There Is Always LITTLE ME
When Jim Brochu was doing ZERO HOUR, I asked him how he felt about Zero Mostel’s incessant clowning and ad-libbing in FIDDLER and FUNNY THING. Wasn’t his frightening or even torturing his castmates way out of bounds?
Brochu paused for a long moment before he answered, “Should you slap the hand of a genius?”
And that’s the same conclusion I came to while listening to Carolyn Leigh’s lyrics for LITTLE ME last weekend at Encores!
Leigh certainly had “signature” – the songwriter’s term for lyrics distinctive enough to reveal who wrote them. Her brass-tacks style certainly made an informed listener smile, nod and say, “That’s Carolyn!”
In LITTLE ME alone: “You’re Goddamn right, the truth ... the whole caboodle ... clear down in the geezer freezer ... so it’s not your style sonata; when a girl has got what you have gotta lotta ... you ain’t a Pavlova ... oh, dem doggone dimples ... well, my sweet chickadee ... you ain’t no Eagle Scout ... we’ll be damn fools a lot ... fogs up my glasses and buckles my knees ... who would not be out of town, or a blabbermouth? … when it comes to parlez-vous, who could parlez-vous a few? … not you, Sol; you sing very badly ... that’s the way the kingdom crumbles … ”
LITTLE ME is based on Patrick Dennis’ hilarious, must-read faux-memoir about the terminally stupid and clueless minor movie star Belle Poitrine. (Now aren’t you glad you took French in high school?)
As the show starts, Belle has hired Dennis to help her write her memoir. “You’ll be my Boswick,” she tells him. At Saturday’s matinee, the line got a nice burst of laughter from those who knew that Belle meant “Boswell,” as in James Boswell (1740-1795). His biography of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was considered so magnificent that his name has become an idiom for “great biographer.”
That bookwriter Neil Simon had Belle get that name not quite right is very much in keeping with the character that Dennis created. Case in point: Belle in the novel mentions that a critic called one of her movies “soporific,” which she believes to be a word that’s a mixture of “superb” and “terrific.”
Yeah, that’s Belle for you. So when Leigh was writing the lyric for Belle’s opening number in which the not-so-grande dame claims that she’ll tell “The Truth,” the lyricist was spot-on to have the lady use the non-word “irregardless” and have her mention “Casey Stendahl” – confusing the then-manager of the New York Mets with the 19th century author who didn’t put much blue in THE RED AND THE BLACK.
And yet, Leigh had Belle mention “Arthur Miller plays.” Well, m-a-y-b-e she knows about them – but if she does, it’s only because Miller married Marilyn Monroe. But if such information isn’t beyond Belle’s ken, her citing “practically Proustian prose” definitely is.
“I’ll annihilate Gypsy Rose,” Leigh had her say. Yes, GYPSY as both a memoir and a musical had received plenty of press in the years before 1962 when LITTLE ME opened, so Belle would know it. But “annihilate” seems too fancy a verb for this woman who was born on Drifter’s Row. The adjective in the phrase “the blood-congealing truth” is a marvelously evocative one, but Belle simply wouldn’t be able to come up with it.
Onto “On the Other Side of the Tracks.” Sondheim has gone to bat for “Gonna sit and fan on my fat divan while the butler buttles the tea.” It does flow and shows a mastery of language, doesn’t it? But again: ken. My hat is off to Sheila White, who played Young Belle in the 1984 London revival. Before she sang “buttles,” she paused a split-second and made a face, as if to say, “I guess there’s a word for when a butler brings you tea; maybe it’s ‘buttles.’” White turned Leigh’s liability into an asset.
When Belle falls in love with the high-and-mighty Noble Eggleston, she sings, “Your mother considers me a boor.” No, Belle doesn’t know the word “boor” – but Noble does. So having her sing “Your mother considers me” and have him chime in with “boor” would work nicely (and, for that matter, be funnier.)
Similarly, when Belle tries to convince local meanie Mr. Pinchley that he’s really a good guy “Deep Down Inside,” Leigh had both sing, “No man is a true pariah deep down inside” before adding “No man is a true Uriah Heep down inside.” While having two voices mellifluously blend is pleasing to the ear, Pinchley should have sung this alone. Belle would neither use the two-dollar word “pariah” nor would she have read DAVID COPPERFIELD. Even if she had picked it up, she probably would have given up on it by the time Uriah Heep entered the tale.
Frankly, assuming that Pinchley knows “pariah” and “Uriah Heep” might be too much to expect, too. But it’s SUCH a great lyric that I’d hate to do without it (although the 1998 Roundabout revival did – perhaps for the reason I’m giving here). I’ve always pictured that after the idea had occurred to Leigh (with a little help from her rhyming dictionary), she danced in glee around her living room for twenty straight minutes. So the solution is not to discard the lyric, but to use it in more convincing fashion.
Audiences at LITTLE ME may not have consciously noticed the discrepancy between the dull Belle who speaks and the eloquent Belle who sings. Yes, songs in musicals are supposed to happen when characters are so emotionally moved that real speech just won’t do any longer – but that refers much more to the music than the lyrics.
Perhaps audiences haven’t been able to get enough of a handle on Belle with this wide differential in character. LITTLE ME has had three Broadway productions that have only averaged of 133 performances. And don’t play the “The Martin Short revival was a limited engagement.” card. We all know that if the revisal had been a true winner, it would have found a way to extend.
None of this is Cy Coleman’s fault. His sophomore score bettered his strong freshman effort (WILDCAT). He provided that mock-heroic, dramatically going-up-the-piano-keys operetta feel for “I Love You”; the rollicking sound of a show-stopper in “Deep Down Inside”; the vaudeville-tinged “Dimples”; a beautiful swirling waltz for “Real Live Girl”; a snazzy title song and, hell, even a czardas late in the game. Whoever put together the marvelous overture deserves a peck of credit, to be sure, but the person had a lot to work with, too.
So in a way, LITTLE ME was a great Encores! show, if indeed the mission still includes the notion of reviving musicals for a weekend that wouldn’t be able to sustain an extended Broadway run. And having most of the original book without Simon’s subsequent “improvements” hit the spot as well.
So did John Rando’s direction and cast. Judy Kaye, as the older Belle delivering “The Truth,” smartly did what Avril Angers did in the original London production: she sang, “Stack me up with all three Gabors; I’ll reduce them to cut-rate” – then paused long enough for us to assume that she’d say the w-word, only to have her fool us and sing “stores.” Rachel York made us care for Young Belle’s plight in seeking “wealth, culture and social position” – which isn’t easy considering that Neil Simon foolishly took the focus off Belle and made it a vehicle for the seven men in her life.
Not that Christian Borle wasn’t marvelous. When playing Gallic entertainer Val du Val, he could perfectly gargle-sing as some of those Frenchmen do. And what’s more, baby, he can tap! But what about the marvelous dance that Tony Yazbeck did during and in between refrains of “I’ve Got Your Number?” And here’s another song with great lyrics until he accuses Belle, “Oh, yes, you brag a lot, wave your own flag a lot.” Yeah, when? Not for a second have we seen Belle do that.
On the podcast I do on www.broadwayradio.com most every Sunday week with James Marino and Michael Portantiere, I stressed LITTLE ME’s many assets and many liabilities that James had to ask, “Well, is it like watching an accident on the highway: you can’t look at it and you can’t look away?”
I immediately shrieked “No!” because that certainly was putting it too strongly. And then the perfect analogy came into my head, one from another Cy Coleman musical: “It’s like a pretty girl with the clap.” And I am only speaking metaphorically and am NOT casting aspersions against Belle. She’s suffered enough.
— Peter Filichia