Two weeks ago, on the strength of...

Times Book Editor

Two weeks ago, on the strength of a Sylvie Drake review, my wife took my mother and me to see "My One and Only" at the Ahmanson. I came home wishing she had also taken my brothers and sisters, our nieces and nephews, all our cousins and friends, and our five confirmed enemies. Even the enemies would have gone home friends from this happiest of musicals.

Happy --as in happy face and Have a happy day! --is not one of my favorite words. Smile-abuse is in fact, to my way of thinking, America's greatest unrecognized social problem. Not the least part of the triumph of "My One and Only," therefore, is that it rescues happiness from its corrupters and the smile from its abusers.

Chief among the rescuers is Sandy Duncan. In the last scene before the final reprise, Tommy Tune gathers Duncan into his arms and carries her upstage as a shimmering, 30-foot St. Valentine's Day heart descends, hiding the lucky lovers from our eyes. Just at that moment, Duncan lifts her tousled head from Tune's shoulder and smiles at the audience. That smile fills the Ahmanson theater as completely as Duncan's voice does earlier in the show. It bounces off the last row of the balcony. It starts a tear in a thousand eyes. The bridal bouquet that Duncan lofts into the crowd may sail 30 rows (this actress does nothing without energy), but her smile sails farther. Twiggy, who had the female lead when the show opened in New York, was wondrously vulnerable, if vulnerability is to your taste. But if you like your Gershwin sung and danced by a girl who could throw a kiss to the moon, then Sandy Duncan is your one and only.

I come now to my book editor's complaint. Sandy Duncan's first song in this musical is "Boy Wanted," a song that, if she sang it as Ira Gershwin wrote it, would conclude with her saying that she wanted a boy like me:

The movies he must avoid,

he'll know his Nietzsche and Freud.

I said a boy wanted, one who knows books;

boy wanted, needn't have looks.

He needn't be such a saint,

but oh! he dassent say "ain't."

I don't care if his bankroll totals naught,

for we can live on love and food for thought.

If he's a scholar, when I see him I'll holler,

"My lad, I'm glad you answered my ad!"

What she sings instead is:

He must like musical shows,

and he must wear snappy clothes,

Yes, that is my story, and to it I'll stick;

there's no glory in having a hick.

He must be tender and true,

and he must know how to woo.

I don't care if his bankroll totals naught,

for we can live on love and food for thought.

Yes, if he proves to be the right little laddie,

I'll make him glad he answered my ad.

Four verses of the original song are condensed to two in "My One and Only," and most of the words I was waiting to hear are condensed out.

Undaunted, I set out, on the Monday morning after I saw the show, to have these lyrics restored or, at the very least, to have a special performance held at which they would be sung once for the benefit of bookish Angelenos in love with Sandy Duncan. Surely I am not the only one.

Seven or eight phone calls and a day later, I found myself listening to a theatrical gentleman explain in a Gotham growl why my request was unreasonable. The problem, said Peter Stone, was that I didn't understand what a book was, at least not in the sense that musical comedy equals music plus lyrics plus book. Stone and Timothy S. Mayer wrote the book for "My One and Only" by taking songs from various Gershwin musicals and fitting them around a new story. In this new story, Billy Buck Chandler (Tommy Tune), a pilot trying to do what Lindbergh did before Lindbergh does it, falls in love with Edith Herbert (Sandy Duncan), an English channel swimmer. Edith is sophisticated and glamorous. Billy is a farm boy from Texas. What can be done? The solution is provided by the debonair Mr. Magix (Honi Coles), who teaches Billy not only how to dress for a lady but also how to dance and how to woo.

Now, Stone explained, the verses from "Boy Wanted" that are preserved in the new show refer, as they must, to qualities that Billy either possesses or can be taught by Mr. Magix. Mr. Magix teaches dancing and "high hat" manners. He doesn't teach Nietzsche and Freud. And it won't do, either, for the star-struck pilot to be a boy who avoids the movies.

I conceded defeat as gracefully as I could, but now Stone was warming to his subject. He spoke admiringly of Wally Harper, who turned "Boy Wanted" and "Soon," songs from two different shows, into an affecting love duet and who deftly expanded "s' Wonderful" into a show-stopping number which Tune and Duncan dance in (or in and out of) a pool of water. He applauded Michael Gibson whose piano-dominated arrangements make us half-believe that we're in a giant 1920s club instead of a theater.

Due credit given to Harper and Gibson, to Tune and Duncan, and to the rest of this razor-sharp ensemble, Stone reserved a closing word of credit for himself. If plots are nothing in musicals, just a throwaway excuse for the singing and dancing, then why, he asked, did this show, which never lacked fine singing and dancing, falter at the start? The book of a musical isn't written, Stone says; it is "constructed," but good construction counts, and it counted crucially in "My One and Only."

As Stone spoke, I thought of a book just published by Paul S. Eriksson, a small publisher in Middlebury, Vt. "Steal This Plot, A Writer's Guide to Story Structure and Plagiarism," by June and William Noble, speaks of plot the way Stone speaks of construction. Its chapter headings may bring a smile: "Vengeance, Catastrophe, Love and Hate, The Chase, Grief and Loss, Rebellion, Betrayal, Persecution, Self-Sacrifice, Survival, Rivalry, Discovery (Quest), Ambition." But isn't this what plots are all about?

The same mail that brought "Steal This Plot" brought "Errance, Lecture de Jacques Derrida, Une a-theologie postmoderne" (Cerf), the French translation of "Erring, A Postmodern A/theology" (University of Chicago), by Mark C. Taylor. For Taylor, who connects "the Death of God" and "the Closure of the Book" and for "deconstructionist" critics like him in France and America, Peter Stone's sense of the word book is not a tolerant, indulgent sense but the only proper sense. All books, they allege, are constructed, patched together from sources concealed as well as admitted, unconscious as well as conscious. Stone simply admits a little more freely than most what is the truth for all.

To see "deconstruction" as the wisdom of the musical comedy in the halls of high literary learning may be, all in all, the best way to see it. On such a reading, this extremely influential school of criticism isn't mistaken, it simply isn't as new or as portentous as it has sometimes seemed. And, reversing perspective, to see the musical comedy book as the artful application of principles which "deconstruction" has labored to formulate may be the best way to see it too. Seen thus, the book of a musical is a "real" book--a full, voting member of the literary assembly and the only member who can send you home singing.

The Samuel French Bookstore (7623 Sunset Blvd., (213) 876-0570) tells me that musical comedy books are only unpredictably available as bound copies to be purchased and carried away: Only some of Stephen Sondheim, almost nothing of George and Ira Gershwin. The point remains, however; and French criticism is even confirmed, in a way, when a book is unavailable because its real authors are too numerous to be found and too expensive to be put under a single publishing contract.

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