On Friday, I had dinner with my cousin Jim and his wife Olga. (I guess that thanks to whimsy this is just the day for Tales of Cousins.) They invited a few friends, and after the dinner he showed down of his river and boat slides, including a lot of steamboats. Jim worked in boat field for 30 years or so -- starting with repairs, and then moving into the development of high-tech products for private, commercial and government shipping. (Those of you with keen eyes will recall that the photo in the "About Elisberg Industries" section above is me "piloting" a paddlewheel boat down the Mississippi...)
Anyway, afterwards, I asked him if he knew the song, "Something's Always Happening on the River," which I thought he'd enjoy. It's from the little-known musical, Say, Darling, though being a river song I figured there was at least a slight chance. But no, he didn't. So, when getting home, I tracked it down online and sent him a link to it.
I also sent him the background to the song, rather than just the song itself, because I figured it would help in enjoying the song more, knowing what's going on with it. Again, bear with him, this is the part of the backstory that's helps with the end. What I wrote was --
Thanks much for the dinner and enjoyable evening. It was a good time. And when I got in my car I found out how late it was. Yipes! Sorry. But then I sort of enjoyed taking advantage of Jim not having to go off to work in the morning…
This is the song I was telling you about, “Something’s Always Happening on the River.” It’s from the musical “Say, Darling,” which didn’t have a long run in the late-50s, but a respectable one, written by the famous team of Jule Styne (who wrote “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl”) and Comden & Green (who wrote “Bells are Ringing” and “On the Town,” and the screenplay to “Singin’ in the Rain”).
Ostensibly, the show is about the making of a musical. But it’s history is more convoluted and interested than that. To describe it accurately it is a play about a musical based on a book about a musical based on a book.
Here’s a translation in English.
A writer named Richard Bissell wrote a novel called “7-1/2 Cents” that was adapted into the famous musical, “Pajama Game.” He then wrote another novel loosely based on his experiences having his book turned into a musical. That second novel was called, “Say, Darling.” And it in turn was made into what basically was a musical, though was described as a “play about a musical.”
One little real-life tidbit which relates to the song, but which you’d find interesting. Before becoming a writer, Richard Bissell was a licensed riverboat captain. (Apparently he and Mark Twain are the only two riverboat captains who became professional writers.) Though “Pajama Game” and “7-1/2 Cents” had nothing to do with the river, the fictitious world of “Say, Darling” did, overlapping with Richard Bissell’s former life. What this particular song is about is the writer at the end of the show being wistful about how his simple book about the river has been blown out of proportion into this big Broadway musical, and musing about the simplicity and joy of river life.
There! That’s the story…
And so I sent the email and its long story and song-link off. And when I got his reply back...this, to my surprise, is what he wrote --
"I have read a few books by Richard Bissell including My life on the Mississippi or why I am not Mark Twain and a book form the Rivers of America Series The Monongahela.
"His river experience, writing style and sense of humor made them especially enjoyable for me."
What a hoot! He not only knew of Richard Bissell, but had actually read a couple of his books! And the character singing was a fictionalized version of Bissell himself. And if I hadn't sent that interminably long background to what the song was -- which ultimately was totally unnecessary, but...well, what I do -- there wouldn't have been that connection to Richard Bissell. Which tends to be one of the reason I write interminably long background tales. They just don't usually have this connection as the result. Or usually any connection. But I do find that having some perspective makes it all the more fun anyway.
For those of you curious, here's the song in question. It's the big finale to the show, performed by David Wayne. And I might as well toss in a couple other things about the musical. It actually didn't officially promote itself as "a musical," but rather -- as I wrote above -- a play about a musical. There wasn't even an orchestra. Instead, because it was about putting a musical together, they did it as realistically as possible, using only two pianos on stage, as if they were rehearsal pianists. When the cast album was produced, however, they did get a full orchestra and had someone come in and write orchestrations, specifically for the record. As I said, the show isn't particularly well-known, but it had a solid run of 332 performances, which is almost a year. The reason I know about the show and why the family had the cast album sitting around is because my parents had taken a trip to New York in the late '50s and saw it. It's a fun, pretty good, albeit slight score.
This is the song --