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Steyn's Song of the Week

(I'm In Love With) A Wonderful Guy

A few weeks back, apropos "June Is Bustin' Out All Over", I mentioned that we hadn't done a lot of "month" songs in the years we've been running this feature. Some months - mostly spring ("April Showers", "April In Paris") and fall ("September Song", "September In The Rain") - seem to lend themselves to musicalization. If "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is about as big a hit title as the sixth month of the year has ever produced, the eighth (which looms this very week) can't even manage a title at all. In the Seventies, Neil Diamond had a monster album called Hot August Night, with him doing what I recall as a denimed and vaguely pelvic thrust on the cover. But, unless I'm mistaken, Hot August Night doesn't actually include a song called "Hot August Night". I confess I haven't checked the track listing lest some other Diamond jingle ("Song Sung Blue", "Sweet Caroline") lodge in my brain for the rest of the week. But my general point holds: There's no big standard with August in the title.

And, when you scramble around deep in the second choruses and third verses, there's not a lot of August anywhere else in the lyric. It's a month you use to make up the numbers:

We're a couple of sports
The pride of the tennis courts
In June, July and August
We look cute when we're dressed in shorts…

That's Fred Astaire and Judy Garland as "A Couple Of Swells" in the Irving Berlin film Easter Parade (1948). August got promoted from a trio to a double-act by Jerry Herman, the composer of Hello, Dolly! In the long drought between Mame (1966) and his comeback show, La Cage Aux Folles (1983), Herman wrote a much-admired flop called Mack And Mabel, which included a smouldering torch song sung by Bernadette Peters (and a ton of chantoosies in the years since):

Time Heals Ev'rything
Tuesday, Thursday
Time Heals Ev'rything
April, August…

Just before an all-star gala performance of Mack And Mabel in London a few years back, Herman explained to me how, once he's got the idea for a song, he likes to nail down the shape, the structure. In this case, it's fairly obvious: The singer wants her broken heart to heal, and tries to convince herself the passage of time will do it - if not in days (Tuesday, Thursday), then in months (April, August). If not in months, then maybe seasons:

So make the moments fly
Autumn, Winter
I'll forget you by
Next year, some year
Though it's hell that I'm going through
Some Tuesday, Thursday
April, August
Autumn, Winter
Next year, some year
Time Heals Ev'rything…

Nicely done. So, having promoted August from trio to double-act, can we find any solo turns? Yes, indeed. Cole Porter in a killer couplet from "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To":

Under stars chilled by the winter
Under an August moon burning above…

That's why I love Porter. Even in a song about domestic contentment, he cranks the lyric up just a little more than your average songwriter would: The stars are "chilled", the August moon is "burning", everything's about as intense as it can get while staying just the right side of over-ripe and over-written. And the sentiments sit beautifully on on one of those passionate Porter minor-key melodies. I'd say that's my favorite August lyric, although, given the slim pickings, I'd be willing to entertain alternative nominations. But, if I had to name the single best known August lyric in the catalogue, it would undoubtedly be this:

I'm as corny as Kansas in August
High as a flag on the Fourth of July...

Ensign Nellie Forbush blissfully, deliriously in love in South Pacific. As with June and "Bustin' Out All Over", August's precarious position in the repertoire rests on Rodgers & Hammerstein, this time from their Broadway smash of 1949. Oscar Hammerstein is sometimes thought of as a dogged craftsman: He was once asked whether he and Jerome Kern wrote "Ol' Man River" as a "protest song", and replied that, no, they wrote it because they needed it for a spot in the First Act. That was how he worked: You roughed out the First Act, it required certain songs that would illuminate character or advance the plot, so you figured out what was needed and solved the problem. But, although it does all that, "(I'm In Love With) A Wonderful Guy" also counts as a moment of inspiration.

One night in 1943 Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein went to the theatre, to see One Touch Of Venus, a musical comedy with a score by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash that includes that beguiling beguine "Speak Low". The star was Mary Martin, playing a statue of the goddess Venus come to life. She was lovely, and goddess-like, and dream-like, truly a creature from another world. But at the close of the play she appeared briefly transformed into her human boyfriend Rodney's own more earthbound ideal: a homespun girl in a gingham dress. And Oscar Hammerstein turned to his wife and said:

There is a part she should play some day. She has been wonderful as Venus, but here is the real Mary Martin, a little corn-fed girl from Texas.

Six years later, she did indeed play the part: "a little corn-fed girl" from Arkansas, navy nurse Nellie Forbush, who in South Pacific falls for Emile de Becque, an older, worldlier man, a French planter who's fathered Polynesian children and reads Proust in between. The perfect musical-comedy heroine, a high-spirited "cockeyed optimist", Nellie Forbush seems made for Miss Martin, and was. And it's a rare moment of true theatrical synergy, when character, actress, play and song all merge, and Nellie sings:

I'm as corny as Kansas in August
I'm as normal as blueberry pie
No more a smart little girl with no heart
I have found me A Wonderful Guy!

"I am that part," Mary Martin told me decades later. "I am a cockeyed optimist." But nobody had seen it till Hammerstein. In the years before South Pacific, she was best known as, indeed "a smart little girl with no heart" - the teasing purpose gal who introduced "My Heart Belongs To Daddy". A few years back, I bumped into James Kirkwood, the co-author of A Chorus Line, who told me he was working on a play called Legends - about two Broadway divas - and he'd just sent it to Carol Channing and Mary Martin. Mary had liked the script but insisted that all the swear words be taken out because audiences wouldn't accept little Nellie Forbush flouncing around saying things like "Oh, shit!"

"Okay," said the playwright, not wanting to lose his star. "No problem. What would you say in that situation?"

Mary told him. "I'd say, 'Oh, plop!'"

"I was mortified," Kirkwood told me. "To me 'Oh, plop!' is far more vivid and explicit than 'Oh, shit!'". A few days later, I saw Mary Martin, and we were talking about Carolyn Leigh, lyricist of "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet To Come", and at one point Mary was trying to recall an obscure couplet she couldn't quite dredge up from her memory. "Oh, plop!" she said.

I don't know whether "Oh, plop!" is "as normal as blueberry pie", but, when Hammerstein saw Mary Martin in gingham and the lightbulb went off, he helped define the persona that shaped the star's heyday and stayed with her till the end. "A Wonderful Guy" was the first song he wrote for the score, and, aside from its function in the show, it was an attempt to get the essence of Miss Martin into song form. She existed in a whirl of what you might call heightened normalcy:

I am in a conventional dither
With a conventional star in my eye
And you will note there's a lump in my throat
When I speak of that Wonderful Guy!

And you will note, if you note what he wrote, that there are more internal rhymes in "Wonderful Guy" than you usually get from Hammerstein. He was never a slick rhymester like Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart, and, when it mattered, he was a famous eschewer of rhyme. Consider:

Ol' Man River
Dat Ol' Man River
He mus' know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin'
He jes keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along
He don' plant taters
He don' plant cotton
An' dem dat plants 'em
Is soon forgotten...

Bingo! Line ten, and we finally get our first rhyme: "cotton"/"forgotten". Hammerstein had enough confidence in what "Ol' Man River" was saying not to shoehorn it into a conventional rhyme pattern. As he well understood, rhyme would diminish it. By contrast, by Hammerstein's standards, "A Wonderful Guy" is positively Noel Coward-like in its accents:

I'm as trite and as gay
As a daisy in May
A cliché comin' true!
I'm bromidic and bright
As a moon-happy night
Pourin' light on the dew!

That seems an awfully sophisticated rhyme scheme for an unsophisticated song. Hammerstein looked at it this way:

You will find in it interior rhymes, undemanded rhymes and light-hearted similes. The emotion expressed in this song is so simple that it can afford to wear the decorations and embroidery of more ingenious rhyming.

That's a good way of putting it. And Rodgers set Hammerstein's text to such a lyrically gamboling tune that the words land in a way that seems to underline the sheer fizz of what Nellie's feeling. The composer and lyricist met with Mary Martin at their director Josh Logan's apartment, and announced they had a gift for her: a new song. Rodgers played and Hammerstein sang, and Mary loved it so much she demanded to be able to sing it then and there. So she squeezed up next to Richard Rodgers on the piano stool, and read it off the sheet growing ever more animated as she worked her way up to the final lines:

I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love with A Wonderful Guy!

Whereupon she flung open her arms and fell backwards off the stool. Rodgers turned round, looked down at her on the floor, and said, "Never sing it any other way."

And she never did, not really - and, to those who saw her, Mitzi Gaynor in the movie and Kelli O'Hara in the 2008 Broadway revival could never quite measure up. Miss Martin loved to do cartwheels, and on stage took to interspersing the "I'm in loves" of the home stretch with cartwheels across the stage. During the out-of-town tryout in New Haven, she was momentarily dazzled in mid-cartwheel by a spotlight and flew over the stage and into the orchestra pit, landing on Trude Rittman at the piano and knocking her unconscious. After that dive, she was more cautious, and settled for vocal cartwheels - a showstopping accumulation of 18 "I'm in loves" followed by a high note that sent audiences into ecstasy. Two months after opening, on July 5th 1949, Hammerstein dropped in on the Broadway production, and wrote to Josh Logan the following morning:

Last night, the audience behaved like a large group of people who had all met somewhere else and said, 'Let's all go over to the Majestic Theatre and get drunk...' They jumped at every joke and every note of the music like fish to bait they loved and didn't care whether they got hooked or not...

When Mary sang 'Wonderful Guy', she did not quite get out the last note before they burst in with applause. Then she walked over to the hat like a barefoot boy with feet of vanilla and the applause grew in volume and intensity. At the end of the song when all the girls join her, the applause was deafening... When Mary reappeared and started to do the turns across the stage, there were definite whistles and it sounded more like a football game than a show. I am not sure but what, in some way, we have combined all man's emotions into that play so that the reactions are somewhat like the combination of a big football game and a bull fight and grand opera and tragedy and comedy, the thrills of first love, fireworks on the Fourth of July and a soupcon of that exaltation which the Wright Brothers must have felt when their first mechanical kite left the ground. Now I'm drunk.

Hammerstein reflected on the song more soberly in his collected Lyrics:

There is no subtle philosophy involved. A girl is in love and her heart is sailing. She is sentimental and exuberant and triumphant in the discovery. The job of the lyric is to capture her spirit. I think it does. I am very fond of this song.

And so were audiences in that first corny August of its life six decades ago. It's the essence of theatre, the essence of song. You're in love and you just want to tell the world:

I'm as corny as Kansas in August
High as a flag on the Fourth of July
If you'll excuse an expression I use
I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love with A Wonderful Guy!

What more is there to say?

July 28, 2014

 

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