Tuesday, April 05, 2016

They Don't Write Them Like That Any More

During the years of Hollywood's Production Code, numerous lines (and even plots) from adapted Broadway hits had to be changed.  What particularly fascinates me is when they had to rewrite song lyrics, since that requires fairly precise writing.

Sometimes it's pretty obvious.  In On The Town,

New York, New York, a helluva town


New York, New York, a wonderful town.

Sometimes the changes are more fun than that.  In Pajama Game, the couplet

What do you think of the price of ham now?
Getting so a buck ain't worth a damn now


What do you think of the price of fruit now?
Getting so a buck ain't worth a hoot now.

In fact, movies were so innocent back then that Stephen Sondheim had to rewrite a bit in the "Tonight Quintet" from West Side Story. The verse sung by Anita was originally

He'll walk in hot and tired,
So what?
Don't matter if he's tired,
As long as he's hot.

The update:

He'll walk in hot and tired,
Poor dear.
Don't matter if he's tired
As long as he's near.

While old movies are prudish by today's standards (or at least, everything was done by implication), nowadays we have sensibilities just as easily offended, but about different things.  Above all, lyrics that didn't cause anyone to bat an eye back then are now considered racist or sexist.

We can't change old movies. (Well, not easily.) But Broadway show tunes have been rewritten for revivals.  It's a tricky thing.  I generally prefer to hear what was originally intended, but if it actually gets in the way of the show, I can understand why producers want to make changes.  And if the revisions are done by the original songwriters, it's hard to complain.

A good example of such a change comes from The Fantasticks, a show originally produced in 1960.  One song, "It Depends On What You Pay," is a comic number where a character discusses different ways he could abduct someone's daughter.  Except he keeps using the term "rape," which makes it tough to get laughs in an age of feminism. (Years ago I was in a production and actually sang this song. You could feel many in the audience were uncomfortable.)  By 1990 the composers wrote an alternate song, "Abductions," if productions didn't want to deal with this problem.

Another example of a Sondheim revision is in "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" from Company, first produced in 1970.  Three ex-girlfriends sing of the protagonist

I could understand a person
If it's not a person's bag
I could understand a person
If a person was a fag.

In a revival 25 years later, that last word was considered so off-putting that the new lyric was

I could understand a person
If he said to go away
I could understand a person
If he happened to be gay.

(Actually, "bag" isn't used in that sense much any more--unless Company is done as a period piece, maybe it's a good thing that's gone, too.)

A really big change, can be found in Bock and Harnick's Fiorello!  In "The Very Next Man" a female character is tired of waiting and says she'll marry whoever becomes available.  It includes this bit:

And if he likes me
Who cares how frequently he strikes me
I'll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.

Wow!  It's been updated to

When he proposes,
I'll have him send me tons of roses.
Sweet scented blossoms I'll enjoy by the hour.
Why should I wait around for one little flower?

I admit, something is lost--the song (including the music) emphasizes the character's determination, and how she's going to extreme lengths to get what she wants after years of neglect. But the new lines, in addition to preventing walkouts and boos, are worth it just for the pun at the end--Fiorello was known as the "little flower" (which is what his name translates to).

I might add that Barbara Cook seems to have her own special lines.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the moon, Alice!

7:14 AM, April 05, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Honeymooners was okay, because everyone understood that Alice was in charge in that relationship.

8:46 AM, April 05, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I agree that if an old lyric gets in the way (or is no longer understandable), revision for a modern audience is a good idea. Heck, Shakespeare is updated all the time, though I don't see Gilbert & Sullivan modernized very often.

I recently got a set of Marilyn Monroe movies. Besides "Some Like it Hot," which I have enjoyed for a long time, I had never seen any of her other hits.

So far I'm disappointed. I've watched "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "How to Marry a Millionaire," and "Seven Year Itch" is next. In the first two, Monroe is the main element of the film that is noteworthy. In fact, she is the only thing commendable. She was legitimately funny and cute and at least good at playing the character she was given.

As far as I can tell from "Marry," Betty Grable can't act, and Lauren Bacall can't do comedy. From Gentlemen: Jane Russell had some some talent singing, though she isn't funny, and the only memorable song from that show is "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," which they beat to death with reprises. But the biggest surprise for me is the demeaning treatment of the women. They are stupid, coniving, and shallow - and the men appear justified in treating them poorly. Did women ever enjoy watching these films, or am I forgeting the target audience?

I like madcap comedies, but not inane comedies. And you think about soemthing like Guys & Dolls, where there is a battle of the sexes, but it's a more even match. I'll see if "Seven Year Itch" is better, but if it weren't for Monroe, I think these films would be entirely forgetable.

8:47 AM, April 05, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Wow, Denver Guy. There's so much to respond to here I'll just leave it alone. Though exactly who has been updating Shakespeare?

9:13 AM, April 05, 2016  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

In high school, I had minor roles in my school's production of Grease and West Side Story. When the scripts were passed out, the director had us alter the dirtiest lines and lyrics. But in addition to the regular performances, we had one performance for the elementary school next door during school hours, and for that performance he altered even more lines, to avoid even a hint of anything risque.

12:53 PM, April 05, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Since high schools and junior highs so often have to cut bits, it's become common for the creators of musicals to write special, cleaner versions--and sometimes simpler versions--to be performed by younger people. I assume the hardest part, once again, is changing the lyrics, since they still have to rhyme and scan and make sense.

In fact, I'm pretty sure there's a high school version of Grease widely available--I had a friend do it years ago and I remember they changed the phrase in "Greased Lightning" from "pussy wagon" to "dragon wagon."

1:35 PM, April 05, 2016  
Blogger New England Guy said...

I was in an adaptation of certain of the "Canterbury Tales" in college (it was a theater major's senior project and he now does this for a living so I guess it was good)) and I recall in the Wife of Bath's Tale, we had to change the word "niggard" (nothing to do with N word as I understand it except for the sound similarity) to "buzzard" to avoid unnecessary controversy. In terms of authenticity of the bawdiness in the Miller's Tale wanted to change the word "quim" to the C word, but at the final dress, decided it sounded too harsh and changed it back to "quim" Probably a good call.

6:21 PM, April 05, 2016  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Ours was "chickie wagon".

NEG, I think that "niggardly" is on just about everyone's forbidden list these days.

Connie Willis' short story "Ado" deals with campus crusaders who remove all the dirty words from Shakespeare. The censor makes a list of changes, and in this list she "objected to forty-three references to spirits, ghosts, and related matters, twenty-one obscene words (obscene misspelled), and seventy-eight others that she thought might be, such as pajock and cockles."

9:45 PM, April 05, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The word "bowdlerize" originally comes from censoring Shakespeare.

12:10 AM, April 06, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Among my favorite films of Shakespere are Branaugh's "Henry V" and Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing." Branaugh adds in pieces of Henry IV Part II, and drops alot of the original text of Henry V. Whedon sets "Much Ado" in a vaguely 1950s era household, perhaps still in Italy. He updates the visuals to explain elements of the play that would not be readily apparent to modern audiences. To make it clear how close a prince's confidant is to him, he changes the character from male to female, and makes it clear they are lovers.

I think these and many other adaptations are great. They are like good covers of classic songs. Obviously, there can be bad ones too - I once saw MacBeth reset in Vietnam - didn't work.

So do you think I will like "Seven Year Itch?"

9:31 AM, April 06, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

After what you've said I have no idea how you'll respond to The Seven Year Itch. As far as I'm concerned, even though it's was big hit play by George Axelrod and adapted by great filmmaker Billy Wilder, it's not much. But then, you don't like some of the stuff I sort of like from that era (and misinterpret it as well), so perhaps you'll end up liking more the stuff I don't much go for.

That said, The Seven Year Itch does at least contain the most iconic image of Marilyn Monroe, so it's worth watching for that.

10:01 AM, April 06, 2016  
Blogger New England Guy said...

I read a NYT review in college (early 80s) of a MacBeth set in a Latin American country during the era of coups and revolutions ( the picture accompanying the article showed characters who looked like Sandinistas who were big news at the time). I never saw the production and don't recall who did it, but interestingly enough it did inspire me to take the two introductory Shakespeare courses (on e for the Tragedies, one for the Histories & Comedies) in my senior year. I agree with DG- I like covers and plays set in different settings- sort od as "additional feature" as it (sometimes) can comfortably mix the familiar with something new.

The best Shakespeare adaptation of course is Strange Brew with Doug and Bob McKenzie

10:46 AM, April 06, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

There are numerous film and stage adaptations of Shakespeare that put his work in different settings. That's how it's been for a long time. But that point I was making many comments ago is the one thing they generally don't change is his speech. They may cut parts of it, or recombine it, but they don't rewrite it.

11:08 AM, April 06, 2016  
Blogger New England Guy said...

Well Shakespeare, one could argue, is more about language than plot and if you change the language radically, it really isn't Shakespeare*. More that is, not only.

* Saying that of course I recall reading and performing some "Plain language Shakespeare for children" in grade school which completely undercuts my point

11:25 AM, April 06, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do this or not? I gotta decide. Is it better to put up with this crap or should I just fix things once and for all? Just opting out seem so tempting right now....

11:40 AM, April 06, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Anon is onto something!

8:10 AM, April 07, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The New Yorker steals our joke concepts.


(posted April 6 sometime after Anon above)

12:59 PM, April 07, 2016  

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