STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Useful Phrases: Cliches in the Theatre

Special Features   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Useful Phrases: Cliches in the Theatre
So how many cliches have playwrights, librettists, and lyricists given the world -- or taken from it?
The Gorey-designed Dracula.
The Gorey-designed Dracula.

So how many cliches have playwrights, librettists, and lyricists given the world -- or taken from it?

At least 221, if you take a look at Betty Kirkpatrick's new book, Cliches: Over 1,500 Phrases Explored and Explained (St. Martin's, $12.95).

Of course, the most -- 27 -- come from Shakespeare. Kirkpatrick cites two each from As You Like It ("Poor thing, but mine own" and "Stalking horse"), Hamlet ("For this relief, much thanks" and "Method in one's madness"), Julius Caesar ("Et tu, Brute" and "Unkindest cut of all"), and Macbeth ("At one fell swoop" and "Lead on, Macduff" -- though Kirkpatrick mentions that the last one is actually a corruption of what Shakespeare wrote: "Lay on, Macduff.")

There's one each from All's Well That Ends Well (the title, natch), "Eat out of house and home" (Henry IV, Part II), "Footloose and fancy free" (A Midsummer Night's Dream), "Get one's money worth" (Love's Labour's Lost), "Gild the lily" (King John), "Green-eyed monster" (Othello), "Quid Pro Quo" (Henry VI, Part One), "A Rose by any other name" (Romeo and Juliet), "Second to none" (A Comedy of Errors), "Suffer a sea change" (The Tempest), "Tender loving care" (Henry VI, Part Two), "Things to come" (Troilus and Cressida), and "The wheel has come full circle (King Lear).

But the play in which Shakespeare created the most expressions that would become cliches (four) was The Merchant of Venice: "Daniel come to judgment," "Flesh and blood," "It's Greek to me," and, of course, "Pound of flesh." Two others have Shakespeare's hand in them, but other hands, too. "Eager from the fray" comes from Colley Cibber's adaptation of Richard III. That's all right; Kirkpatrick points out that while you can find "Love is blind" in Romeo and Juliet, Plato was the first to write this all too-true concept.

While no playwright after Shakespeare contributed nearly as many, some did provide. Kirkpatrick lets us know that Christopher Marlowe coined "The face that launched a thousand ships" in his 1588 hit, Dr. Faustus. John Webster -- the spooky kid in "Shakespeare in Love" -- created "A jaundiced eye" in his 1609 thriller, The White Devil.

We'll never know if it was Beaumont or Fletcher who gave us "Cool as a cucumber" in their 1615 play, Cupid's Revenge. But we do know that William Wycherly added "Necessity is the mother of invention" to the lexicon in his Love in a Wood in 1672 -- the same year George Villers contributed "The plot thickens" in The Rehearsal.

Going a little farther afield, "Open secret" sprang from Il Publico Secreto, Carlo Gozzi's 1769 adaptation of El Secreto a Voces (Translation: The Noisy Secret) by Pedro Calderon de la Barca. And even "Pleased as punch" has a theatrical genesis of sorts, for it originated with those Punch and Judy puppet shows, in which Punch was so pleased with his antics.

Kirkpatrick judges three other theatrical terms to now be cliches: "Alarums and excursions" (the stage direction found in Elizabethan plays), "Deus ex machina" (from ancient Greek theatre), and "Behind the scenes," for which Kirkpatrick explains, "In the 17th and 18th century theatre, especially in France, a great deal of violent action, such as murder, took place literally behind the scenes. Hmmm, does she mean off-stage violence in plays, or real-life cloak-and-dagger stuff?

Moving into our own century, Kirkpatrick credits DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson's song, "The Best Things in Life Are Free" from Good News in 1927 to spurring that phrase into popularity. Similarly, she says "Just One of Those Things" has been used "since the middle '30s, being popularized by a Cole Porter song." We can assume she means "Just One of Those Things" that Porter wrote for Jubilee in 1935, not the completely different song with the exact same title that was cut from The New Yorkers in 1930. And while Kirkpatrick admits that "rock the boat" dates from the '20s, she credits "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" for making the phrase widely-known and used.

Kirkpatrick did let me down on two occasions. First, she wrote "'Too good to be true' was already a cliche when George Bernard Shaw used it as the title of one of his plays in 1932." No, Shaw's witty title was Too True to Be Good. Secondly, I was saddened to see that in her citing "La creme de la creme," she credits both The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a novel and a movie, but neglects to mention the play version (in which, incidentally, Zoe Caldwell gave the best performance I have ever seen a dramatic actress give in 38 torrid years of theatregoing).

By my count, 16 of Kirkpatrick's chosen cliches became titles of plays: Baby with the Bathwater; Call It a Day; Cause Celebre; Deathtrap; Finishing Touches; Golden Boy; Grin and Bear It; Kiss and Tell; Loose Ends; Man and Boy; The Rat Race; Serious Money; Seventh Heaven; Some of My Best Friends Are; Ways and Means; and You Can't Take It with You. A few more -- 26 -- served as titles of musicals: Alive and Kicking; At the Drop of a Hat; Beg, Borrow, or Steal; Best Foot Forward; Early to Bed; Face the Music; Fast and Furious; Flying Colors; Golden Boy; Head over Heels; High and Dry; Hold Your Horses; If the Shoe Fits; Let's Face It; A Month of Sundays; One Over the Eight; Proof Is in the Pudding (okay, a Harvard Hasty Pudding Show, but a musical nonetheless); Rain or Shine; Seventh Heaven; The Show Must Go On; Straws in the Wind; Touch and Go; Two's Company; Wish You Were Here; Words Fail Me (a clever title for a revue of Michael Leonard's songs from his flop musicals, which all had book trouble), and Your Own Thing. And let's also count When in Rome, Richard Adler's musical version of Roman Holidaythat never got on. Kirkpatrick's book proves that, for better or worse, our lyricists have often gone to cliches for their song titles. True, her entries don't always match word-for-word what our lyricists wrote: For example, while she cites "Not for all the tea in China," what Irving Berlin wrote in As Thousands Cheer was "Not for All the Rice in China." Similarly, Alan Jay Lerner got a Brigadoon song from "There but for the grace of God go I." Such trivialities aside, the songwriters undoubtedly got their inspirations from these familiar phrases.

Kirkpatrick's cliches show up verbatim or in variations in 51 titles that are probably in your CD collection: The ball is in your court (City of Angels); Be my guest (Beauty and the Beast); Bide one's time (Girl Crazy); The bigger they are, the harder they fall (Purlie); Eager beaver (No Strings); Easy come, easy go (I Remember Mama); Fit as a fiddle (Singin' in the Rain); Flash in the pan (Movie Star); Flotsam and jetsam (Shinbone Alley); For better or worse(Jennie); Forbidden fruit (The Apple Tree); Good clean fun (Tenderloin);The grass is always greener (Woman of the Year); Half the Battle (Ben Franklin in Paris); Have a nice day (Song and Dance); I wash my hands(Whoop-Up); I'm a stranger here myself (One Touch of Venus); In vino veritas (Her First Roman); It's always darkest before the dawn (The Good Companions); Keep it under your hat (Calamity Jane); Kindred Spirits(Anne of Green Gables); Larger than life (My Favorite Year); Life of the party (The Happy Time); Light at the end of the tunnel (Starlight Express);Live and let live (Can-Can); The man who has everything (No Strings); The Midas touch (Bells Are Ringing); Milk and Honey (Milk and Honey); Nice work if you can get it (Crazy for You); Once in a blue moon (Little Mary Sunshine); One that got away (Half a Sixpence); Only time will tell (Destry Rides Again); On the side of the angels (Fiorello!); Over the hill (Shenandoah); The party's over (Bells Are Ringing); Piece de resistance (Magdalena); Point of no return (The Phantom of the Opera); Poor thing (Sweeney Todd); Public enemy number one (Anything Goes); Right as rain (Bloomer Girl); The shape of things (The Littlest Revue); So far, so good (No Way to Treat a Lady); Some other time (On the Town); Stiff upper lip(Crazy for You); There's one born every minute (Barnum); Time heals everything (Mack & Mabel); Tomorrow is another day (Hallelujah, Baby!);Two heads are better than one (The Robber Bridegroom); Ugly duckling (Hans Andersen); Water under the Bridge (Windy City); We speak the same language (All-American).

You'll have to go to vinyl records to find another 15: Believe it or not (New Faces of 1968); Dog eat dog (Saratoga); Eureka! (The Happiest Girl in the World); It's a far, far better thing I do (Two Cities); Keep it dark (Blossom Time); Keep the home fires burning (Oh, What a Lovely War); Law and Order (Inner City); Leave well enough alone (The Body Beautiful); Little Woman (Jimmy); Make an honest woman of me (Twang!!); One in a million (Jimmy); One of those days (The Billy Barnes Revue); That's That (Mardi Gras); Wages of Sin (Cry for Us All); and last, and probably least, Whatever turns you on (Let My People Come).

19 happened during the original cast album era, but never made it to disc: Beginning of the end (The Night That Made America Famous); Better safe than sorry (Mis-guided); Face the facts (What a Killing); From the cradle to the grave (Sadie Thompson); Generation Gap (Lyle); Give and take(Rondelay); God's gift (It's Better with a Band); Good old days (Make Mine Manhattan); Ins and outs (A Political Party); It takes one to know one (Belle Starr); Lady of the House (Annie 2); Light fantastic (Razzle-Dazzle);Moment of Truth (New Faces of 1962); My brother's keeper (Ari); The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings (The First); Play ball (Gantry); Red-letter day(Rumple); Trials and tribulations (Platinum); and Twist my arm (Catch a Star, the first legit show on which Neil Simon worked).

Then there were eight songs that were dropped prior to Broadway. (Could it be because they were too cliched?): First things first (Tenderloin); Forty winks(Inside U.S.A.); Happily ever after (Company); Little pitchers have big ears (High Button Shoes); Mind your p's and q's (Heads Up); Murphy's Law (The Rink); The social whirl (Kean); The world is my oyster (I'd Rather Be Right). Meanwhile, "Keep Your Chin Up" was not only dropped from Shuffle Along of 1933, but also from Silk Stockings. Both songs are urged to keep their chins up that they'll resurface someday.

Perhaps being too cliched is one reason why six shows closed out of town, with such obvious titles as Flattery will get you everywhere (Break It Up), Fair Sex (That's the Ticket); Hair of the dog (The Kissing Girl); Let well enough alone (Ma's New Husband); In flagrante delicto (Mrs. Farmer's Daughter);Odds and ends (Carefree Heart). Having a song called "The Morning After" did neither I Love a Lassie nor I'll Say She Does much good; there was no morning after after each decided to close without braving New York.

Finally, there are 30 others you may have never heard of, neither show nor title. Let your youth be your consolation for missing: Accidents will happen (My Wife's Family, 1906); Actions speak louder than words (Sweetheart Time,1926); Be good (Ziegfeld Follies of 1908); Belle of the Ball (Vogues of 1924); Better late than never (Jewel of Asia, 1903); Between you and me (Three Romeos, 1911); Birds of a feather (Oh, What a Girl, 1919); Gather roses while ye may (By the Way, 1925); Gay Lothario (A Waltz Dream,1908); Get away from it all (At Home Abroad, 1935); Golden Rule (Mr. Pickwick, 1903); Heart to Heart (The Gay Hussars, 1909); How to win friends and influence people (I Married an Angel, 1938); It's a small world (Honeydew,1920); Let bygones be bygones (Pretty Mrs. Smith, 1914); Little birdie told me (Peggy-Ann, 1926); Man of the World (Dr. Deluxe, 1911); Needle in a haystack (The School Girl, 1895); Penny for your thoughts (Walk a Little Faster, 1932); Pie in the sky (Shoot the Works, 1931); Pull yourself together (Allez-Oop, 1927); Rainy day (Flying Colors, 1932); Tell it to the Marines (Present Arms, 1928); Tickled pink (Take a Chance, 1933); True blue (Hello, Yourself, 1928); Unaccustomed as I am (Walk a Little Faster, 1932);We'll see (Love o'Mike, 1917); When my ship comes in (The Matinee Girl,1926); When the cat's away, the mice will play (Mlle. Modiste, 1925); Where have you been all my life? (Allez-Oop, 1927).

So are theatre writers just chock full of cliches? Perhaps -- but here's a guess that all these well-worn phrases sounded much, much better and far fresher when set to show music.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for The Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at

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