What Can You Lose?
An e-mail from a reader prompts thoughts of show songs that might be expendable.
Sally Parry's observation about what songs aren't needed in shows or cast albums immediately brought back memories of my next-door neighbor in Arlington, Massachusetts in the early 1970s. Joe Pope was a rabid Beatles fan who published a newsletter about "The Fab Four" and held Beatles conventions, too. Although he knew I preferred Bock and Harnick's She Loves Me to the Beatles' "She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)," he always invited me to his confabs. (How amused I was to see that the comp list began: "John, Paul, George, Ringo, Peter Filichia.") Joe admired Elvis Presley as well as the Beatles and, in those days of vinyl long-playing records, he often said, "I love the soundtrack to G.I. Blues but I hate that song 'Daddy Big Boots.' Can't someone come up with an invention where a record player can just skip a song you don't want to hear?" The moment CDs were invented and I learned that they had this feature, I immediately thought of Joe, even though we hadn't been neighbors or in touch for years.
I remember that when I first heard the original cast album of My Fair Lady, I loved everything about it--except that stupid "Ascot Gavotte" song. This, however, was before I saw the show; once I did, I realized that the number was important in establishing the snooty, upper-crust English. This is their music, so this is what the song has to be. I wouldn't want it cut.
The most discussed leave-it-in-take-it-out song in musical theater history may very well be Not-So-Dainty Louise's "Little Lamb" from Gypsy. Granted, the song doesn't particularly move the action forward; during it, many audiences members catch a quick snooze after that energetic "Mr. Goldstone" number. Still, most musical theater savants will tell you that "Little Lamb" is a must in Gypsy because it gives us a private moment with Louise and makes us care for her when she plaintively sings, "I wonder how old I am?"
But what songs could I do without in a musical? "Underneath It All" from Minnie's Boys immediately comes to mind. It's a vaudeville number in which a female impersonator makes a few double entendres about his underwear. While it's not a bad song as songs go, it does strike me as extraneous (though perhaps it was needed in the show to give the Marx Brothers a chance to get into new costumes).
Presentational, on-stage, diegetic numbers such as that one would surely be the easiest with which to part company. (Fiorello's "Gentleman Jimmy" also fits into this category.) I remember that when I saw the futuristic rock musical Time in London in 1986, the show began with singers and a band performing a song as if in a concert. Once that number was done, they went ahead and did another one. I felt they were just killing time but most of the crowd didn't mind; they seemed to like both songs. (Little did I know that, 15 years later, I'd see a Broadway musical called Thou Shalt Not which would start with three presentational songs in a row before any real action was set into motion.)
Sometimes, whether a number makes an important contribution to a show depends on the staging. I saw the original production of High Spirits in 1964 and "Faster Than Sound" was terrific as Tammy Grimes flew around and over the stage, singing about lunching in London and gay Paree. But I've since seen two other productions in which the actress didn't fly and the number seemed irrelevant without it.
I asked my buddy Robert Armin what song he felt could be dropped from a musical and he immediately snapped, "'I Feel Humble' from What Makes Sammy Run?" He explained that Sammy would never make this statement to a group of people assembled outside a movie theater before a Hollywood premiere, and I see his point. (Armin has rewritten the book of Sammy with the original authors' blessings and has included "I Feel Humble" in his rewrite--though he's put it in a completely different place and context.)
It's interesting how certain songwriters themselves believe that some of their songs are no longer needed in shows. Alan Jay Lerner's decision to excise "Then You May Take Me to the Fair" and "Fie on Goodness" from Camelot comes to mind. Apparently, Sondheim agreed that "Pretty Little Picture" wasn't vital to ...Forum when it was revived in 1996. A section of "I'm the Greatest Star" was removed from Funny Girl during its Broadway run, but that was because Barbra Streisand tired of singing the entire aria. Gwen Verdon didn't think "You Should See Yourself" was terribly necessary to Sweet Charity and dropped it after a few months. (One theatergoer who was familiar with the score before she entered the Palace and was disappointed not to hear the number wrote Verdon to complain that she had paid good money to see the show and expected the entire musical; in response, Verdon sent her a check for 43 cents. Wonder if the lady was smart enough not to cash the check? What a collector's item that would be!)
Sally Parry concluded her e-mail by suggesting that asking my readers what songs they'd like to see dropped from musicals might make for a good column. I agree! So, dear readers: What can you lose from a musical without shedding a tear? You know where to find me.