STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Make Mine Monk

Special Features   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Make Mine Monk
So while a stagestruck friend and I were talking, he suddenly cited a line from a song that I didn't know.

So while a stagestruck friend and I were talking, he suddenly cited a line from a song that I didn't know.

"What's the from?" I demanded.

"Demi-Dozen. One of those -- "

We said it together: "--Julius Monk revues."

Lord, I hadn't listened to my Julius Monk albums since Noah felt 90 again! So out they came. Demi-Dozen, Dime a Dozen, Dressed to the Nines, Four Below Strikes Back, Just for Openers, Pieces of Eight, Take Five, which had two pressings with two different covers, and Seven Come Eleven, the one that's the rarest, worth in some quarters up to $175. Which is a lot of quarters. If you aren't familiar with the revues Monk produced from 1957 till 1965 -- well, in a way you may be, thanks to Sondheim's clever homage in Merrily, "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," which Frank, Mary, and Charlie did at the "Uptown at the Downtown" club. Monk's shows were often ensconced at the "Upstairs at the Downstairs," then at 37 West 56th.

Monk's writers often cited President Kennedy, too. Dime had a sketch involving the celebrated filming of "P.T. 109," in which humble Hollywood executives told Pierre Messenger their plans. "We're going to make the sailor JFK saves from drowning a member of a minority group."

"Which one?"


Then there was a song that insisted that Mrs. Potter's Finishing School would do all it could to accommodate the president's daughter: "The Boston bean will become haute cuisine, so Caroline will feel at home."

That one was sung by Full Gallop's Mary Louise Wilson, just one of the many performers who caught a break thanks to Monk. Estelle Parsons was in Pieces,, Susan Browning in Dime, Madeline Kahn and Fannie Flagg were featured in Openers, while Four Below offered Nancy Dussault and George Furth, who must have put some of what he learned from the sketchwriters to use when he wrote Company.

For Monk could spot writing talent, too. Jones and Schmidt, Claibe Richardson, Portia Nelson, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh (whose "You Fascinate Me So" is still a cabaret favorite) -- all were Upstairs at the Downstairs upstarts.

And yet, the biggest Monk hit song was written by the now-forgotten June Reizner: "Barry's Boys," which even got a pop recording that became an anthem against the conservative presidential candidate of 1964, one Mr. Goldwater. Take Five gave the still-heard paean to a supermarket to which Jonathan Tunick set these fetching lyrics: "We met in Gristedes; you were looking for Wheaties; I was looking for Kix."

My stroll down this musical Memory Lane had me hear about Mayor Wagner, the Theatre de Lys, the Automat, the New York Mirror, the then-recent loss of the Third Avenue El, and a sketch where Wilson had to adapt to a "penny" postcard's now costing four cents instead of three. One song hoped that Hawaii could become a state. Another imagined the day would come when there's a musical version of The Bad Seed, unaware that for all intents and purposes, one would be done decades later via Ruthless.

Some material turned out to be prescient, such as a sketch on the evils of smoking, and "The British Are Coming," a song that feared the English domination of Broadway -- albeit of straight plays. "Let's get on the stick/and stop the Old Vic/before Harold Prince becomes Prince Hal," goes the lyric, blissfully unaware that he'd eventually direct one of the biggest British musicals of all time. And then there's the lyric that states, "Small revues are coming to be the fashion/'cuz of the cash in/vestors have not." Indeed!

Yeah, they don't write 'em like that anymore. Except, the next day, I discovered they did. For I was given a copy of Big City Rhythm, a CD of the nightclub act that Barry Kleinbort wrote for the Triad nightclub last year. Best of all was a song whose message is "I Love the Leading Ladies Who Can't Sing," which skewers the stars of Anya, Applause, Coco, I Remember Mama, Juno, Minnie's Boys, the Oh, Kay revival, and Sunset -- not to be confused with Sunset Boulevard -- which also gets a rake over the coals.

Close behind was "I Won't Sing a Sondheim Song" that spoofs 19 of the master's classics, including six that feature the word "hat." And just as good is one where Kleinbort imagines title songs for various movies. I'll only give one: "Though the world may call you a couch potato, you're my own private Idaho." Now you go listen to the others.

And if you're looking for talent worthy of Monk, Big City features two fetching up-and-comers (Melanie Vaughan and Eric Michael Gillett) as well as two Broadway vets, Marcia (Chicago) Lewis and Lewis (Mattress) Cleale. That the disc is on a label called Harbinger is no accident, either.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.

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