Back in 2006, I did an April Fool article about an imaginary composer named Parifollo. I thought that it was silly enough for people to know it was a spoof and even that some readers would readily see that the name consisted of an anagram for “April fool.” I received two letters asking for more information about this person; and I had to give the embarrassing reply that it was a joke. A joke on me, it would seem.
Which leads me to think of other unexpected twists the world of music has to offer. Of course, one must in these matters remember the Italian saying, “Se non e vero, e ben trovato” (If it isn’t true, at least it’s well made up).
Very often in the wacky world of the theatre, a great joke backfires on the joker.
Although I already told this one in an article some time ago, it is worth a retelling to show how a joke can turn back on the perpetrator. When “Kiss Me Kate” was in rehearsals, the actor playing Bill, Harold Lang, was pestering Cole Porter for a song in Act II that would let him show the audience what he could do as a soloist. As an act of meanness, Porter deliberately wrote him a lousy number called “Bianca.” Lang brought down the house every night. Porter’s reaction is not recorded, as far as I can find in my research.
Another joke-is-on-the-joker is the one three songsmiths tried to play on Al Jolson when the superstar asked for another song to sing in the 1928 film “The Singing Fool.” The songwriting team decided to give him the most clichéd lyrics ever in the setting of the most banal tune they could devise. Jolson loved it and made it a smash hit. “Sonny Boy” is the item in question.
Here is an instance when no joke was intended; but, as Cyrano says, “How fate loves a jest.”
This tale was told to me by a person who attended one of my Elderhostel talks at Pilgrim Pines in New Hampshire. It was back in 1943 when a friend of hers phoned her from Boston to rave about a show she had just seen that was due to open in New York shortly after. She told her to get tickets for “Away We Go!” the day they went on sale, because they would be very hard to get once it opened.
The New York woman checked the papers every day for the announcement that “Away We Go!” tickets were on sale, but it never came. This is what happened. The original version of the musical was supposed to open with a hoedown in which the words, “away we go” were prominent. The creators then felt they wanted a novel beginning. So they did away with the chorus, had the curtain open on a single woman on a porch while a man’s voice was heard off-stage (mind you) singing a hymn to the new day and to the corn crop. The title had been changed to reflect the rewrite. It was called “Oklahoma!” when it came to New York, and tickets went like platinum hotcakes, all the while the poor woman was waiting for “Away We Go” to be announced.
Here is another case in which there was no joke intended but one of the parties involved made it into one. When Gilbert was rehearsing a love scene for his latest collaboration with Sullivan, he found that his tenor was feeling the Grand Emotion a little too much and was delivering the word “rapture” with too much force. “No, no,” Gilbert commanded, “modified rapture.” Being something of a literalist, the tenor read the phrase “Modified rapture!” with equal force. Gilbert was delighted and the line has been read thus ever since. (And they say that tenors…. Well, never mind.)
If more examples come to mind, I will gladly add them.