That classical tune you were just involuntarily singing was Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours." The lyrics, however, were from the pen and strained baritone of Allan Sherman. This poignant letter to home from the kid's sleep-away camp of the damned was a catalogue of horrors and evils including poison ivy, malaria, ptomaine poisoning, wild animals and endless rain. The song became so popular that for all eternity performances of La Gioconda will raise a smile as soon as the familiar theme begins.
Sherman's run of hit musical parodies stretched from 1962 through 1967. You'll have a chance to hear an evening's worth of them beginning this Friday when Theater League presents Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh . . . The Songs of Allan Sherman. This show (continuing weekends through March) is a celebration of the work of the man no less an authority than Dr. Demento calls, "Quite simply, the greatest musical parodist who ever wrote in English."
While putting in time during the Fifties as a gag writer for (among others) Jackie Gleason, Sherman developed the concept for the long-running game show I've Got a Secret. After serving as that show's producer for the better part of a decade, he moved on to work in the same capacity on The Steve Allen Show. It was during this time that he began writing parodies for his own amusement. He could always be called on to entertain his show-business friends with these numbers at private parties and the like, but his, shall we say, interesting voice was certainly never going to make it on record. His singing was reminiscent of certain farm animals vocalizing in the shower.
But somehow somebody at Warner Bros. records got the bright idea of recording an album of Sherman's songs, and My Son the Folksinger became a surprise hit; it was, in fact, the largest-selling comedy album released up to that time. It went to No. 1 on the charts and spawned hit singles and half a dozen follow-up albums. All this from an admittedly overweight, nearsighted guy with a Fifties haircut who basically could not sing a note.
Sherman's songs were a reflection of his times--many of them dealt with America's postwar move to a more suburban lifestyle. He also wrote extensively about a new class of upwardly mobile Jewish men and women just becoming part of the American mainstream. Remember that this was back in the days of segregated resorts, nightclubs, neighborhoods and sometimes even towns. A great deal of Sherman's humor sprang from the recognition of everyday life among young Jewish suburbanites not then reflected in other popular culture. In "Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max," the traveling salesman comes home to be greeted by the entire neighborhood:
Merowitz, Berowitz, Handleman, Schandelman,
Sperber and Gerber and Steiner and Stone,
Boskowitz, Lubowitz, Aaronson, Baronson,
Kleinman and Feinman and Friedman and Cohen,
Smallowitz, Wallowitz, Tidelbaum, Mandelbaum,
Levin, Levinsky, Levine and Levi,
Bramberger, Schlumberger, Minkus and Pinkus
and Stein with an "e-i" and Styne with a "y."
It wasn't all ethnic humor for Sherman, however. In "Automation," he sings a love song to all those newfangled computers then making their way into the workplaces of the land:
It was automation, I know.
That was what was making the factory go.
It was IBM, it was Univac,
It was all those gears going clickety-clack, dear . . .
It may be true that much of Sherman's material is a bit past its sell-by date. After all, these songs were written for and rooted in a much different era--Kennedy was still in the White House when Sherman was at the peak of his popularity. But much of his wit, word play and comical observations still hit their marks.
Theater League actually premiered the show here in Phoenix back in 1991. After a shake-out cruise locally, it worked its way across the country, ending up off-Broadway where it settled in for a successful run with good reviews. The revue, by Rob Krausz and Douglas Bernstein, uses the old songs to follow the adventures of a middle-class Everyman from birth to old age at a Florida retirement community. Directed by Krausz, the cast of local talent includes Kristen Drathman, Robert L. Harper, Beau Heckman, Dana Pauley and Todd Yard.
Opening performances of Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh . . . The Songs of Allan Sherman are at 8 p.m. Friday, March 5; 8 p.m. Saturday, March 6; and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 7. The run continues through Sunday, March 28, at the Viad Playhouse on the Park, 1850 North Central. Tickets are $19.50, available through Dillard's at 503-5555.