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Toujours la Soupe


The year-end holidays, from Thanksgiving to Hanukah to Christmas to Kwanzaa to New Year’s, are all intimately connected with food. So we are starting off the new year with a look at musical theatre songs that have an epicurean inclination. In salute to 2019, here are 19 of my choosing.

“Food for Thought,” from Magdalena
Robert Wright and George Forrest collaborated with the famed Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos on this short-lived (88 performances) 1948 musical, set in Colombia and France in 1912, about the striking workers of an emerald mine owned by a Columbian bon vivant who lives in Paris and the rocky romance between the workers’ secular leader and a terribly religious village girl named Maria. Opera star Dorothy Sarnoff played Madame Teresa, the owner of Paris’ Little Black Mouse Café, and she introduced this witty if retrograde instruction to women to keep their husbands sexually faithful by feeding them well. “A pinch of this/A pinch of that/And he’ll pinch this/And he’ll pinch that,” she advises, loudly proclaiming, “Toujours la soupe!” Judy Kaye does quite well with it in this recording of a 1987 concert production done at Alice Tully Hall under the baton of Evans Haile, who spearheaded the piece’s reconstruction. I was there, and so was lucky enough to hear, as a bonus, original star John Raitt sing the title song a mere 39 years later. That, alas, is not on the recording, but at least it finally documented this fascinating, adventurous score.

“Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love,” from the film Be Yourself!
Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice duetted on this 1930 Jesse Greer (music), Billy Rose (lyrics), and Henry H. Tobias (lyrics) tune with Warner Bros. regular Robert Armstrong, who three years later would gain great fame as the hard-charging impresario in King Kong. Food and sex are again intertwined (“The coffee is steamin’/Oh, boy, what I’m dreamin’”), and the message is just as retrograde (“Our life has been so nice and chummy/Right from the start/When I won his tummy/I won his heart”), but Brice’s indefatigable charm, all popping eyes and comic accents, comes through. You can see the number on YouTube, and Brice’s recording of it is available on Fanny Brice Sings.

“Some Girls Can Bake a Pie,” from Of Thee I Sing
John P. Wintergreen is running for president of the United States in 1932 on a “love” platform, and his unnamed political party has promised that he will marry the winner of a national beauty pageant. Wintergreen, however, has fallen for his secretary, Mary Turner, and he dramatically breaks his promise at the end of Act 1 of this three-act musical by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskin (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (music and lyrics). The reason? Mary “can really make corn muffins,” and the beauty contest winner, Diana Devereaux, “the most beautiful blossom in all the Southland,” can’t. Well, naturally, and Larry Kert is most persuasive in this 1987 concert version that was done at BAM under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

“What Baking Can Do,” from Waitress
Pop singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles scored a major hit in her first time out on the Great White Way with the score for this 2016 adaptation of director-writer Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indie film. In this song our heroine, a diner waitress named Jenna, tells us how she uses the pleasure she gets from baking as a way to escape the unhappiness of her marriage to an abusive man, just as her mother did before her. Star Jesse Mueller does an uncanny replication of Bareilles’ quirky, air-filled singing style, which makes sense for Jenna, though when other characters employ the same musical language and style, it does make you wonder if that is the only way Bareilles can write.

“Bread,” from The Baker’s Wife
When this 1976 musical by Joseph Stein (book) and Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) folded on the road prior to Broadway, Bruce Yeko of Original Cast Records swooped in and waxed a cast recording anyway. To save money, though, only the numbers for the three principals were included, which means that this extravagant paean by the villagers of a small French town to their new baker and his principal product was not on it. (Yeko did subsequently record “Bread” on a separately issued 45 with piano-only accompaniment.) However, in 1989 English director Trevor Nunn reworked the show with its authors as a vehicle for his then-wife, Sharon Lee Hill, and though it only managed 56 performances in the West End, it was nominated for an Olivier Award for “musical of the year.” For London Schwartz added a number of songs for the villagers in an attempt to dramatize the populace as a character in the story. He also added “Plain and Simple” for the older baker to sing to his young bride, in which he uses a recipe for bread to espouse his philosophy of life. The show is hampered by a too-slender story, but nevertheless this is my favorite Schwartz score, bar none.

“Rahadlakum,” from Kismet
This is another song in which a recipe is used as a metaphor, in this case for sexual gratification. Indeed, Wright and Forrest’s lyric is so suggestive that the verse, in which the members of an Arabic Wazir’s harem minister to the needs of an itinerant poet while discussing the nature of virtue, was shot by MGM for its 1955 film adaptation of this 1953 hit show but cut before the movie’s release, most likely due to the objections of the Production Code. (It survives on the Blu-ray DVD in a black-and-white work print as an extra.) The music, of course, is by Alexander Borodin as adapted by Wright and Forrest. Joan Diener, as the Wazir’s head wife, who has her eye on the poet, introduced it with considerable slink, and Dolores Gray insinuated plenty on screen. However, the innuendo champion is definitely Eartha Kitt, who turned the song into a showstopper in 1978’s Timbuktu, which reset the tale in northern Africa and featured an all-black cast. Though the show ran for a little over seven months and had a national tour, there was no cast album. Fortunately, you can see what Kitt did with it in two versions on YouTube, one shot live in performance and another, tamer version performed on TV. “Constantly stirring with a long wooden spoon.” You bet.

“I Write, You Read (‘Fair Trade’ reprise),” from I Remember Mama
Here is another use of recipes. Martin Charnin and Richard Rodgers wrote a completely unnecessary song for a supporting character just so they could have this quite useful reprise. In “Fair Trade,” novelist Dame Sybil Fitzgibbons communes with her fans as they kvell over her while singing, “She writes, we read.” In the reprise, Mama gets Dame Sybil to read her daughter’s stories by offering to write down secret Norwegian recipes in exchange for her attention. It’s fun, but does the elaborate setup really pay off well enough?

“The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March,” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
President Thomas Jefferson throws a White House luncheon at which he introduces delicacies from foreign lands in this catchy Alan Jay Lerner–Leonard Bernstein number. Though an OBCR was never recorded in 1976, conductor John McGlinn did wax this tune, using the original Sid Ramin–Hershy Kay orchestration, with Davis Gaines making the introductions through a light Southern accent. I love the internal rhyme of “bouillabaisse” and “President.” Recorded for a 1993 CD titled Broadway Showstoppers, today it can be found as part of the collection called Leonard Bernstein 100 Years.

“Cheese Nips,” from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
This 1979 off-Broadway musical was the first collaboration of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and while it was not successful, it did make people sit up and take notice. In this song rich Manhattan socialite Sylvia Rosewater has trouble dealing with her husband’s decision to uproot them to rural Indiana. In effect, she goes crackers serving the crackers. Brynn O’Malley is the one losing it on the OCR of the fine 2016 Encores! Off-Center concert presentation. The show is still flawed, but the recording is a honey.

“Honey in the Honeycomb,” from Cabin in the Sky
In the first of two songs with lyrics by John Latouche, sexy siren Georgia Brown struts her stuff as she revels in having lured Little Joe Jackson away from his highly religious wife, Petunia, in this 1940 Broadway hit. In this case, once again, food stands in for sex, as Vernon Duke’s music makes abundantly clear. I’m partial to “there’s stuffin’ in a squab.” Lena Horne got the song in Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 film adaptation, but star Ethel Waters, repeating as Petunia, who didn’t sing this on stage, made sure she got a reprise.

“Tomorrow Mountain,” from Beggar’s Holiday
Latouche employs a bevy of surreal imagery to describe paradise in this catchy up-tempo tune by Duke Ellington from their 1946 then-contemporary reimagining of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (also the basis for The Threepenny Opera). There is a “scotch and soda fountain” and “cigarette trees,” along with this out-there quatrain: “Pigs trot around already roasted/Won’t you have a slice of ham?/Marshmallows bloom, already toasted/And the clouds are made of marmalade and jam.” The interior rhyme in that last line is decidedly tasty. No OBCR was recorded, as the show only ran for three months, but Lena Horne took this tune to the bank on her 1957 album Stormy Weather.

“The Candy Man,” from the film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Is candy food? It offers empty calories, I know, but we eat it, so I say that it is. And here are four songs about it, starting with Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s monster 1971 hit, which Sammy Davis Jr. popularized (it’s included on his album Mr. Bojangles). Ironically, it is sung in the movie by a relatively unknown actor, Aubrey Woods, who in a small supporting part is actually playing a confectioner.

“Toot Sweets,” from the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
“A bonbon to blow on at last has been found!” trumpet Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes as inventor Caracatus Potts and candy heiress Truly Scrumptious in the 1971 film musical based on Roald Dahl’s children’s classic. Shockingly, the soundtrack CD is out of print and isn’t available digitally, but you can hear Michael Ball and Emma Williams toot their edible flutes on the cast recording of the 2002 London stage adaptation.

“Penny Candy,” one from New Faces of 1952 and one from No for an Answer
In the first, a revue song by June Carroll (lyric) and Arthur Siegel (music), a “jaded” rich woman nostalgically remembers “when I was a little girl poor and plain” and thought a piece of penny candy was the fanciest treat imaginable. Carroll herself introduced it on Broadway. Marc Blitzstein also wrote a song called “Penny Candy,” in which a con man tells a rich woman how his life has been ruined by his addiction to the stuff. It’s from his 1941 musical play No for an Answer, which had to wait until 2001 to get a full stage production, at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. William Sharp sings it on Marc Blitzstein: Zipperfly & Other Songs.

“Make an Omelette,” from Something Rotten!
Nick Bottom is a Renaissance playwright who is so jealous of the success of William Shakespeare that he goes to a soothsayer to find out the name of Shakespeare’s next hit. The soothsayer mishears Hamlet as Omelette, and so Nick writes this tune for his musical about the egg dish while arguing with his collaborator brother about not writing from the heart. There are actually many more plot complications, but I haven’t got room for them all. Let’s just say that this 2015 musical by Karey Kirkpatrick (book, music, and lyrics), Wayne Kirkpatrick (music and lyrics), and John O’Farrell (book) was exponentially silly.

“Pink Fish,” from Big Apple Country
Alan Menken made an early splash with this 1976 piece of special material he wrote for a cabaret revue. In it, an astonished would-be actor from Texas first encounters bagels and lox. You can hear Sammy Goldstein’s exuberant rendition on his album So Far It’s Wonderful. Even better, you can see Menken tell the story behind the song’s creation and perform it himself on the late, lamented PBS TV show “Theater Talk,” in a clip on YouTube.

“Sara Lee,” from And the World Goes ’Round
I don’t know who first sang this piece of special material by John Kander and Fred Ebb, written at the beginning of their long collaboration, though I know that one of its first interpreters was Kaye Ballard, who sang it on TV on “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall” around 1962. A paean to the popular commercial bakery brand known especially for its pound cake, the song finally found a home in a show in 1991 in the off-Broadway revue And the World Goes ’Round, which introduced the world to the talents of director Scott Ellis and choreographer Susan Stroman. That, however, didn’t stop Liza Minnelli from including the song in her 1992 show Liza Live From Radio City Music Hall.

“I’d Order Love,” from First Date
This is the only song in my list that doesn’t explicitly name-check a foodstuff. Instead, it uses the way we talk about food (“delicious,” “well-seasoned,” “rare,” “spicy” “steaming,” “hot,” “juicy,” you get the idea) to fantasize about love. I didn’t see this 2013 Broadway musical with a score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, but I gather it all took place in a restaurant on a first date between a couple played by Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez. This song, however, was sung by Blake Hammond as their waiter. It sort of brings the column full circle, from food as love to love as food.

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