I am a straight man who loves old Broadway musicals. This may not qualify as an oxymoron or a paradox, but a meeting of similar people in my county could probably meet in a minivan. Part of this love can be attributed to my upbringing. My mother belonged to the Columbia Record Club and at least every other month she’d get an LP in the mail. “Lil’ Abner,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Oklahoma” and “The King and I” were just a few of the album covers I still have imprinted on my memory. As you can tell from this list, though, my mother not a discerning fan of musicals, although she was voracious. It couldn’t just have been parental influence that infected me, though, because I don’t remember my parents instructing me to treat learning as sacred but school as a boring mockery of learning. I figured that out all on my own.
The first album I waged an active campaign for was “Mary Poppins.” (Here, since I was seven, “waging a campaign” can be defined as whining, wheedling, begging and shamelessly singing the score until my parents decided they’d rather hear Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke than my warbling.) While I know the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack was not a Broadway musical—it was written for the screen and was a Walt Disney film—the principal stands. If you disagree, I’ll start singing “Feed the Birds” or “It’s a Jolly Holiday” and not stop until you’ve changed your mind.
In addition to enjoying the hummability of musicals, I honestly, really and truly learned things from them. Not just Civil War history, although I’d never otherwise have known of Jubilation T. Cornpone (“With our ammunition gone, and faced with utter defeat/Who was it that burned our crops and left us nothing to eat?”) Musicals also taught me that love came like malaria, on the night air across a crowded room on some enchanted evening, and that in dreams begin reality, whether they are impossible or not. This last song, from “Man of La Mancha” was the theme of my first year as a baseball fan, 1967, the Red Sox’ Impossible Dream year.
With all seriousness, one song in particular has never flickered in my heart, never gone off my hit parade and never ceased to be “sung” by me. The word “sung” is in quotes not just in recognition of my inability to carry a tune, but because I’ve often used the song as a weapon, chanting it maniacally, as though it were the flip side to Sid Vicious’ desructocreation of “My Way.” That song is “Happy Talk,” from South Pacific. I know it’s sung by Bloody Mary in a pidgin offensive to today’s ears; still the message is a touchstone that has helped me though much of my life:
“Happy talk, keep talking happy talk.
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You’ve got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?”
As sit beside a slowly flowing stream, nearly-bare late-October trees on either bank, the 70-degree sun shining on my head and Sam (is a dog) dozing beside me, I feel as though a dream has come true. Once I’ve posted this, I expect I’ll nap, so I can dream more dreams for the universe to make real.
I am a happy man.