STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Here's Love

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Here's Love If it's December, it must be time to play Here's Love, Meredith Willson's musical version of "Miracle on 34th Street."

If it's December, it must be time to play Here's Love, Meredith Willson's musical version of "Miracle on 34th Street."

You undoubtedly know the film, in which Doris Walker of Macy's hires an elderly gentleman who looks amazingly like Santa Claus for her Thanksgiving Day Parade. She's unaware that the guy believes he's Kris Kringle and -- here's where your fantasy and faith have to mix -- actually is. Doris has taught her daughter Susan there ain't no Santa Claus right from her infancy, because she doesn't want to kid growing up with any romantic illusions about life as she did, which only resulted in an early marriage and divorce.

Fred Gaily, a lawyer and the neighbor down the hall, wishes Susan would lighten up and believe. The kid secretly wants to and wishes that Santa could bring her a nice suburban home and a daddy. Fred's willing to step in and play the role, but Doris is too preoccupied with work -- especially when Kris tells one person too many that he's the real thing. Eventually there's a court trial where Fred must defend Kris and proves that the man is Santa on a nice technicality: If the post office has been delivering its "Dear Santa" letters to him, who is the New York court to disagree with a branch a U.S. government agency?

But do you know the musical? Get the cast album, since transferred to a Sony CD, and you'll find a mixed bag of delights and duds.

How I gasped in ecstasy, not long after the show's October 3, 1963 opening, when I was in my favorite record store and spotted that glistening black cover with the red and hot pink pair of hearts. I thought it was one of the best logos I'd ever seen, and still do. Once home, I quickly put the stylus (that's a needle, young 'uns) onto the LP, and found the sound was abnormally faint. What had happened?! I cleared the stylus of dust (you had to do that from time to time), and yet the sound was no better. I tried another album -- Tovarich -- which sounded fine. Alas, I'd have to return Here's Love.

Thank the Lord that I decided to drop the needle on another song, which came across loud and clear. I soon learned that Here's Love wanted to simulate the aura of an approaching Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and that a few moments would pass before a Meredith Willson-styled brass band would "arrive in front of me," and play with full force. This overture even included that ol' Christmas carol, "Adeste Fidelis" -- which one critic said was the best song in the score.

Well, maybe. While I very much liked "The Big Calown Balloons," the opening song that celebrated the parade, I didn't see the need for the extra syllable. But the two songs that followed with Janis Paige (one with on stage daughter Valerie Lee) made me think she deserved a Tony -- for being able to memorize these horribly unmelodic tunes.

But I felt better when I heard "The Bugle," a song in Dutch that Kris Kringle sang to the little immigrant girl on his lap. It's less than a minute long, but it's quietly lovely. And when our high school drama club presented I Remember Mama that winter, I insisted that we use "The Bugle" as the song Uncle Chris sang to his ailing nephew. No one noticed that a Norwegian was singing Dutch.

Next, "The Plastic Alligator" -- or at least that's what the LP promised. But there was that then-familiar disclaimer: "Musical numbers are listed as of September 26, prior to the recording of this album." In those days when Columbia and Goddard Lieberson couldn't wait to get cast albums out there, "The Plastic Alligator" cut didn't make the cut.

But then came the title tune, with which I was already familiar -- for the Tuesday before Here's Love's opening, "The Garry Moore Show," a weekly variety program, opened with it. Ah, those were the days, when the nation would inevitably hear the newest Broadway song as soon as a TV show could bring it to you.

I've argued with my stagestruck friends for years about this song. Whatever it says about my taste, "Here's Love" is one of my favorite title tunes from a Broadway musical. It's a robust and happy tract that encourages harmony between warring parties -- "From the high and the mighty to the meek who inherit the earth; Miami to Los Angeles, and Dallas to Fort-Worth."
"From the ground floor apartment to the party just above, Here's Love!" wrote Willson, tackling one of the more limited rhyme-words in the English language. So then he wrote, "From the lamb to the lion, from the eagle to the dove;" "From the car with the bumper to the car that needs a shove," and finally, in what Carolyn Leigh (of Peter Pan and Little Me fame) once told me was "the most desperate lyric I've ever heard," "From Rosh Hashana to Easter, from Lent to Tishabov."

One lyric, alas, had to be changed seven weeks after the show opened. "JFK to U.S. Steel" was hastily changed the morning after President Kennedy's assassination to "CIA to U.S. Steel." It stayed that through the show's 334-performance run.

Side Two, as we had in those primitive days: "My Wish," which Fred sings to Susan, is a pretty enough liftable tune -- but it's murderously sung by Craig Stevens, whom most people knew as the title character detective of TV's "Peter Gunn," and Follies fans can tell you was Alexis Smith's husband. Those who always come down so hard on Vincent Price's voice on Darling of the Day (nice CD, no?) can't have heard Stevens.

"Pine Cones and Holly Berries" is a good Christmas song, but Kris could have sung about something more book-driven. It's mixed with "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," a song you probably know. But be apprised that it's not from Here's Love, but a pop song Willson had penned a dozen years earlier.

Here's Love then returns to the distinctly unmelodic in "Look, Little Girl," which Fred Gaily angrily sings to Mrs. Walker. Atrocious as it is, we can't just blame Stevens, for the thing is reprised moments later by Paige, who shows that no one could save it.

"Expect things to happen like the people in the fairy tales do," sings Kris to start the next song. Nice sentiment, but, as you've just read, cumbersome. That leads to an instrumental waltz not mentioned on the record jacket ("Musical numbers are listed as of September 26..."), but on the label. It's called "Love, Come Take Me Again," and Paige sang it with lyrics during the show's Detroit tryout.

Two of the next three, I'm certain, are trunk songs. "She Hadda Go Back" is Fred's now-politically incorrect track about how you have to wait hours for a woman because she'll always forget her gloves, check herself in the mirror, add perfume, et al. "My State" is used to get Kris' judge chauvinistic about his home state, in hopes of a favorable decision. The song before it, though -- Mr. Macy's singing "That Man over There Is Santa Claus" -- is just right.

That one is reprised in the Finale, as is the title tune. Wonder which of the voices belongs to Michael Bennett, who was a chorus boy in the show?

Many months passed before I got the chance to travel from my native Boston to New York (on my high school graduation trip) to see Here's Love (and Oliver!, 110 in the Shade, and What Makes Sammy Run?). Christmas in June! Only then did I learn that "The Plastic Alligator," in which a Macy's salesman was urging Kris to push this toy on kids who couldn't make up their minds, wasn't much longer than "The Bugle," and not much of a song, either. It had the same melody of "That Man over There," and, according to a Detroit critic I met a quarter-century later, "Alligator" came first, and "That Man over There" was added later.

By then, Paige and Stevens had left for two much better musical theatre talents: Lisa Kirk and Richard Kiley. They worked awfully hard at the Wednesday night performance I attended, and gave me a decent time.

But here's the thing: I hadn't yet seen the original movie, "Miracle on 34th Street." Yes, it's annually ubiquitous on the tube, but Boston had only three commercial TV channels back then, and I was never at the right place at the right time.

Now that I've seen the film, Here's Love strikes me as one of the greatest missed opportunities in musical theatre history. The songs in "Miracle on 34th Street" leap out at you: When Fred tries to get sentimental with Susan, who rebuts his every attempt ("I bet your mother told you that, too." She could later have sung "That's What I Want for Christmas," yearning for her Long Island home. (There's even background music at that point in the film, always a definite hint of where a song should go.)

Other moments that should have been musicalized: Kris railing about what's happened to Christmas, and here's his chance to make matters right; his teaching Susan to act silly and join him in pretending that they're animals. Later, when things get tough and Kris begins to have his doubts, Fred could musically convince him all is not lost. And then, when Fred loses his confidence that he'll win the case, Kris could reprise the song with new lyrics. Finally, once Doris comes to believe, she should sing an inspirational song to Susan telling her that she must, too.

Does producer Stuart Ostrow still hold the rights? Could he be convinced to try again, with a new bookwriter, composer, and lyricist? Except I would like to see him retain "The Big Calown Balloons," "The Bugle," "That Man over There," and, of course, that title tune.
From Filichia to Ostrow, here's love.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You can E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com