Friday, September 30, 2005

Songs from One, Two, Three: The Musical

I've written about this before, but I've always thought that among movies that could become stage musicals, one of the most promising candidates is Billy Wilder's Cold War farce One, Two, Three.

For those who haven't done the sensible thing and rented the DVD, the movie starred James Cagney as McNamara the head of operations for Coca-Cola in West Berlin, just before the Berlin Wall went up. In Wilder's version of Cold War Germany, the West consists mostly of creepily efficient ex-Nazis, who have channeled their following-orders impulses into being loyal corporate employees, while the Easterners have switched over from Naziism to Communism without missing a beat. Hoping for a promotion, Cagney agrees to play host to Scarlett, the man-crazy teenage daugter of his boss, a red-baiting redneck from Atlanta, won't hear of doing business with Commies. And soon after her arrival in Berlin, the boss's daughter sneaks over to East Berlin and marries Otto, an angry young Communist (a part vaguely based on Leonid Kinskey's angry Bolshevik in Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise). Cagney arranges for the husband to be imprisoned by the East German police (by planting various American products on him, like the Wall Street Journal), but gets him out again when he discovers that Scarlett is pregnant. Changing his plan, Cagney works to turn Otto into the ultimate go-getting Western capitalist -- with a new wardrobe, new manners, new name, even a new adopted father -- so the boss will be impressed with his daughter's husband.

The story combines a number of things that I look for in a musical comedy. It's got the kind of raucous, cynical humor that was such a success in The Producers, but unlike The Producers it actually has enough plot to sustain a full evening, and it has two romantic couples -- McNamara and his wife, and Scarlett and Otto -- always an advantage in a musical. It has a period setting, funny supporting characters to take the pressure off the leads (including the three Russian comissars who are, er, "adapted" from Wilder's script for Lubitsch's Ninotchka, another movie that was successfully musicalized), and plenty of musical opportunities built into the story. In fact, two of the funniest scenes in the movie are musical scenes, one involving the bandleader in an East German nightclub that hasn't changed since the Weimar days, the other involving a sexy table-top dance performed by McNamara's secretary, Fraulein Ingeborg.

Problems making it into a musical? Well, the last third of the movie is almost all frantic farce, which is hard to musicalize. And there's not much in the way of what I suppose we'd have to call "heart." This isn't a problem in a pure farce like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but a musical based on One, Two, Three would have to be part farce, part character comedy (Scarlett, as played by the impossibly charming Pamela Tiffin, is one of my favorite movie characters ever), part satire. The songs would need to dig a little deeper than those in The Producers, because these characters aren't complete cartoons, though they have cartoony elements.

I once tried to write some songs for One, Two, Three as an exercise, but I didn't get very far. (Partly because I didn't have the rights, and I wasn't working with a composer and my own tunes stunk, but hey, it was just an excercise...) The problem, in addition to the ones I mentioned before, was that too many of the songs just came out as straightforward musicalizations of scenes in the movie, begging the question of why you'd bother to set them to music anyway if you're just going to do the same thing that Wilder did with dialogue. Also, while the movie had a lot of plot, it was somewhat static, with characters often standing around and talking. This in turn means that if you just take a scene from the movie and add a song, you'll wind up with nothing going on onstage except the song, and a good musical comedy shouldn't stop moving forward even during the songs. So any effective musical version of One, Two, Three would probably need to shake up the original and add new and more musical-friendly story elements and scenes. But that's true of many movies. The Producers would be more effective if Mel Brooks and his co-writer Thomas Meehan had written something new to replace those static scenes of Max and Leo standing around interviewing people (Franz, Roger, Ulla).

I leave you with some of the less embarrassing lyrics I wrote for the exercise. One of them, "The Bad Old Days" (a nostalgic song for McNamara's ex-Nazi employees), is here (scroll down). Another song, an introductory waltz song for Scarlett, departed from the movie -- in the movie, she's not going around the world because she wants to, but because her parents sent her -- but was meant to establish her insanely optimistic view of the world, with a few jokes thrown in about Cold War philosophers.

The Loveliest Place in the World

From darlin’ Georgia to sweet Berlin
Ev’ry place that I’m in
Makes me giggle and grin,
‘Cause ev’ry place where I’ve ever been
Is the loveliest place in the world.
I’ve been to many a danger spot,
And the soldiers they’ve got
Seem to like me a lot,
And just as long as I don’t get shot,
It’s the loveliest place in the world.
The world, they say,
Is going to pot,
The world’s at strife, at war.
But that’s okay,
As long as it’s not
A bore.
I started touring and knew I’d click;
Ev’ry place has a trick,
There’s too many to pick,
So till the A-Bomb begins to tick,
Ev’ry cramped little space,
Ev’ry den of disgrace
Is the loveliest place in the world.

If I’d stayed and sweltered
In the land of cotton,
I’d’ve been so sheltered,
I’d’ve never gotten
To see my share
Of bombs bursting in air.
If I’d stayed with mother,
Sucking down the julep,
I’d have been another
Little hot-house tulip;
That’s fun, that’s true,
But thugs training
And missiles raining
Are entertaining too!

From Eisenhower to big Fidel,
All the leaders are swell,
They’ve got so much to tell,
Like Tito told me to go to hell
In the loveliest place in the world.
The Europeans all say we’re finks,
Ev’ry one of them thinks
That America stinks,
And then they ask me to buy them drinks
In the loveliest place in the world.
The world is small
But brimming with pain,
The world’s a pool of cess.
But still and all,
The world is my main
I’ve seen the countries where chaos thrives,
When a tourist arrives,
Soon she’s three people’s wives;
And people chase you with guns and knives,
But as long as they chase
At a leisurely pace,
It’s the loveliest place in the world.

The world is collapsing, and maybe imploding,
They tell me "be tense, with a sense of foreboding,"
But I never last through the nasty conjectures
Of strong intellectuals at long intellectures.
When somebody dragged me to hear Bertrand Russell,
I heard what he said, and my head pulled a muscle.
I hope you won’t mind, I declined the kind offer
Of a talk on the dock with Erich Hoffer.

The world's all in,
It's bad as can be,
The world’s without a friend.
But still, I've been
So happy to see
It end.
I went to Monaco; I’ll be frank:
The casinos were rank
And the service just stank;
They kicked me out when I broke the bank,
But as long as there’s Grace,
And her uplifted face,
It’s the loveliest place in the world.
There’s fighting and famine
And bloodshed and strife,
But I won’t examine
The downside of life,
I've got such good timin',
'Cause ev'ry day I'm in
The loveliest place in the world!

Another short song was for the employees when they're asked to help turn Otto into a capitalist:

It’s a Project

Refrain 1

It’s a project!
It’s a plan!
Make a new anti-socialist man!
We’ve been bored since the post-war began,
Can we help you?
Yes, we can!
What a project!
What a fight!
Move a radical Red to the right!
Though the thanks and the pay may be slight,
We will plow on
Day and night,
‘Cause from now on
Our work will be play,
With a project,
A top-secret project,


Once, our lives were disordered and hollow,
We saw the whole world through a sugary haze.
Now there’s order and orders to follow –
It’s just like the good old bad old days!
We’ve been sitting around on our rear ends,
Afraid that our methods became obsolete.
Now’s the moment at last when our fear ends,
At last there’s a task that you ask we complete!
Our efforts are finally needed,
Our theories are finally heeded,
It’s just like we never conceded defeat!

Refrain 2

It’s a project!
Stop the press!
The imposture will be a success
If his posture is less than a mess,
Can we help him?
Golly, yes!
Let this project
Never cease!
May we mention we never liked peace!
May the tension forever increase!
There are borders
To police,
There are orders
We’ll gladly obey;
With a project,
A marvelous project,
A plan with the impact of thunder,
A project where ev’rything’s lost if we blunder,
A project to bring back our old sense of wonder,

And Ingeborg's dance scene was turned into a song-and-dance scene. I actually like some of the jokes and rhymes in this one quite a bit (and because of the syncopations in the tune I came up with, the fact that the accent is placed on the word "of" is actually not a mistake), but ultimately it's just the same thing as the movie, with even the same dialogue, and therefore begs the question of why a song should be there when the movie did it so well. That's the question any musical based on a movie has to sidestep at every turn.

Something About a Russian
There’s something about a Russian
That I love,
There’s something about a Russian
That I can’t get enough of.
As a lover,
Ev’ry Russian man’s
A vodka valentine.
To uncover
All his secret plans,
I’d willingly give him mine.
There’s something about his fish-eyed
Russian glance.
There’s something that makes me wish I’d
Given Marxism a chance.
When he starts to pet, he can set off sparks,
And he shows he knows a lot more than Marx,
So there’s something about a Russian
That I love.

PERIPECHIKOFF: Would you like new automobile? 1961 Moscovitch convertible, two-toned!
MAC: You mean that Russian hot-rod parked outside?
PERIPECHIKOFF: Is wonderful car! Is exact replica of 1937 Nash!
MAC: Not interested.

There’s something about a Russian
That I love,
There’s something about a Russian
That I can’t get enough of.
When he’s flirtin’
I can sort of see
My social concience grow.
I feel certain
That he’ll bury me,
But oh, what a way to go!
His nose is a slightly odd nose,
But it’s great.
He may be a Red, but God knows,
That’s the best color to date.
If he moans and grins and begins the hunt,
Then I’ll fight tonight on his Russian front,
‘Cause there’s something about a Russian
That I love.

PERIPECHIKOFF: We will give you Chinese cigarettes! Armenian rugs! Bulgarian yogurt?
MAC: Piffl or nothing.

If you’re Russian to the core
You’ve a special something more;
What a stroke of luck to see
That something more – times three.

Meaning me –

Plus me –

Plus you.

Plus who?
Plus me?

Times three!

There’s something about a Russian
That I love,
There’s something about a Russian
That I can’t get enough of.
Oh, how I burn
For the splendid size
Of great big Russian feet.
Though Van Cliburn
Can outplay their guys,
Their fingering can’t be beat!
He’s willing and Red and able,
I am too.
He’ll bang on the kitchen table
And I’ll soon lend him a shoe.
Forget Cary Grant, ‘cause I can’t behave
When I have a Slav for my slavish slave,
Oh, there’s something about a Russian
That I love, love, love, love –

(Music & Ingeborg’s dancing continues over the following dialogue)

PERIPECHIKOFF: Wait! Summit conference! Well, comrades, he’s got it, we want it. Are we going to accept this blackmailing capitalistic deal?
MISHKIN: Let us take a vote.
MISHKIN: I vote yes.
PERIPECHIKOFF: Two out of three! Deal is on!
BORODENKO: Comrades, before we get in trouble, I must warn you, I am not really from soft-drink secretariat, I am undercover agent assigned to watch you.
MISHKIN: In that case, I vote no. Deal is off.
BORODENKO: But I vote yes.
PERIPECHIKOFF: Two out of three again! Deal is on!

(Final chords. Blackout.)

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