Those Little-Town Blues
From Fort Wayne to Fairbanks, certain American cities and locales provide comic fodder for theater writers.
Saw Say Goodnight Gracie with Frank Gorshin as George Burns. He did a nice job, though I was surprised that he made the all-too-common mistake of saying "Cheek-o" for that Marx Brother rather than "Chick-o," the way it was really pronounced -- for Chico got his nickname from chick-chasing. But I commend playwright Rupert Holmes for putting in one of those rare lines that can get an audience to laugh once and then, after it's thought a moment, once again. That happened when he put Gorshin in front of an archival photo that showed a young Burns with three boyhood friends. "There I am, next to John, Paul, and Ringo," he said, getting his first laugh because the three guys would never have been confused with the three Beatles. And then he snared a second guffaw as the audience remembered that both Mr. Burns's and Mr. Harrison's first names were George.
I was amused when Burns mentioned that his rival for Gracie Allen's attention wrote a song called "When Frances Dances with Me." Ah, they don't write 'em like that anymore, songs where a woman's name is rhymed with a certain activity. (I doubt that any lyricist right now is working on "When Britney Gets Kitteny with Me.") But I wasn't the slightest bit surprised that Holmes and Gorshin began the show with not one, but two jokes about Buffalo -- the same city, in fact, that a dancer in A Chorus Line cites as a place where suicide is redundant. Needless to say, George Burns wasn't the first vaudevillian to joke about certain locales in America. Many comedy teams had the Top Banana say, "I took my girlfriend to Maine." The Straight Man would then ask, "Bangor?" -- to which the Top Banana would reply, "Yeah, a coupla times."
When vaudeville gave way to musical theater, such sources of humor stuck, and continues to do so. In the average musical, hearing someone say something nice about a small town happens about as often as that small town named Brigadoon reappears. Writers slam particular places either because they don't live in them or, more to the point, they don't live there anymore. In Jerry Herman's Parade, there's a snide reference to Jersey City -- the town from which Herman hails.
But comedians, librettists, and lyricists have always given it to New Jersey more than to anywhere else. Holmes and Gorshin/Burns do, too. There's a story about doing a live show in Newark -- "or as live as they get in Newark," Gorshin adds drolly. There have been knocks of Asbury Park (in You Never Know), Hackensack (Plain and Fancy), Rahway (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), Trenton (I Love My Wife), and the entire New Jersey Turnpike (The Goodbye Girl). Laurence O'Keefe writes in his show A Straight Man's Guide to Show Tunes that his father so feared getting Alzheimer's Disease that he tried to combat it by learning 47 different languages -- "but the problem," notes O'Keefe, "was that he spoke them all with a New Jersey accent."
Let's not forget Annie. "After New York, every place else is Bridgeport," says Daddy Warbucks to his soon-to-be-adopted daughter. Later, when the kid hears that she's really the daughter of the Mudges from New Jersey, she dolefully says, "Gee. New Jersey." Both gags always got warm laughs from Broadway audiences -- most of which, I daresay, traveled from Connecticut and New Jersey to see the show. And then there's 1776. When the court clerk takes a roll call and gets no response from the delegate from New Jersey, he asks "Where is New Jersey?" and the smart-ass answer is "Somewhere between Delaware and Pennsylvania." What's interesting is that this jibe is delivered by John Dickinson, the show's villain; maybe it's just another reason that librettist Peter Stone gives us to turn against him.
Of course, this exchange happens long after John Adams's damnation of "foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphia," proving that towns west of the Raritan River haven't been spared in musicals. This is certainly true of the Midwest. Both Conrad Birdie and Mae Peterson show little respect for Sweet Apple, Ohio. Allentown (whence Rose Alvarez hails) is belittled in 42nd Street but not in Movin' Out -- though it could be, given that Billy Joel wrote an unflattering song about the town. In When Pigs Fly, gays sing "You need US to make the USA" and note that they inhabit Provincetown, New York, and San Francisco -- adding that, "Without us, they'd be a lot more like Fort Wayne." And, while I can't immediately think of a show song that knocks St. Louis, the late super-producer David Merrick made up for it by steadfastly refusing to fly over the Missouri city -- his hometown. Compare this reaction to that of the always kindly Oscar Hammerstein: He got laughs not by criticizing another Missouri town, Kansas City, but by aggrandizing it.
Moving down to Texas: While there's a famous celebration of "Big D" in The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser notes that "the rest of Texas looks a mess." By the way, in Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, the two entertainers did that song and added a few quips. ANDREWS: "Austin?" BURNETT: "Wouldn't get lost in!" ANDREWS: "Houston?" BURNETT: "Wouldn't get juiced in!" Earlier in the evening, Burnett pointed out to Andrews that "You're so London and I'm so San Antone."
As for the Southwest, there isn't much respect accorded Casamagordo, New Mexico in Look to the Lilies. ("Whoever thought that here we'd be?") And isn't there a bit of self-deprecation in Sally Durant Plummer's tone when she tells us in Follies that she has come "direct from Phoenix?" Way out west -- far beyond West End Avenue -- a small California town took its lumps courtesy of Carolyn Leigh when she was writing lyrics for Smile (all of which would be scuttled in favor of Howard Ashman's work). Leigh had her Young American Miss contestants complain about "Nightlife in Santa Rosa": "There's nothin' but the flushin' of the chemical johns from 7,000 mobile homes." (I urge you to hear the lyric paired with Marvin Hamlisch's delightfully bouncy melody on Sarah Zahn's Witchcraft album from Harbinger.) Oh -- and, before we close, let's not forget the Alaskan town mentioned in New Faces of 1956. "April in Fairbanks," sang Jane Connell, "there's nothing more appealing; you find your blood congealing...Sub-zero weather will turn your skin to leather. Your jaws will lock together."
Such jibes may or may not be true. But, lest we who live in the Big Apple get too confident, let's remember what Mama Rose says in Gypsy after she's told that "New York is the center of everything" by Mr. Grantziger's assistant. "New York," she sneers, "is the center of New York." And she does have a point there.