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The Stories Behind the Songs (1)

May, 2005

Many popular songs have interesting stories behind them, some of them famous, some not so famous, some infamous.  So in no particular order, I will tell a few of them in a new miniseries.

Let us begin with the most complex of them all. The song “Bill” is sung by Julie in “Show Boat” and its lyrics are credited to P.G. Wodehouse, while all the other lyrics in the show (except for “After the Ball”) were written by Oscar Hammerstein II. Actually, “Bill” was written in 1918, when composer Jerome Kern allied himself with lyricist P.G. Wodehouse and book writer Guy Bolton to create what was called the New York Princess Theatre Musicals. The fifth in the series opened to great acclaim, and as part of the usual post-opening night changes one of the songs was dropped. It was called “Bill” and had been used in a somewhat comic framework. It had an undercurrent of sadness and was probably taken out because it did not fit the mood of the scene. Some authors write it was because it did not suit the singer’s voice.

The next year, the melody was played for Florenz Ziegfeld who was looking for material for his star Marilyn Miller. He wanted to buy it on the spot, but the creators said they planned to use it in their next show “Sally.” And yet again, they found it did not fit any place in that musical.

“Bill” finally emerged in the second act of “Show Boat,” sung hauntingly by Helen Morgan perched on a piano. What happened was that when the opening ran far too long, they wanted to cut a good half hour but still felt Morgan was good enough to deserve another song. Kern suggested “Bill” and Hammerstein agreed. Wodehouse, quite rightly I think, demanded half of the royalties on that song. Depending on what version you read, there were hard feelings all around. Hammerstein, some say, disliked having someone else’s lyrics in his show; Wodehouse fought for but never got his royalties from a1971 London revival of “Show Boat.”

Finally, Hammerstein changed some of the lyrics for the film version with Irene Dunne so he could claim full authorship. Who knows?

To all of which I must add a footnote. Kern, Wodehouse and Bolton had based a musical called “Zip Goes a Million” on the play “Brewster’s Millions.” Because the tryout would be in London, the music and lyrics were in New York but the book (I think this is how it went) was on a ship about to sail for England. Kern overslept that morning, and missed the boat, which happened to be the Lucitania. So with the book at the bottom of the Atlantic and Kern still alive in New York, “Zip” was zapped.

Cut to the 1980s. When three of the Princess Plays were given in concert form in New York, the producers of the series added the “Zip Goes a Million,” using the dialogue from “Brewster’s Millions.” At the point when Brewster was down to his last dollar, he took it out, gazed at it, and began to sing “My Bill.” I am still laughing.

When one thinks of “Kiss Me Kate,” one does not usually think of “Bianca,” a minor song and dance number given to Bill Calhoun/Lucentio. During rehearsals, Harold Lang, being given that role, complained that he had no solo of his own. Now I have read two versions, so you can take your pick.

The first was that Cole Porter agreed with him and came up with a little tune in an elevator. The other version says Porter was angry that someone could insist on an extra song and deliberately gave Lang one with the most trivial tune and lyrics he could come up with. The song itself does not show much thought behind it in either case, or I think Lang knew it. But a talented actor with determination can do wonders; and Lang stopped the show with the least meritorious number in “Kiss Me Kate.” The whole thing, however, did cause hard feelings between Porter and the book writers Sam and Bella Spewack, especially Bella, who complained that Porter had promised no extra numbers would be added.

More next issue.

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