Backward Glances: Wrong-Note Rag

By Louis Botto
19 Oct 2007

Mary Martin turned down <i>My Fair Lady</i> because she didn't like the score.
Mary Martin turned down My Fair Lady because she didn't like the score.
Playbill historian Louis Botto points out how wrong some people were when they dismissed songs that would be future hits.

*

Cole Porter once said that drama critics are so tone deaf that they only recognize "The Star-Spangled Banner" because people stand up when it is played. But critics aren't the only ones who have been known to have questionable taste in music. Throughout history many show-business professionals have been unable to recognize a hit when they've heard it.

In 1925 Irving Berlin wrote the score for the Marx Brothers musical The Cocoanuts. George S. Kaufman, who wrote the show's book, disliked love songs and told Berlin he was going to cut "I'll Be Loving You Always." Berlin was horrified. "That's the best song in the show," he argued. "Why don't you like it?" Kaufman replied, "You can't love someone always. If you change it to 'I'll Be Loving You Thursday,' I’ll keep it in." Berlin refused and published it himself. It became one of his biggest hits.

One critic who reviewed the brilliant 1930 revue Three's A Crowd wrote it was a pity that star Libby Holman had to sing mediocre songs like "Body and Soul" and "Something to Remember You By." Both went on to become standards; "Body and Soul" became a hit for many artists, including the Benny Goodman Trio and jazz great Coleman Hawkins.



In 1934 Cole Porter wrote the magnificent score for Anything Goes, but William Gaxton, one of its stars, refused to sing the lovely "Easy to Love." It was dropped from the show and became very popular when Jimmy Stewart sang it (badly) in the movie musical Born to Dance.

Porter suffered another Broadway mishap when his best song in the 1950 musical comedy Out of This World, "From this Moment On," was cut. Bands started playing it and it became the show's only hit, though it was never used.

A shocking example of a performer's ignorance of a great song occurred in the memorable Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart hit Babes in Arms, which I saw in 1937. I met a member of the cast and he told me that the show’s star, Mitzi Green, hated "My Funny Valentine." At some performances she would tell the musical's conductor that she wasn’t going to sing it — and didn't! If Rodgers had ever found out, he would have fired her.

Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios, disliked "Over the Rainbow" and wanted it cut from "The Wizard of Oz." It was kept in the film and became Judy Garland's signature song.

Even as astute a star as Mary Martin could make ghastly mistakes. Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe wanted her to star in My Fair Lady. But when they played the score for her, she turned them down. "The boys have lost their touch," she told her husband.

The most tone-deaf review of a musical film was written by critic Frank S. Nugent in The New York Times for the marvelous 1936 Astaire–Rogers film "Swing Time," which featured the work of composer Jerome Kern. Nugent carped: "Maybe we have no ear for music (do we hear cries of 'No! No!') but right now we could not even whistle a bar of 'A Fine Romance,' and that's about the catchiest and brightest melody in the show." What about "Pick Yourself Up," "Never Gonna Dance," "Bojangles of Harlem" and "The Way You Look Tonight" (which won an Academy Award for Best Song)? So much for Mr. Nugent.

Finally, a demented critic once declared in the 1920s that Lorenz Hart was such a brilliant lyricist that he should find a better composer than Richard Rodgers, whose mediocre music did not match the quality of Hart's lyrics.