April 1, 2022: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
As young kids, I'm sure most Broadway loving-types have all had the same experience. Long before our vocabularies matured, we listened to cast recordings mishearing and mispronouncing lyrics to often comic effect; singing a lyric without really thinking how it scanned or fit into the lyricist's sentiments or message just to follow along, right? Not knowing what the hell you were singing about but singing it anyway at the top of your lungs, usually in the privacy of your bedroom, whether it made sense of not. All these years later, whenever I hear a lyric I used to mangle, I have instant recall of what I used to sing before I found out I was wrong. And I remember vividly each and every time I’ve shouted to myself “Oh, THAT'S what that lyric is!” As a kid, it happened a lot with Funny Girl, because Barbra Streisand has always had a funny way of pronouncing words or misrepresenting her vowel sounds. It was decades later when I suddenly discovered the lyric in “Don't Rain on My Parade” was supposed to be “If I'm fanned out” and not “If I'm found out.”
For the purposes of this column, I've chosen to concentrate on one musical's original cast recording, and for good reason: I listened to it constantly. So much so, I mistook its lyrics repeatedly, as well as made mincemeat out of those I didn't understand. The two-character musical I Do! I Do! starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston and was not only the first Broadway show I ever saw (at age ten), but also the first album I ever wore out from multiple playing (my parents had to buy me another).
Most of what I misheard was because I was young and I’ll aware of context and specific references. Subsequently, I put a lot of my own words into the mouths of Mary Martin and Robert Preston.
So, mis-sing along with me, if you know the score.
During the opening lyrics to “All the Dearly Beloved,” which opens the show, Michael and Agnes sing in unison: “And they've all of them come with one thing in mind, just to hear us say ‘I do!’” In my defense, “And they've all of them come,” is an awkward wording, and to my ear, I heard, “And they've all been come.” It could have been some colloquial way to express the sentiment, what did I know? It made perfect sense to me (I was ten, remember). It scanned and I could sing it, so I did.
“When a woman achieves her mating station” is how I thought the lyric went, but it was really “when a woman achieves her matron station.” A matron station? What was that? This came during Michael's solo “A Well Known Fact,” and I don't remember asking my mother what a matron station was. However, I do recall her helping me out when I asked her what “six hours following my wife's confinement” meant. This came during “Love Isn't Everything,” expressed twice in a song that covers the births of the characters’ two children. Confinement is still a thing, but it's more commonly referred to now as bedrest to address concerns with a variety of things that can go wrong if a pregnancy becomes complicated.
I guess I didn't know what a plume was, so when Mary Martin sang about her infamous hat in “Flaming Agnes,” mentioning it had “a bird of paradise plume,” I sang “a bird of paradise flew.” Felt logical.
Uh oh. In this song that weird word came back: “matron.” Martin sings, “Who's that pale, available matron?” So, just like in “A Well Known Fact,” I sort of breezed past it, hoping one day I'd know what it all meant.
You may ask, why didn't I resort to a dictionary? Lazy, I guess. Although it became a necessity in the 1970s when Stephen Sondheim's musicals came along, Follies in particular. I had to start looking up words like “diadem,” “avers,” and what the hell was a “sorrowful précis?” I had to research cultural references like Beebe's Bathysphere, through for some reason I was familiar with Major Bowes. I knew about the Dion babies, but not Brenda Frazier. Well, you know how it goes. Anyway, “Flaming Agnes” peaks with Agnes shouting something I could sing but did not understand: “While he slaves to raise the alimony.” Naturally, I had no idea what alimony was. I do now. 😟
Throughout the challenge duet “Nobody's Perfect,” Michael and Agnes battle it out with a list of one another’s flaws. When Martin sang, “You chew in your sleep. You do it frequently,” I heard “You do it freakfully.” Not a word, but what did I know? And it did conjure up an image.
“The Honeymoon is Over” is the Act One closer devoted to a big fight between the couple. In it, Agnes decries that you know it's over “when you find the purple lipstick on his shirt.” Purple lipstick? I only knew from shades of red, so I changed it to “when you find the proper lipstick on his shirt.”
In the same number “when she gets your goat each time she gets the chance” became “when she gets your coat each time she gets the chance.” It was a tough visual, but the actor in me worked it out while performing it. Something to do with her going to the closet before I got there, I think.
And the quickly-sung-to-a-fast-paced-tune “ask him whether you should find another nest to feather!” turned “nest to feather” into something about NESCAFÉ.
To add to this, beginning when she was about five-and-a-half, I’d wrangle my younger sister, Laurie, into singing Agnes to my Michael when my parents had friends over for cocktails (this was 1967, folks). What's indelibly sunk in my memory bank is that at the climax of “The Honeymoon is Over,” we went to opposite sides of the stage (living room) and shouted the final words in unison—“Go to Hell!” Only my sister mistook the last phrase as “Show and tell!” After all, this was a phrase she was more familiar with, especially since my parents never fought (so not true).
And Hell was a swear word to my “fragile little brain,” as South Park's Eric Cartman is wont to say. The score also contained other terms that made me a bit uncomfortable to sing out loud like “brassiere” and “girdle,” bringing up sexy images for a pre-pubescent like me.
There is also something to contend with while singing along to records that no one in today's listening universe will relate to, so this if for those over a certain age. Records often got scratched, which meant the needle would skip and you had to live without ever hearing the missing phrase of music and lyric again. It was torture. My I Do! I Do! album had several skips due to the number of times I listened to it and abused the vinyl, and the one I remember best was in the song, “Where Are the Snows?” In it, Michael and Agnes are nostalgic about the days when their kids were young (as were they) and when Michael sang, “our boy will be sixteen this year,” the scratch on my record would bump. It always came out “our besteen year.” That messed things up, so to stay on beat I would sing, “Our bonus year,” which if it didn't make sense, at least sounded recognizable and I could sing without missing a note.
Also, many years after the fact, a lyric in “When the Kids Get Married” came clear to me:
“When the kids get married
I'm gonna try the violin
Something nice and simple
That's how I'll begin
Then when I finish 'Clair de Lune'
I'll attack another tune!”
Decades later, a gorgeous piece of classical music came on the radio and when the announcer identified it, I cried out: “THAT'S 'Clair de Lune'?” This was also before I got the joke that it was the name satirically applied to the character Betty Comden played in On the Town. Always nice when things come together like that.
For one final miscalculation, when Paul McCartney sang “my love does it goooood,” I thought he was bemoaning “my love doesn't coooook!” Sorry, but that was in 1973 and I was only sixteen and it sounded sad enough to me. I'd like to say the era of mishearing lyrics is long behind me, but I doubt that. If you have any of your own stories to share from child or adulthood, feel free to drop me a line. I'd love to hear some of them.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.