ALTHOUGH MY "farewell, Washington" concert in 1959 was advertised as such, I soon found out that the audience thought I was kidding. I trust it's clear by now that I wasn't. Now, however, more than 22 years later, a revue entitled "Tomfoolery," based almost entirely on the songs I wrote and recorded in the '50s and '60s, is about to open here at the Kreeger Theater of the Arena Stage.
"Why now?" you well may ask. And, for that matter, why at all? If those questions are not uppermost in your mind, then read no further. The rest of you, come with me.
One reason is the decline of the musical theater over the past 15 years or so. While grosses and audiences are ever-increasing, quality, alas, is not. Of course, that is merely my own personal opinion, but it happens to be correct. For example, I recently saw a big Broadway musical that was so bad it didn't even get a standing ovation. When a good one does happen along, it's usually impossible to tell, because of the now customary and obsessive over-miking. I find this decline sad because I love musicals, having always preferred Oz to Kansas.
In any event, the paucity of good new musicals has resulted not only in full-scale revivals of many older ones (often with their original stars offering impersonations of themselves) but also in the exhumation and re-embalming in revue form of the works of earlier songwriters. I can't think of a single one who hasn't been so dealt with, from Ellington and Waller to Coward and Brel. Thus it was inevitable (just as everyone eventually gets his turn to be in People magazine) that someone would peer into the almost empty barrel and notice me down there. The person responsible in this case was one Cameron Mackintosh, a delightful and intrepid young British impresario with a congenital taste defect. Cameron, the British actor and TV personality Robin Ray, and the equally British director-choreographer Gillian Lynne conspired to assemble an evening of my old songs, as performed now by a cast of four and a five-piece band, for a London opening in June of 1980. I went over there myself to tamper with the script and make a general nuisance of myself at rehearsals.
The show works today despite--and sometimes because of--some changes that have occurred in the world since the songs were written.Take the matter of taste. I was often accused of bad taste in the '50s and '60s, but the songs which prompted that accusation seem positively genial today. For example, there is a song in "Tomfoolery" called "The Vatican Rag," which some people considered sacrilegious because it pokes fun at the Catholic ritual (though not, I feel, at the religion). Today one can get away with much more, even on television. Moreover, I reject the charge of sacrilege. My nomination for a really sacrilegious song is the World War II hit "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" (remember?), recently revived in a revue of Frank Loesser's songs, which implied that God approves of A killing B but not of B killing A. As for language, here, too, almost everything goes now, but although "Tomfoolery" does contain the word "hell" twice, that's about as far as it goes. Quaint, yes? That is not to say that verbal taboos have disappeared, but merely that they have shifted somewhat from the bathroom and the bedroom. In my youth, for example, there were certain words you couldn't say in front of a girl; now you can say them, but you can't say "girl."
Certain topics are clearly dated, and some songs had to be omitted, but although minor emendations have been made and a few new lines added, we didn't try to update the songs, since they clearly reflect their time. On the other hand, there are certain dead horses that still merit kicking, such as the late Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of the songs in the show. I say that not out of animosity toward him especially, but because of what he represents. I have been amused over the years at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without ever realizing that it was about them.
Another pervasive change in this country has been the decline of literacy. Admittedly, one always used to hear that a picture was worth a thousand words, but that was before they devalued the word. Even in our post-literate society (whose motto might be: Of course we can read, but thank God we don't have to) there nevertheless remain some die-hards who still prize language. There is probably a small cabal of them out there somewhere who gather secretly, draw the curtains, and practice the subjunctive (lest it disappear completely). That may account for at least part of the audience for "Tomfoolery." Although we are fortunate today in having among us probably the best lyricist the English language has known (Stephen Sondheim, in case you need to be told), there are very few other songwriters around who care about such things as nuance and the challenge of finding a rhyme.
("How about 'orange'?" I hear someone challenge. Let's see now . . . Ah! I have it: Eating an orange/While making love/Makes for bizarre enj-/Oyment thereof. Sorry, just flexing.)
Some changes have occurred that have made some once-amusing songs more disconcerting. Songs like "So Long, Mom (I'm Off to Drop the Bomb)" or "We Will All Go Together When We Go" (you can no doubt infer the gists from the titles) seem a bit less lighthearted now, while "The Old Dope Peddler," which in 1948 was intended only as a takeoff on certain sentimental songs, has become almost chilling, and is done that way in the show. I used to pick up the morning paper and giggle my way through breakfast. Now I get either so angry or so scared that I have to wait until after I eat to read it. At times I can't help agreeing with Randy Newman's marvelous song in which the refrain is "Let's drop the big one now," and I am often reminded of the old Punch cartoon showing a dying patient forlornly asking the doctor at his bedside, "Doctor, is there any hope?", to which the doctor replies "No, why?"
A related obstacle, if one is trying to make an audience laugh rather than merely applaud, is the decline of the liberal consensus since the Kennedy era. We earnest liberals knew clearly where we stood: lynching was bad, Stevenson was good, etc. What I was doing then as a performer was not "raising consciousness" (a phrase often used in the '70s to mean moving it to the left), or even preaching to the converted, but only titillating them, and that required a predisposed audience. The issues seem more complicated now (i.e., feminism, abortion, affirmative action, etc.). It's more difficult to be funny when you can see both sides, and it's impossible to write a funny song with a lot of on-the-other-hands in it. A song kidding about South Africa might still elicit some easy laughs from the liberals, but one attempting to do the same to Israel would probably make half the audience walk out (or perhaps attack the other half). I know liberals who voted for Reagan because they couldn't stand Carter, and I even know liberals who think the space shuttle is a good idea.
This disintegration began during the Vietnam War, I believe. In the late '60s and early '70s audiences wanted not to be amused but to be exhorted, not to laugh but to march, and so the meaningful songs that resulted were even less fun than a barrel of monkeys. (I tried to capture some of that mood in a song called "The Folk Song Army.") Fortunately, the pendulum has swung back somewhat, which is one reason why this show is feasible now but wouldn't have been 10 years ago.
Ideally, I should like "Tomfoolery" to be not just an evening of nostalgia, but one that almost anyone, from Dr. Demento fans to people who have never heard the songs before, can enjoy--even those who, like me, would rather curse the darkness than light a candle. True, I find that some of the songs resonate differently in 1982, but whether that's because the world is more infuriating or because I am more easily infuriated, I can't decide. Is it hot in here, or is it just me?