Friday, September 09, 2011

Unforgettably Ugly Songs

Speaking of flop musicals that the team of Feuer and Martin produced after their golden '50s period... Well, first, I don't want to make it sound like they never had another good show. They did have another big hit when they reunited with Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser on How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and their show Little Me (with Sid Caesar, Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh) is one of the funniest musicals of all time even though it doesn't completely work. The team specialized in a kind of brash, heavily comedic musical that was hard to find elsewhere in the '50s and '60s (unless the show was set in the distant past, like Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum). But without Burrows, they didn't have many hits.

"Skyscraper" had more ingredients for a hit than Whoop-Up: it was based on a good source for a musical, Elmer Rice's play Dream Girl (about a young, cute, female Walter Mitty), it had Julie Harris as the star -- she couldn't really sing, but at least she tried -- and Peter Stone doing the book after his success with Charade. But it substituted a rather awful new plot for the simpler plot of the play, and the score, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, was mediocre; it was on a more professional level than the bad pop score of Whoop-Up, but Cahn and Van Heusen had been together too long and were no longer writing their best stuff. They did turn out a better score for Feuer and Martin's next show, the Hobson's Choice musical Walking Happy, but neither was a really good theatre songwriter, and they seemed to be trying too hard to re-create the success of their pop standards.

Anyway, the only song from the score of Skyscraper that ever stuck in my head was one of the worst in the show, one that I couldn't get out of my mind because it sounded so ugly. I heard it on the radio twenty years ago, only heard it again the other day, but certain bits of it were lodged in my memory. The song itself has only one joke, and not a good one: a raspy-voiced man in his mid-'40s (the ubiquitous and delightful Rex Everhart) sings about high fashion and the crazy kids these days with their clothes and hair. It's not a good song, but it's bad in a normal enough way. What made it hard to get out of my brain is how unattractive it sounds: the melody, for one thing, sounds punchy and angry, the word "Haute" almost spat out like a curse.

The orchestrations demonstrate the dangers -- which a lot of Broadway shows fell victim to at this time -- of trying to import the brassy sound of '50s mainstream pop recordings to theatre. And most nightmarishly of all, the vocal arranger or somebody decided it would be a good idea to have the men of the ensemble sing the vamp: "Da-da-da-da-DA!" An angrier male chorus I never have heard. And that's hard to forget.


Devlin Thompson said...

Is "Little Me" an adaptation of the Patrick Dennis book? I suppose it would make sense that after getting two different hits out of AUNTIE MAME that folks would see if Dennis had anything else lying around.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Yes, Little Me is based on the Dennis book, with the gimmick of having Sid Caesar play all the men in Belle Poitrine's life. Dennis didn't like it for that reason, and one of the inherent problems with the show is that because of the casting (with Caesar as the star and a supporting player as Belle) it doesn't have any real center to it. But the songs are good, and Neil Simon's book is really funny -- line-for-line, one of the funniest things he wrote.

Interestingly, Little Me came before the musical version of Auntie Mame, which I wouldn't have expected.

Jon said...

Is "I'll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her" from Skyscraper? I've always been fond of Peggy Lee's record of that (as "I'll Only Miss Him When I Think of Him"), but I can't say whether it's the song itself of Lee's performance of it that I like, as I've never heard anyone else sing it.