Friday, May 16, 2008

A Song that Should Be Famous, But Isn't

Every hit musical has songs that don't become hits. (Sometimes a show becomes a hit without producing any hit songs; after he did the hit musical Wonderful Town, Leonard Bernstein wrote an article where he imagined his alter-ego asking him the question everybody else was asking in real life: "That musical of yours, it's very popular and successful, and yet there's not a hit song in it. Why is that?") And every hit musical has at least one song that I always think should have been a hit, but isn't.

One such song is "(Baby) Talk To Me," from Bye Bye Birdie. This song was cut from the film version and isn't particularly well-known, yet it's probably the best number in the show -- more effective than many of the more famous numbers. The setup of the song is Albert (Dick Van Dyke) calling Rosie (Chita Rivera) on the phone from a diner, asking her to talk to him after the inevitable Act 2 lovers' quarrel. The song is a deceptively simple melody and lyric with a great arrangement by Robert Ginzler, a truly great orchestrator who had a fondness for reeds (though when I suggested to Jonathan Tunick, who considers Ginzler his mentor, that I associate Ginzler with flutes, he quite rightly lectured me that there was much more to "Red" Ginzler than that).

Charles Strouse's melody and Ginzler's arrangement make a lovely moment, both a nod to and a send-up of typical late '50s ballads. But the song really becomes magical when the other people in the diner start singing along with Albert in the second refrain, in a marvelous vocal arrangement; if the song has hints of parody, the arrangement is a flat-out full-on parody of the kind of vocal harmonies you heard in "backup" vocals at the time -- yet at the same time it works on a gut level too, so it's both touching and hilarious. "Go on, what can you lose, it ain't gonna hurt" may be my favorite moment in any number in any musical ever. I'm serious.


Anonymous said...

I've always loved this song! It is incongruously pretty and lush, compared to the rest of the Birdie score. You're exactly right, it somehow works simultaneously as a "send-up" and as a genuinely touching moment.

Caftan Woman said...

I have not heard that song since my teen years when I would keep Original Cast Albums out of the library way past their due date.

You're grinning at the cheek, even as you wipe away a tear.