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 March 22, 2013

Can You Say L'esprit de l'escalier?

Wish I could remember the precise story I was telling my buddy Bob Burger at the opening night party of the York’s Starting Here, Starting Now. The point of it was that I was in a situation where I should have said something witty, but didn’t think of the right thing to say until a few days later.

Bob taught me that the French, they have an expression for it: L'esprit de l'escalier. While it essentially translates to "staircase wit," it figuratively describes a situation when you're at dinner and think of the perfect retort to something that's been said -- but only after you've left the table and have reached the staircase.

There's even a song on this subject in an old musical. Do you know what it is? If you can't think of it right now, perhaps you will by tomorrow morning at half-past three.

Anyway, this happens to me all the time -- such as last year, when I was moderating a panel discussion for the Drama League and mentioned that Broadway has become more infantilized over the years. As one example, I referenced Spider-Man. One critic rebutted that decades earlier a musical about Superman had opened, so what was the difference?

Not until the panel was over did I think of a solid rebuttal. Superman, despite a rave from the Times, played only 129 performances because the interest wasn't there from the adult theatergoing public. Spider-Man opened to unanimous pans and is still here after 182 previews and 700-plus performances, thanks mostly to parents and children who want to see actors fly and perhaps die.

Superman also had mostly terrific music by Charles Strouse and quite witty lyrics by Lee Adams, as we’re re-learning this weekend at Encores! Exhibit A for the latter: Lois Lane, ruminating on her seemingly hopeless love for Superman, thinks she'd better opt for "a man with both feet on the ground." Name me one lyric in Spider-Man that can compare with that.

Wish I'd said it that night! What’s worse, I did only a bit better this year when moderating the Drama League panel that concerned the upcoming season. When I pointed out that Chaplin had potential because "the best musicals have big characters and big events," a critic replied, "First off, I don't think that the best musicals necessarily have big characters and big events. My favorite show of all time is Follies, and it doesn't have big characters and big events."

Well, I was able to get in "You don't think that a Weissman reunion is a big event?" but the critic was off giving his prognostications for Chaplin and I didn’t want to interrupt the real issue at hand. Even if I’d wanted to, I wasn't fully ready to make my best arguments, which occurred to me on my way home: "It certainly is a big event for Sally, given that she flew live and direct from Phoenix without even telling her husband she was leaving. And certainly the other Weissman Girls think that it's a big event, because they've spent the time and money to get there, too."

As for "big characters," okay, Buddy and Sally may be workadays, but Ben is asked for his autograph, is established as someone who was successful in politics and is now head of a foundation. Phyllis may not have as grand a resume, but she's a sophisticate who can give a dinner for 10 elderly men from the U.N. And don't those other entertainers we see dotting the action -- Carlotta, Stella, Hattie -- seem like big characters to you?

And then was that 1980 night when I was sitting on the E-train, which stopped at 23rd and opened its doors. I could see in the distance a young man and a young woman rushing down the stairs, seeing the train, anxiously plunging their arms in their pockets, hoping to find tokens (yes, tokens), thrilled to discover that they indeed had them and praying that those subway doors would stay open just a few moments more until they could reach them.

The young man thrust his token in the slot before the young woman could manage. He sped to the train where the doors were now closing. He threw his arms between them, managed to turn, saw that she'd finally got her token in the slot and was now running to the train. Of course the conductor tried closing the doors multiple times, but the young man’s strong arms prevented that; he and the young woman made it inside.

As the train took off, the two laughed heartily at beating the system. Then the young man outstretched his arms wide and sang in a full-throttled voice, “Nothing's gonna harm you -- not when I'm around!"

I was impressed to hear him sing a show song that wasn't all that famous (yet), but the next day I finally thought of what I should have done: given him a dirty look and snarled, "Shhh! Subways are for sleeping."

In my defense, I will say that there was one time when I did have the perfect comeback and managed to say it at the ideal time. It happened when bookwriter Peter Stone and I were the musical theater judges for the ASCAP Awards that are annually given to aspiring and established songwriters.

We arrived early in the morning and found a plateful of pastries awaiting us. We weren't shy at all about digging right in -- or returning for seconds.

But then Stone went for the third jewel of the culinary triple crown. As he reached for an oversized honey-dipped doughnut, he sheepishly said, "I don't know why I'm doing this."

To which I immediately quipped "You're doin' it for sugar."

Need an explanation? Stone wrote the book for Sugar, the 1972 musicalization of Some Like It Hot. In it, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill wrote a song in which Joe and Jerry, the two female impersonators, sang that they were about to do a big favor for Sugar Kane, their favorite colleague. "We're doing it for Sugar," they proclaimed.

If you didn't get the joke, don't feel bad: Stone apparently didn't, either, for he didn't say a word. One reason could be that his mouth was full with Pastry Number Three. Another could be that he'd forgotten the song; this panel took place more than a quarter-century after Sugar had opened. Or perhaps he pretended not to remember, for Sugar was not one of his most accomplished writing jobs -- although I'm told that his estate now makes more money from Sugar than it does from 1776.

(Makes sense; try to find two dozen high school boys to sing and argue about the Declaration of Independence -- and try telling all the girls ready to play a lead that the show you’ve chosen has only two minor female roles. With Sugar, a girl gets the coveted Marilyn Monroe role and two boys get to dress in drag, which many boys are more than willing to do.)

But I have often wondered if Peter Stone got my Sugar joke much later -- after he’d left the table and was going up the staircase.

         — Peter Filichia


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