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Ethan Mordden should have found another title for his new book, but what would be a better choice? logo
The moment my esteemed TheaterMania colleague Matthew Murray heard that I was reading an advance uncorrected proof of Ethan Mordden's The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen (due from Palgrave in October), he begged to borrow it. "But I will tell you that I'm already disappointed," he said, "because of that title."

I nodded in somber understanding. Up till now, Mordden has entitled each of his "Broadway-musicals-by-the-decade" series with a song title that originated in that decade. So the '20s was Make Believe, courtesy of Oscar Hammerstein II and his song from 1927's Show Boat. The '30s book, to be published next, will be Sing for Your Supper, named after Larry Hart's lyric for the 11-o'clock number in 1938's The Boys from Syracuse. Hammerstein was again represented in the title of the '40s by Beautiful Mornin', culled from his 1943 opening number of Oklahoma! while Sondheim was responsible for the title of the '50s book, Coming Up Roses, taken from the first-act closer of his 1959 hit Gypsy. Moving on to the '60s, Mordden chose Open a New Window, Jerry Herman's war cry from 1966's Mame; and Sondheim again got the nod in the '70s book, One More Kiss, from his song in 1971's Follies.

While The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen deals with, as the subtitle tells us, "The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical," its name comes from a 1966 musical -- specifically, from Fred Ebb's title song for Cabaret. And while it could be effectively argued that Cabaret was well-represented on Broadway during the last quarter-century via two revivals that ran an aggregate six and a half years, wouldn't Mordden have done better to choose a line that actually originated on Broadway in the last 25 years?

"There's a column for you," Matthew cried triumphantly. And so I went to Richard C. Norton's A Chronology of American Musical Theater, which lists every song in the order it was sung in every Broadway show. I took down the third and final volume of the exhaustive work and opened to the 1979-80 season, which is where the last 25 years of musical theater officially started. I was immediately reminded that the first musical was Got tu Go Disco. Sure, it was a terrible show; but given the thrust of Mordden's book, he had two apt song titles from which to choose: "It Won't Work" and "Chic to Cheap." The next new musical, But Never Jam Today, also had two song titles that would work: "And They Call the Hatter Mad" and "Curiouser and Curiouser." On the other hand, both sound like titles of Lewis Carroll books rather than one about Broadway. And very few musical theater enthusiasts would know any of these four as song titles, given that both shows were denied cast albums.

Not the next one, though: Evita. How about "Oh, What a Circus?" This was a time, after all, noted for its spectacle. But I think Mordden would prefer "Goodnight and Thank You" or "And the Money Keeps Rolling In (and Out)." Both say quite a bit about the era. Or what about Strider, which contained, "Oh, Jesus, It's Time to Take out the Nags." No, that was really a play with music. How about Comin' Uptown's "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" or Barnum's "There Is a Sucker Born Every Minute," "Thank God I'm Old," or "Bigger Isn't Better"?

But just as I was about to read the selections from A Day in Hollywood -- A Night in the Ukraine, something occurred to me: Mordden had dealt with all of these above shows in One More Kiss, which he actually ended with 42nd Street, which opened in August 1980. "The Last 25 Years of Musical Theater" in truth concentrates on late 1980 to early 2003, so that's where I should really start looking.

So, how about "No Surprises" (Charley and Algernon)? Or "You Cannot Drown the Dreamer" (Onward, Victoria)? No, that's too optimistic for Mordden's purposes. Bring Back Birdie does yield some contenders, though not "20 Happy Years" and not just because the number's wrong; the adjective is, too. "Movin' Out" might have been apt, but now people would confuse it with the Billy Joel-Twyla Tharp collaboration. "You Can Never Go Back" and "Middle Age Blues" would seem to apply, though "I Love 'Em All" certainly doesn't.

Woman of the Year has a potential winner with "So What Else Is New?" Copperfield is less helpful with "Something Will Turn Up." The Moony Shapiro Songbook has three titles that almost-but-don't quite work: "Mister Destiny," "It's Only a Show," and "Don't Play That Love Song Anymore." Marlowe's "Can't Leave Now" is too optimistic, but there is something very right in Oh, Brother!'s "What Do I Tell People This Time?"

Again, though, these are not famous titles, which says something about the shows and the era. Many an American living in the '20s through the '50s -- not just a musical enthusiast, mind you, but any John Q. Public then alive -- could have sung for you the title of Mordden's books of those eras. Things get a little dicier with "Open a New Window," which fewer Americans learned, and even more so with "One More Kiss," which few people could have been expected to know after its debut in 1971 because it wasn't even included on the original Broadway cast LP of Follies -- an album so badly truncated that it should have been called "Selections from Follies."

Leave it to one of the most controversial of the musicals that Mordden discusses to come up with two terrifically apt titles. Neither are song titles but, rather, lyrics within songs; yet one can assume that Mordden would have allowed that, because The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen is also a lyric and not a title. The show in question is Merrily We Roll Along and the song titles are "Like It Was" and "Good Thing Going," but it would be better to use the specific lyrics I Want It the Way That It Was or Good Thing Going, Going, Gone.

You know something? It really is a shame that Mordden covered A Day in Hollywood -- A Night in the Ukraine in the 1970s book (it opened May 1, 1980) because he really could have used its opening number to say what he wanted to say, and something quite different from what the song's author intended: Just Go to the Movies.


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

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