STEVE ALLEN PENS SONGS FOR ‘ALICE’
For entertainer Steve Allen, a few rejections led to the start of something big.
Allen wrote 19 songs for a new musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” that will air in two-hour installments Dec. 9-10 on CBS.
He landed the job from producer Irwin Allen after being turned down for another musical idea.
Best known as a comedian and talk-show host, Allen, 63, also is a prolific writer (he has 27 books to his credit) and songwriter (more than 4,000). He had come to producer Allen with a proposal to mount a new film musical based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” for which he’d written the melodies and lyrics. But they got nowhere in their efforts to sell it.
While commiserating over that project, however, producer Allen suggested that entertainer Allen compose “a few songs” for his dramatic adaptation of Carroll’s novels “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” Allen began reading the script by Paul Zindel.
“Some (places in the script) just cried out to have a song there, like ‘Off With Their Heads,’ ” he said, referring to the Queen of Hearts’ number, which is performed on the program by Allen’s wife, Jayne Meadows.
“Then I began to write,” he related. “I write fast. How well is for others to say, but I write fast. I just couldn’t stop writing.”
Indeed, he returned to the production team with not just “a few songs” but 40.
“A lovely thing happened. They liked all of them,” he said with the look of a satisfied cat. They selected 19 to use on the air.
They also selected Allen to make an appearance in the second part as the Gentleman in the Paper Suit--one of dozens of such cameos that turn up in the production.
Others in the cast include Red Buttons as the White Rabbit, Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat, Anthony Newley as the Mad Hatter, Roddy McDowall as the March Hare and Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle. A newcomer, Natalie Gregory, 10, portrays Alice.
Allen, relaxed and eager to talk about his work on the musical during an interview at his office in Van Nuys, said that two of the songs in “Alice"--"There’s No Way Home” and “We Are Dancing"--actually were written before he got the job. He explained that he keeps his compositions on file and looks through them whenever embarking on a new project.
“We Are Dancing” was an instrumental piece written 30 years ago when Allen hosted the “The Tonight Show.” He used it in his “Music for Tonight” album. He added lyrics so that it could be performed by Lloyd Bridges as the White Knight during a dance sequence with Alice.
The Cheshire Cat’s “There’s No Way Home,” on the other hand, is one of many songs that Allen said have come to him while he’s asleep--including what is probably his most famous song, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” He had thought the melody too emotional and somber for the project, but the producer changed his mind.
“I had written three novelty songs for the Cheshire Cat. Irwin said that they were ‘cute and catchy, but I don’t want this song for the Cheshire Cat.’ This continued and the adjectives (describing what he did want) became more pointed--depressing, threatening, aggressive.”
At that point, Allen pulled out his somber melody and wrote the lyrics to “what may be the most depressing song of all time.”
He added that a New York singer, Rosanna Vitro, wants to record the song but he can’t understand why. “Maybe she’s into suicide,” he joked.
Of the rest of his 19 songs in “Alice,” he said they range from “My Fair Lady-ish” to “Gilbert and Sullivan-y” with almost half of them ballads.
“The ballads touch your emotions. Rhythm songs can never touch your emotions unless you slow them down. One example is what Barbra Streisand did with ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ Nobody ever cared about that song except political parties and marching bands until she slowed it down,” he said.
The musical will cap a year that had Allen, who was the original host of “The Tonight Show,” voted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Hall of Fame.
Among his television credits are “Meeting of the Minds,” which allows Allen to interview actors as famous people of the past; “Life’s Most Embarrassing Moments,” countless comedy specials and the creation of “The Tonight Show” format.
He was self-effacing when asked about the TV Academy honor. “They probably (gave it to me) because I’m getting old and recently began to wear a hairpiece. These things are never totally without reference to one’s achievements but I think there is also something of a sympathy vote when anybody over 60 wins almost anything,” he said.