STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: What's in a Nickname?

Special Features   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: What's in a Nickname?
May I say one more thing about "The Season," William Goldman's 1969 tome that I celebrated a couple of weeks ago? I said it was the best book ever written about Broadway -- but may I add that it contains my favorite index entry?

May I say one more thing about "The Season," William Goldman's 1969 tome that I celebrated a couple of weeks ago? I said it was the best book ever written about Broadway -- but may I add that it contains my favorite index entry?

Here's what I mean: Check My Fair Lady in the back index, and you'll find page numbers 10, 165, 166, 205, 259, 334-35, 366 listed.

Okay, so where are you going to find the most information on My Fair Lady? Pages 334-35, right?

Wrong. Check those two pages, and you'll find that Goldman is in the midst of is stating that all shows must eventually confront the prospect of closing: Oklahoma faced it; Fair Lady, too. Dolly and Fiddler will have to."

But here's the thing. The word Fair is the last word on page 334, and Lady is the first word on 335. So what you have is two words representing only two-thirds of the title, and yet taking a two-page index entry. Has there ever been a longer one for so short a reference? That brings us to the subject of nicknames for Broadway musicals. My Fair Lady became so famous and familiar that people tended to abbreviate it as Fair Lady. Had My Darlin' Aida lasted long enough, would it have become chummily known as Darlin' Aida? Would Favorite Year be what we'd call that Ahrens-Flaherty show? And had Mame retained its title My Best Girl -- which it was officially named for a while -- would we have come to call it Best Girl?

Mame never had a nickname, for one-syllable titles stand on their own. (Cats, Dude, Hair, Nine, Rags, and Rent). Two syllable names (Baby, Candide, Follies, Gigi, Purlie, and Raisin) aren't shortened, either, nor are those that sport three (Allegro, Cabaret, Camelot, Evita, and Tenderloin.). I mean, what would you call Oliver -- 'Liver?

On the other hand, when the three syllables encompass two words, you often get an abbreviation. Sweeney and Charity come to mind.

The one-word, three-syllable rule is one of the reasons why Chicago has never been called Chi. Perhaps, though, it would have been had Comden and Green, and not Kander and Ebb, written the show. For Betty and Adolph loved that abbreviation for Chicago, as is witnessed by their using it not only in It's Always Fair Weather, but also many years later in On the Twentieth Century.

We can even go to four syllables without abbreviation (Shenandoah), albeit rarely. I Do! I Do! has never been referred to as Do-Do (though I recall a couple of critics thinking it was just that).

But it does work for Aspects, La Cage, Les Miz, and, of course, Dolly. It doesn't play, though, with Hello, Solly. You can say, "I went to see 'Dolly' last night," and everyone will know what you mean. But say "I went to see Soll' last night," and people will say, "Who's he?"

With five or more syllables, you can almost always expect a shortening: Destry, Happiest Girl, Little Shop, Merrily, Pump Boys, Side by Side, Smokey Joe's, Subways, and Goldman's aforementioned Fiddler. We're on a last-name basis with La Mancha, Molly Brown, Night Music, Sixpence, and Whistle, and Superstar, which we couldn't blasphemously refer to as Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, we're on a first-name basis with Flora, Irma, Jacques Brel, and Joseph. And yet, it's Nanette for No, No, Nanette. Calling it No, No is a no-no.

Nicknames, of course, most often occur with the lengthy titles. If there's a break in the action (be it with or without comma), we tend to keep the first half of the title and drop the latter (On a Clear Day, I'm Getting My Act Together, Roar of the Greasepaint, Stop the World, To Live Another Summer).

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, though, is a title that has come to have two separate official nicknames. If Ira Gershwin were writing his "You say tom-ay-to, and I say to-mah-to" song today, he just might write, "You say Funny Thing, and I say Forum."

Though overlong titles usually get chopped to their first words (How to Succeed, Your Arm's Too Short), the last word sometimes gets stressed (Wholesale). And if one word in an protracted title is particularly pungent (Whorehouse), that's the one we use.

Of course, Whorehouse could refer to The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, but nobody ever speaks of that show, so there's no chance of confusion. Similarly, Birdie always means Bye Bye, and never Bring Back.

Those of us who were fans prior to 1977 meant a different show when we referred to Annie -- i.e., Annie, Get Your Gun. But ever since then, Annie has of course meant Annie. No one ever called Annie Warbucks Annie, though a lot of people always called it Annie 2.

For A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, always say Hollywood/Ukraine; never say Day/Night. For Finian's Rainbow, always use Finian's, but never Rainbow, lest your listener confuse it with a 1928 Vincent Youmans' musical, or 110 in the Shade, which used Rainbow as an early title.

110 in the Shade is often called 110, as is at least one other title with a number (1600) -- though 1776 stands alone. After all, you couldn't slice 1776 into 17, because then people would think you're talking about that 1951 musical based on Booth Tarkington novel.

Phantom of the Opera used to be Phantom, but that hasn't worked as effectively since the Yeston-Kopit musical, simply called Phantom, started getting endless productions around the globe. Shall we now nickname the Lloyd Webber show Opera? Or would people think we mean Threepenny?

The titles that start with Mr. tend to be kept as is. Nobody ever called Mr. Wonderful Wonderful (for more reasons than one). And that's Mr. President to you, sir!

Nicknaming reached it apotheosis when The Mystery of Edwin Drood officially pared its name to Drood, even erecting a new marquee on the Imperial to show it meant it. One of the first things I always check whenever I enter the apartment of someone stagestruck is to see where The Mystery of Edwin Drood is filed in the collection. Many a pal of mine really did dutifully remove it from the "M's" and deposit it into the "D's." And what do I do with my two? (Remember, some years after the Polygram issue came the Varese Sarabande reissue, with some added -- and subtracted -- material.) I file both under "M," because each spine sports the full title.

On the other hand, I file Superman, as both the LP and CD spine tells me it's called, under "I," for It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman, which is the official name of the show. I know, it doesn't make sense. But neither does the word "science" when you apply the old "'I' after 'E,' except after 'C'" rule. So there.

We're not alone in nicknaming. Opera enthusiasts refer to Traviata and Boheme. Rock fans know "The Stones." And while we might think that "The 'Stros" are those dancers who have worked for Susan Stroman, Houstonians will tell you that's their moniker for their Astros, the town's pro baseball team.

So when did all this start? Well, we can at least trace the nicknaming of musicals back 118 years. For in 1879's "The Pirates of Penzance, Sir W.S. Gilbert himself wrote about "that infernal nonsense Pinafore," dropping the H.M.S. from his own show in the process. If Gilbert felt that the custom of abbreviating was okay, we can feel free to adopt it for those many musicals that we've come to know and love.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at

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