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Jule Styne's Third-Best Score

Filichia gets ready to ring in the New Year to the tunes of a little-known -- and unlikely -- Jule Styne musical. logo

I've had one certain New Year's Eve ritual for decades -- so long a time that when I started it, I used long-playing vinyl records. Every New Year's Eve, while I'm showering, shaving, and dressing to go out, I always play a score by Jule Styne. The reason? December 31 was his birthday and I'm happy to say he had 88 of them, from 1905 through September 20, 1994.

Styne, of course, is best-known for composing one of Broadway's strongest scores: Gypsy, which we'll soon hear again on Broadway. In second place, most everyone agrees, is Funny Girl. His third-best? Here's where musical theater enthusiasts rarely agree. You'll find support for Bells Are Ringing, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Do Re Mi, Fade Out, Fade In, Subways Are for Sleeping, and Hallelujah, Baby!. Peter Pan would be right up there, too, had Styne written all of it, and not just augmented the score when the show was in trouble in California. All of these are worthy candidates, but I always add Prettybelle to the argument. Styne was a senior citizen when he wrote this musical, which only played a month in Boston in 1971, but his work doesn't reflect his age; there's plenty of energy in it, not to mention country music for this musical set in Shreveport, Louisiana.

But this New Year's Eve, on what would have been Styne's 97th birthday, I'll make another nomination for his third-finest score: Bar Mitzvah Boy, the 1978 London musical with a book by Jack Rosenthal (adapted from his British television play) and lyrics by Don Black. Martin Charnin and Peter Gennaro, the director and choreographer of Annie the year before, repeated those duties for a production that debuted at Her Majesty's Theatre on Halloween, 1978. It was scheduled to open at the Minskoff exactly a year later, but it didn't keep the date -- for, by then, Bar Miztvah Boy had become a 77-performance statistic.

The show did make it here, albeit in a truncated, done-on-a-dime version in June 1987 at the American Jewish Theater. But the book was adapted for that production by critic Martin Gottfried, so it wasn't quite the London musical of nine years earlier. (My buddy Barry Kleinbort informed me that Rosenthal so hated his experience with the London production that he wrote a play called Smash in which he criticized what had happened.) For a while, the title was even changed to Song for a Saturday, probably to distance the AJT show from the London version.

At first glance, Bar Mitzvah Boy seems to be a variation on Neil's Simon's 1968 one-acter Visitor from Forest Hills -- the final section of Plaza Suite play -- in which a young woman named Mimsy locks herself in the bathroom minutes before she's to be married, to the consternation of her middle-class parents. Rosenthal's TV play, written eight years later, had Eliot Green run off seconds before he was to be bar-mitzvah'd, to the consternation of his middle-class parents. One can't infer much more from the show's London cast album, for the back of the LP cover contains no liner notes; just credits, song titles, and a picture of Eliot standing to announce that today he is a man. This could be the scene just before he runs out or the presumably happy ending when he returns after his great escape.

Even without much illumination, Styne's score stands tall; and, though I'm not a fan of Don Black's work, it's top-notch here. The show starts with a solid Jule Styne overture (is there any other kind?) before introducing us to Eliot, who's studying Hebrew with Rabbi Sherman. "Why?" he sings, to a melody that's highly Semitic -- not surprising, for Styne was one of Broadway's best at finding the right music for his characters. Yet he was writing in a style that, astonishingly enough, he'd never previously used in his 34-year, 20-musical career: Although he was Jewish, he had not written a single Jewish-tinged score. He sure make up for lost time here, giving us many songs with that minor-key, warmly Semitic sound.

Rabbi Sherman tells Eliot he'll be happy "If Only a Little Bit (of Hebrew) Sticks," but that's not what Eliot is questioning. He's disgusted that his mother regards the following day's bar mitzvah as "a hairdressing contest, a catering competition." Sure enough, here comes "Bar Mitzvah of Eliot Green," in which caterers, party planners, and the like deluge Rita and Victor Green, offering them plans and meals with all services included. They sing: "Whoever goes will know they've been / To the Bar Mitzvah of Eliot -- Mazel tov, Eliot! -- Bar Mitzvah of Eliot Greeeeeeeeeeen!"

There follows the pleasant "This Time Tomorrow," in which Eliot's mother, father, and perhaps another sibling (oh, for liner notes!) look forward to the whole schmeer being over. Eliot and his friends then sing "Thou Shalt Not," alluding to all the things kids love to do that are forbidden by their parents. Styne's melody here may not necessarily sound like one that a 1970s teen would use to express himself, but it doesn't sound wrong, either -- and it has a terrific orchestration by Irwin Kostal, all of whose work on this score is superb. Eliot sings, "Thou shalt not waste food or let thy hair grow long" before coming to the conclusion, "I'm tied in lots of little 'Thou shalt' knots." At first hearing, that may seem too clever for someone who's 12-going-on-13, but I'll offer evidence later that Eliot's one bright kid.

Next, a character named Harold (who's he?) sings a pretty song called "The Harolds of This World," a phrase that's followed by "...have their feet planted firmly on the ground so that everyone can fly." All of this deliciously spread over an eight-bar span. The song concludes with his deciding, "The Harolds of this world; they need love / Just like everyone needs love / Haven't thought of that before / Could be that the Harolds of this world / Need more." (Nice song, whoever's doing the singing.) Rita and Victor then ring in with "We've Done All Right," in which they ruminate on their marriage and the modest successes they've had. Victor is a tad more sentimental than Rita, and when she offers a dissenting opinion, he sings "I agree with you" before adding, "Sooner or later, I always do."

Jule Styne
Time for the bar mitzvah, which involves a Simchas, a celebratory religious whirlwind dance. "A time for you to drink, a time for you to laugh," everyone sings. Soon, however, it's a time for them to criticize: "Ada's had her nose done. Bella don't look well. She hasn't been quite right since Donald threw her out." Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. All of this, I assume, was what prompted Eliot to bolt the bar mitzvah -- because he couldn't stand the hypocrisy any more.

But, last week, I watched a videotape of Rosenthal's original work and found that there was much more to Eliot's rebellion. The teleplay introduced a character not cited on the record: Eliot's grandfather, who's a little foolish and ineffectual, in dispensing advice. Victor is a bit more henpecked than I expected him to be but not nearly as much as poor Harold, who turns out to be the young man to whom Eliot's older sister, Lesley, is engaged. When Harold goes to kiss Lesley the night before the bar mitzvah, she pushes him away. "My hair!" she screams, and so he decides to settle for a handshake. "My nails!" she shrieks. The poor guy goes home to take, I presume, a cold shower.

I wasn't prepared for what happened after Eliot ran away. Everyone goes looking for him and Lesley is the one who finds him. She accuses him of not knowing his Hebrew recitation and he angrily retorts, "I could do it standing on my head." (Indeed he upends himself and does just that, which explains the musical's logo.) Then Lesley challenges him in a different way. "Every Jewish boy gets bar mitzvah'd. Everybody. Dad did it. Granddad. Harold." To which Eliot delivers his knockout punch. "But they're not men." Wow! And you know something? He's right.

I do wish that Styne and Black had written a powerfully angry song, perhaps entitled "They're Not Men." Perhaps they did but dropped it in hopes of softening the show (which may be what angered Rosenthal). Maybe that's why Bar Mitzvah Boy didn't succeed; it sure wasn't because Jule Styne wasn't writing lovely melodies. Lesley's "You Wouldn't Be You" to Eliot; "Rita's Request," in which the poor distraught mother is alone after Eliot's sudden departure and sings "kill me" to a tune that suggests quiet madness; "Where Is the Music Coming From," which contains an especially sharp lyric from Black; "The Sun Shines out of Your Eyes," a charming song for the now-placated parents, slotted just before Eliot -- back at the bar mitzvah -- sings "I've Just Begun."

Bar Mitzvah Boy is one of comparatively few scores in which I like each and every song. So, this New Year's Eve, I'll be playing it. My wish for you for 2003 is that you will find it, either on LP or CD, and that you'll enjoy it as much as I do.


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

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