Thursday, October 29, 2009

If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked a Cake

Wherein in All That Jazz Ann Reinking literally plays herself

Bob Fosse wants to cut a slow song (from All His Jazz: The Life And Death Of Bob Fosse):
When the composer played another slow song called "People," [Bob] Fosse mulled it over and hummed it to himself and asked the composer to play it once more and mulled it over some more, and finally he said, "Well, Jule, it's a beautiful song, no doubt about it. It's a very beautiful song." He [aused. "But I'm afraid we can't use it."

What do you mean, 'We can't use it?'" Styne asked, stunned, for he knew just how beautiful "People" was.

"Well, it just doesn't make any dramatic sense," Fosse said, "for Fanny to sing this song."

"Why the hell not?"

"Listen to the words," the director said reasonably, as if the words were really his reason for scuttling this extremely slow song.

"What's wrong with them. They're great words."

"Yes," Fosse said. "Bob Merrill wrote beautiful words for it, but what do they say? They talk about 'people who need people.' Fanny Brice isn't a person who needs people....She's a great star of the Folies and she's surrounded by people -- people on stage and people backstage. Then she has a family, she has a mother, and she has neighbors; she has all kinds of people at home. So she doesn't need people there either. She doesn't need people anywhere, Jule, that's why the song doesn't amke any dramatic sense. And that's why there's no point in her singing this song," he concluded hopefully.

Styne's eyes narrowed. He liked Fosse, he respected Fosse, he thought Fosse was doing great work on Funny Girl, but Fosse didn't know about songs while Styne was feeling very on top of things, still on a high after the brilliant Gypsy. "Listen, kid," the little songwriter said in icy and measured tones. He brought his dialogue down to one step above a whisper. "I'll tell you what the point of singing this song is. Do you want to know -- would you like to know what the point of singing this song is. Do you want to know -- would you like to know what the reason is for Barbra Streisand to sing "People?'"

"Yeah," Bob said, biting and loving it. "What's the reason?"

"The reason she is singing this song," Styne said calmly before raising his voice to a roof shaking shout: "IS BECAUSE THIS SONG IS GOING TO BE FUCKING NUMBER ONE ON THE HIT PARADE! THAT IS WHY SHE IS SINGING THE FUCKING SONG!"

Hmm, Bob Merrill...where have I heard that name before. Of course! In one of my favorite articles, Mark Steyn disagrees that Merill wrote "beautiful words." Let's look at The Worst Songwriter of All Time:
He composed, in case you hadn't guessed, on a child's toy xylophone. Between 1950 and 1955, it also cranked out "Where Will the Baby's Dimple Be?" "Mambo Italiano," and my personal favorite, "Oooh, Bang, Jiggily Jang." Even the singers don't like these songs. Rosemary Clooney, revisiting "Mambo Italiano" for a recent autobiographical album, explains in the liner notes how much she loathes all her early hits--"Come On-a My House" (Armenian novelty song), "Who Don Mon Man" (calypso novelty song), "Botch-a Me" (botched novelty song). But you have to admire Merrill's resourcefulness: Any old Alley opportunist can write a novelty Italian song ("That's Amore") or a novelty mambo song ("Papa Loves Mambo"), but to write a novelty song about Italians doing the mambo--that takes guts:

Hey, Mambo!Mambo Italiano ...Go, go, Joe!You mixed-up Siciliano

The guy who wrote that gets hammered from both ends. To those who love the great American standards, Merrill is the man who single-handedly produced the worst songs of the decade and so debauched the currency of mainstream Tin Pan Alley that it had no moral authority to resist rock 'n' roll. And, for baby-boom rockers, when all other musical, lyrical, and sociopolitical claims for the rock 'n' roll revolution have collapsed, the memory of growing up with the Bob Merrill songbook will always be justification enough.


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