Meredith Willson on 34th Street
With Thanksgiving just past and Christmas around the corner, Filichia expounds on the Meredith Willson turkey Here's Love.
"What?" roared Chris Van Ness, in response to my recent article on how I spent the days following Thanksgiving. "You didn't listen to Here's Love?" Good point, Mr. V. After all, Meredith Willson's 1963 musical version of Miracle on 34th Street does start with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, so I guess I should have played it to introduce myself to the current holiday season.
You undoubtedly know the 1947 film, in which Doris Walker of Macy's hires an elderly gentleman who looks amazingly like Santa Claus for her Thanksgiving Day Parade. She's unaware that the guy believes he's Kris Kringle and--here's where your fantasy and faith have to merge--he actually is. Doris has taught her daughter, Susan, from infancy that there's no Santa Claus, because she doesn't want the kid growing up with any romantic illusions about life as Doris did, which only resulted in an early marriage and divorce. However, Fred Gaily--a lawyer and the neighbor down the hall--wishes that Susan would lighten up and believe. The kid secretly wants to, and hopes that Santa could bring her a nice suburban home and a daddy. Fred's willing to step in and play the role but Doris is too preoccupied with work--especially when Kris tells one person too many that he's the real thing. Eventually, there's a court trial where Fred must defend Kris. He eventually proves that the man is Santa on a nice technicality: If the U.S. postal service has been delivering its "Dear Santa" letters to him, who is the New York court to disagree with a government agency?
All right, you know the film, but do you know the musical? Get the cast album, since transferred to a Sony CD, and you'll find a mixed bag of delights and duds. How I gasped in delight, not long after the show's October 3, 1963 opening, when I was in my favorite record store and spotted that glistening black cover with a pair of hearts in red and hot pink. I thought it was one of the best logos I'd ever seen, and still do. Once home, I quickly put the stylus (that's a phonograph needle, young 'uns!) onto the LP and found that the sound was abnormally faint. What had happened?! I cleared the stylus of dust (you had to do that from time to time) and still the sound was no better. I tried another album, Tovarich, which sounded fine. Alas, I'd have to return my copy of Here's Love. But before I did that, I flipped the disc and dropped the needle onto another track, which came across loud and clear. I soon learned that Here's Love wanted to simulate the aura of an approaching Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and that a few moments would pass before a Meredith Willson-styled brass band would "arrive in front of me," playing with full force. This overture even included that ol' Christmas carol "Adeste Fidelis," which one critic snidely said was the best song in the score.
Well, maybe. While I very much liked "The Big Calown Balloons," the opening song that celebrates the parade, I didn't see the need for the extra syllable. But the two songs that followed, sung by Janis Paige (one with onstage daughter Valerie Lee), made me think she deserved a Tony for being able to memorize these horribly unmelodic tunes. I felt better when I heard "The Bugle," a song in Dutch that Kris Kringle sang to the little immigrant girl on his lap. It's less than a minute long, but it's quietly lovely. Next, "The Plastic Alligator"--or, at least, that's what the LP promised. But there was that then-familiar disclaimer in the liner notes: "Musical numbers are listed as of September 26, prior to the recording of this album." Those were the days when Columbia and Goddard Lieberson couldn't wait to get cast albums out there. "The Plastic Alligator" cut didn't make the cut.
Then came the title tune. I've argued with many of my musical-theater-loving friends for years about this one. Whatever it says about my taste, "Here's Love" is one of my favorite title tunes from a Broadway musical. It's a robust and happy tract that encourages harmony between warring parties--"From the high and the mighty to the meek who inherit the earth; Miami to Los Angeles, and Dallas to Fort-Worth. From the ground floor apartment to the party just above, Here's Love!" wrote Willson, tackling one of the more limited rhyme-words in the English language. Then he wrote, "From the lamb to the lion, from the eagle to the dove," "From the car with the bumper to the car that needs a shove," "From the girl that's behind you to the girl you're dreaming of." Finally, in what Carolyn Leigh (of Peter Pan and Little Me fame) once told me was "the most desperate lyric I've ever heard," Willson wrote: "From Rosh Hashana to Easter, from Lent to Tishabov."
One lyric, alas, had to be changed seven weeks after the show opened: "JFK to U.S. Steel" was hastily changed the morning after President Kennedy's assassination to "CIA to U.S. Steel." (It stayed like that through the show's 334-performance run.) Funny how other lyrics have faded since 1963; "L&M to Lucky Strike" shows how mainstream cigarettes were in America back then; "Elizabeth Taylor to husbands in review" celebrated the woman who was then the world's most beautiful; "Jolly Nikita" refers to the Soviet Union premier whose run ended shortly after that of Here's Love. But isn't it interesting that the reference to Fidel Castro in the same song is still relevant today? ("And the devil to Fidel!")
Side Two, as we had in those primitive days, started with "My Wish," sung by Fred to Susan. It's a pretty enough, even liftable tune--but it's murderously sung by Craig Stevens, whom most people knew as the title character detective of TV's Peter Gunn (though Follies fans can tell you that he was Alexis Smith's husband). Those who come down so hard on Vincent Price's voice in Darling of the Day (nice CD, no?) can't have heard Stevens! "Pine Cones and Holly Berries" is a good Christmas song, but Kris could have sung about something more book-driven. It's mixed with "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," a number you probably know...but be apprised that it's not from Here's Love. Rather, it's a pop song that Willson had penned a dozen years earlier. The show then returns to the distinctly unmelodic in "Look, Little Girl," which Fred Gaily angrily sings to Mrs. Walker. Atrocious as it is, we can't just blame Stevens, for the thing is reprised moments later by Paige, who shows that no one could save it.
"Expect things to happen like the people in the fairy tales do," sings Kris to start the next song. Nice sentiment but, as you've probably just inferred from reading it, expressed in a cumbersome way. This leads to an instrumental waltz not mentioned on the record jacket ("Musical numbers are listed as of September 26...") but on the label. It's called "Love, Come Take Me Again," and Paige sang it with lyrics during the show's Detroit tryout. Two of the next three cuts, I'm certain, are trunk songs. "She Hadda Go Back" is Fred's now politically incorrect bit about how you have to wait hours for a woman because she'll always forget her gloves, check herself in the mirror, add perfume, et al. "My State" gets Kris's judge to wax chauvinistic about his home state, in hopes of a favorable decision. The song before it, though--Mr. Macy singing "That Man Over There Is Santa Claus"--is just right. It's reprised in the Finale, as is the title tune. (Wonder which of the voices belongs to Michael Bennett, who was a chorus boy in the show?)
Many months passed before I got the chance to travel from my native Boston to New York to see Here's Love. Only then did I learn that "The Plastic Alligator," in which a Macy's salesman was urging Kris to push this toy on kids who couldn't make up their minds, wasn't much longer than "The Bugle"--and not much of a song, either. It has the same melody of "That Man Over There." (According to a Detroit critic whom I met a quarter-century later, "Alligator" came first and "That Man Over There" was added later.) By the time I saw the show, Paige and Stevens had been succeeded by far better musical theater talents: Lisa Kirk and Richard Kiley. They worked awfully hard at the Wednesday night performance I attended and gave me a decent time.
But Here's Love still strikes me as one of the greatest missed opportunities in musical theater history. Watch the movie and the songs leap out at you: When Fred tries to get sentimental with Susan, she rebuts his every attempt, which could have led to a song called "I Bet Your Mother Told You That, Too." Later, Susan could have sung "That's What I Want for Christmas," yearning for her Long Island home. (At that point in the film, there's even background music--always a definite hint of where a song should go.) Other moments that should have been musicalized: Kris railing about what's happened to Christmas and how he must make matters right; also, his teaching Susan to act silly and join him in pretending that they're animals in the zoo. When things get tough and Kris begins to doubt that everything will work out well, Fred could musically convince him all is not lost. And later, when Fred loses his confidence that he'll win the case, Kris could reprise that same song with new lyrics. Finally, once Doris comes to believe in Kris, she should sing an inspirational song to Susan telling her that she must believe, too.
Opportunities to see Here's Love don't grow on Christmas trees. If you'd like to catch at least a benefit concert version of the show, get in touch with the Lark Theatre Company by calling 212-246-2676. They're presenting such a concert on Monday, December 17 at the Lortel, starring Jeff Blumenkrantz, Chuck Cooper, Robert Creighton, Debbie Gravitte, Ann Harada, Crista Moore, and Mary Testa, all under the direction of Donald Brenner. Which proves that if you expect things to happen like the people in the fairy tales do, they just might.