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If It Weren't For Broadway Plays...

From "Alfie" to The Odd Couple theme, movie versions of plays have given us some great tunes. logo

Peter Nero
Jon Maas wrote to ask if I knew anything about a song that he assumed came from the 1961 Broadway comedy Sunday in New York. He had heard Mel Tormé sing the jaunty tune and vaguely remembered that Bob Merrill wrote it for David Merrick's stage production. No, I had to tell him: The 1964 movie version of Sunday in New York yielded the song, which had a melody by Peter Nero and lyrics by Carroll Coates.

It's only one way in which Nero insinuates himself into the film. First off, when our main character, Eileen, comes to visit her brother Adam, she brings as a gift an album by Peter Nero. Later, when Eileen meets Mike on a bus and they wind up on a boat in Central Park, they argue about whether a song they hear from the radio in a nearby boat is by Nero. "Nobody can play the piano like Peter Nero," says Mike with especially warm admiration. Finally, when the two go out for a night on the town, where do they wind up? The Club Nero, where you-know-who entertains. Nero also did the background score for the film -- which was recorded way too loud, so it's intrusive. And not good music, either. But that title song hits the spot.

"Has there ever been a play that had a song written specifically for it?" Jon asked. Actually, quite a few, as I detailed in a TheaterMania column on April 5, 2002. But Jon's correspondence did make me think of how many wonderful songs we have because plays were made into movies. Had Norman Krasna not written Sunday in New York for the stage, there would have been no movie, and therefore no "Sunday in New York" jazz classic. If Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith had not collaborated on the play The Tender Trap in 1953, we wouldn't have that delicious Sammy Cahn-James Van Heusen movie song immortalized by Frank Sinatra in 1955. It was nominated for an Oscar but lost to what I insist is an inferior song, "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" -- though I'm sure the Plaids would disagree with me.

Four years later, Cahn, Van Heusen, and Sinatra emerged victorious when their "High Hopes" won the Oscar as Best Song. It, too, wouldn't have been written had there not been a Broadway play that inspired the movie: A Hole in the Head. Only one other Hollywood-via-Broadway song ever won an Oscar and it, too, wasn't a title tune: "For All We Know" from Lovers and Other Strangers, in 1970.

Cahn, Van Heusen, and Sinatra were responsible for another nifty tune that wouldn't have been written had Neil Simon not written his first hit play, Come Blow Your Horn. Lord knows that, in crafting the title tune, the songwriters showed that they knew how to write for Sinatra: "I tell ya, chum, it's time to come blow your horn" is Sinatrish to the core. So is "I'll give you the whole megilla in a one-word speech: Reach!"

Simon's playwriting is responsible for two other good tunes to come from movies. Barefoot in the Park (1967) yielded a jaunty tune with music by Neil Hefti and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. (Hefti was a composer whom I always wished would write a Broadway musical. What a unique sound he had!) A year later, Hefti did the theme for The Odd Couple film, which was retained for the ever-so-long-running TV series. Now, at least in New York, the tune has resurfaced as a television commercial for a dot-com called And while we all know the marvelously bouncy theme, we might not know that Sammy Cahn later put lyrics to Hefti's delightful melody. They start: "No matter where they go / They are known as the couple / They're never seen alone / So they're known as the couple."

Hefti gave himself a heftier task when he managed to put a fetching melody to another Broadway title: Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. Even though Hefti accomplished the near-impossible by setting this line to music -- and Cahn and Van Heusen did the same when Lawrence Roman's play Under the Yum Yum Tree came to the screen -- one can pardon Rod McKuen for eschewing the actual title of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Instead, he settled on just the lady's name and called the song "Jean." It received an Oscar nomination in 1969, 16 years after the first Broadway-play-inspired Hollywood song got a nomination: "The Moon Is Blue," by Sylvia Fine (Danny Kaye's wife) and Herschel Burke Gilbert.

Other nominated but non-victorious Broadway-inspired songs include "Second Chance" (from 1962's Two for the Seesaw), which nobody remembers, and "Alfie" (from 1966's Alfie), which everyone remembers thanks to that haunting Burt Bacharach melody. Few, though, know that Alfie was originally a London stage hit and then a 21-performance Broadway failure. "Second Chance," meanwhile, had music by André Previn and lyrics by Dory Langdon, who'd soon become Previn's wife -- at least until 1965, when he left her for Mia Farrow, who later left him for that aforementioned singer of Cahn-Van Heusen songs. Dory Previn later wrote a musical that touched on her divorce from Previn, and while Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign did get produced (and Dory recorded an album of its songs), it closed in California in the early '70s without braving Broadway.

Though I admit they're not world-beaters, I have affection for the title songs from Any Wednesday, Goodbye Charlie, and Bernadine, the last-named made from a play by the author of Harvey but morphed into a 1957 Pat Boone vehicle. Let's not forget, too, that the pop standard "Moonglow" got a charming counter-melody when the film of Picnic was made.

In recent years, we haven't had many Hollywood songs adapted from Broadway comedies and plays because, of course, so few comedies and plays make it to Broadway these days and those that do are seldom filmed. Kander and Ebb got to provide a song for Stepping Out, but that was already a dozen years ago. Still, there was a time when composers and lyricists were challenged to come up with an instantly recognizable title song that would become a sort of audio-logo for a film. Why else would the unlikely Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? spur a song -- yes, with lyrics -- called "Who's Afraid?"

The goal of including a song that would be on everyone's lips just didn't happen with Enter Laughing, Never Too Late, The Pleasure of His Company, or All the Way Home. But I'm still grateful for the wonderful songs we got as a result of Broadway plays and comedies, especially "The Tender Trap." For whenever a guy tells me that he's getting married, I enjoy singing: "And then you wonder how it all came about. It's too late now, there's no getting out. You fell in love, and love is the tender trap!"


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

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