a poor soul who's been stranded on this site for years and whose best friends are now goats. He's been living on berries all this time, which inspires him to tell Jim (and us) what he really would like to eat. In the musical, these goats are played by actors, who provide back-up as Ben sings the verse of his big number: "Many's the time I've dreamed of crumpets / Many's the thoughts I've had of jam and toast / Memories made, but my mind still clings / To the thing I miss the most."
And then, to a jaunty, vaudeville-styled melody not unlike the one David Shire provided for "One Step," heard in Starting Here, Starting Now, Ben sings: "Cheese! / How I've really missed cheese! / I can get along without a single slice of cake / Who needs cake, for heaven's sake? / But there's a point I have to make: / A cheeseless life is hard to take. I said cheese! / I can smell it on the breeze! / If I had my wish / I'd love to wrap a molar..." [Here comes my second-favorite rhyme in the piece:] "...'round a piece of gorgonzola / Cheese! How I really love cheese!"
Here, of course, the melody modulates to the next key and the goats provide an even louder back-up. I can't prove it from the original cast album, but from the nature of the song, I'll bet my life that the goats stood up on stage and joined him in a kick line as he sang: "Cheese! / My heart goes something queer / When I hear you mention gruyere / All of the world is built on / The discovery of Stilton / Cheese! / Mr. Hawkins, please! / Beggin' on my ka-nees! / Ain't you got a bit o' cheese? / Even a rind would give me piece of mind! / I said cheese! / How I really love cheese!"
And that, dear friends, has to be the cheesiest song in the history of musical theater. Isn't it gouda?