The Steyn Oz tour moves on. We had a great time in Parliament House today, where the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, gave me a far better introduction than I deserve. I'll be in Sydney on Tuesday. As I said last week, we always like to have a few Aussie Songs of the Week on my forays Down Under, and I'm not sure "Georgy Girl", written by two Englishmen, quite qualifies. But this one does:
Ten years ago, I found myself sitting in a taxi in George Street in Sydney behind another cab bearing a big ad for Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz â€“ the Peter Allen musical.
Of course! Peter Allen! Australia's most successful pop songwriter â€“ "I Go To Rio", "Arthur's Theme (When you get caught between the moon and New York City)", "Don't Cry Out Loud", "I Still Call Australia Home"... What could be more Australian than a gay Judy Garland accompanist? No, hang on, that can't be right. Unlike the Broadway version, where Allen and his lover have a big ol' gay kiss, in the Aussie production the same-sex tongue sarnie has been cut. As The Sun-Herald reported, "A gay kiss has been given the kiss-off in the new Australian production of The Boy From Oz, with Hugh Jackman no longer required to lock lips with a male co-star." As it happens, the lack of a kiss is more in keeping with the lyric of the song:
If we both were born
In another place and time
This moment might be ending with a kiss...
"Might". Instead, the moment ends without one. Do you remember the song? "I Honestly Love You" - Number One for Olivia Newton- John in 1974, and, rerecorded a quarter-century later, Number, er, 68 in 1998 for Olivia with backing vocals by Babyface. It was Peter Allen's breakout hit, a number he wrote with Jeff Barry, the Brill Building hit machine whose songs include "River Deep Mountain High" and "Da-Doo-Ron-Ron". It was the song that gave Allen his songwriting career.
He was born in Tenterfield , New South Wales . His father was "abusive" and such patriarchal affection as he could find came from his grandfather, who ran the local saddlery. Years later, Allen, a man whose songs often sounded as if they were assembled at a factory from randomly constructed parts, wrote "Tenterfield Saddler", one of his most personal songs - along with "Quiet Please, There's A Lady On Stage", his posthumous and poignant salute to Judy Garland.
Judy had spotted him when he and his partner (in every sense) were performing as the Allen Brothers in the Starlight Room at the Hong Kong Hilton in 1964. After bringing them to London as her opening act, she took young Peter from Tenterfield under her wing. The fetching Aussie hunk found himself (more or less simultaneously) Judy's pianist, her husband's lover, and her daughter's husband. Back in the mid-Forties, Miss Garland had come home one day and found her then husband, Vincente Minnelli, in bed with another man. There followed her first suicide attempt. Two decades later, Liza Minnelli could top that: she caught Peter Allen, her new husband, in bed with his boyfriend on their wedding night. Peter had been recommended to Judy by her fourth husband, Mark Herron. And Judy in turn pressed him on Liza. And Herron and Allen carried on a sexual relationship during their respective marriages to Judy and Liza. One is all for being broad-minded and tolerant about these things and Peter Allen was certainly a good-looking lad in those days, but, how heartless does a guy have to be to screw his stepdaughter's husband? The boy from Oz, like the girl from Kansas, was lost in a strange world of deficient creatures: miring Liza Minnelli in her own pathologies as a toxic inheritance, Judy has no brain; blithely rogering his step-daughter's husband, Judy's spouse Mark Herron has no heart; and, unable to resist her mother's scheming, Liza has no courage. The best exchange in that Peter Allen musical with Hugh Jackman was the following: "I'm not marrying you, I'm marrying her," Peter insists to his mother-in-law-to-be.
Judy appraises him coolly. "If only that were true," she replies. Her father, two husbands, and now a son-in-law were all Friends of Dorothy, though not such good friends of Judy as it turned out.
The Peter/Liza marriage didn't last. But it got the boy from Tenterfield a ticket to America and a Green Card that divorce couldn't take away. The big bloke from the outback had found his Emerald City in America; like the Wizard of Oz, he was mostly a charlatan â€“ "I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love" is an anemic love song hung on a very unconvincing premise; "Everything Old Is New Again" is a cheesy attempt at an anthemic showbiz valentine; "I Go To Rio" is a bit of ersatz Latin that cemented his reputation as the Liberace of the disco era and led to his apotheosis at Radio City, entering on a camel accompanied by the kicking legs of the Rockettes. But the hit years started with Olivia and "I Honestly Love You". It's an interesting study in Allen's songwriting:
Maybe I hang around here
A little more than I should
We both know I got somewhere else to go
But I've got something to tell you
That I never thought I would
And I believe you really ought to know...
That's not bad. I like that "hang around here/A little more than I should". It's a very conversational opening. But look at what he's leading up to:
I love you
I Honestly Love You...
That's it. That's the entire chorus. Or hook, really. Actually, it's not even a hook. Or, if it is, it seems totally unconnected from what's gone before. But boy, was it big in the Seventies:
You don't have to answer
I see it in your eyes
Maybe it was better left unsaid
This is pure and simple
And you should realize
That it's coming from my heart and not my head...
And then that insipid hook again:
I love you
I Honestly Love You
I Honestly Love You...
I was a bit surprised to hear that Peter Allen's life had been turned into a musical. The director of the original production in Oz in 1998 was Gale Edwards, whom I once had a couple of meetings with on a project to put a big bunch of a friend's hit songs all together into one show. Gale didn't care for my approach to the thing. "You can't take all these pop songs and then shoehorn them into a plot," she said, dismissively. Oh, well. But a couple of years later there she was down in Australia doing the Peter Allen musical: she'd taken all these pop songs and then shoehorned them into a plot. To write the story, she'd turned to Martin Sherman, a gay American playwright based in London whom I used to run into around town from time to time. He's a very smart guy and The Boy From Oz is undoubtedly the dumbest thing he's ever written. But it did have one treasurably camp moment, when "I Honestly Love You" was sung to Peter by the ghost of his boyfriend, which probably is more dramatic weight than an Olivia Newton-John pop ballad can bear. With hindsight, the recent film The Wedding Planner got it right: picking "I Honestly Love You" as your wedding song ensures the marriage won't last beyond 14 months. That "honestly" sounds awfully like special pleading.
As for whether Peter Allen loved anyone honestly, I defer to Michael Feinstein, whom I heard talk recently of how much Peter cared for Liza post-divorce. But he certainly loved voraciously, dying of Aids in 1992. I met him just once, during the very brief run of his musical Legs Diamond. "Even a critic can't kill me!" he crowed in that show. In the end, they didn't need to. He lived a brief, blazing life, died young, and survives â€“ just about â€“ in Hugh Jackman's incarnation:
...I'm not trying to make you feel uncomfortable
I'm not trying to make you anything at all
But this feeling doesn't come along every day
And you shouldn't blow the chance
When you've got the chance to say...
I love you
I love you
I Honestly Love You.