Barrymore’s Ghost Sings!

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Well, and it just occurred to me that this is the third consecutive show in which I will sing onstage. In Lughnasa, Jack sings a few lines of a song he remembers from his childhood to demonstrate his returning memory; in Final Arrangements Victor croons drunkenly to the wounded flower delivery man; as the second act of I Hate Hamlet begins, the stage directions describe Barrymore as singing to himself.

Maybe it’s the fourth? I don’t remember singing during The Thirty-Nine Steps but it’s certainly the sort of thing that might have happened. Looking at the script, I don’t see any opportunities for bursting into song. Probably didn’t happen, then. Never mind.

I don’t do musicals. I do like to sing, and on occasion people have encouraged me to do musicals, but while my voice is loud and resonant, I can’t consistently sing on pitch, or even hear what pitch I am supposed to be singing on and whether I am on it. I sing perfectly cromulently when it’s a snatch of song unaccompanied by instruments or other singers and nobody knows how the tune is supposed to go. On the few recent occasions where I have had to sing properly, I have found it nerve-wracking. I don’t want that to be my primary experience of rehearsals or the performance. But I don’t really mind this sort of thing.

In the other two shows, the writer specified the song and the part of the song, including the lyrics—I knew exactly what I was supposed to sing and just had to figure out how to sing it and make it work. In IHH, at least in my acting copy, there is nothing beyond singing to himself. I don’t know what Nicol Williamson sang for the Broadway premiere. I mean, given that production’s troubles, I don’t know whether he sang anything, and kinda doubt he sang whatever the writer and director wanted him to. Or of course Dramatists Play Service, Incorporated could have chosen not to print a lyric to which they do not control the rights, even if it was a small enough snippet to avoid violating the rights of whoever does control it. I don’t know. In the absence of advice from the playwright, we have to choose something for Barrymore to sing in our production.

So far, I have been amusing myself. I thing I have sung a snatch from a different song in every rehearsal, mostly without the intention of ever using that song again. We approach Opening Night, however, and a decision must be made. Which song is it to be?

My inclination (and of course the decision is not mine but the director’s, however this particular director has indicated a willingness to take the actors’ inspirations into account) is that it should be a song that John Barrymore might have known before the Opening Night of his Hamlet in November, 1922. I also think it should be a song that at least some of the people in the audience might recognize, or at least recognize as old. And I think the song should be funny to the audience, at least somewhat. Finally, it should be at least plausibly in character for Barrymore’s Ghost as Paul Rudnick has written him and as I am playing him.

It has just occurred to me that Irving Berlin’s “The Near Future”, with its well-known refrain How dry I am, how dry I am/It's plain to see just why I am/No alcohol in my highball/And that is why so dry I am would do. It was originally in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, so it would work quite nicely on all counts. Hm.

Before that occurred to me, I was inclined to “Mademoiselle from Armentières”, which is still a possibility. The problem with that one, of course, is that I still would have to choose which words to use from a gazillion possible verses and a gazillion different versions of each verse. Even ruling out the ones with your actual profanity (there is only one naughty word in the whole play, unless I am missing one somewhere, and it isn’t Barrymore’s Ghost who says it) there are still a lot of choices left. I could indeed sing a different verse every night (including all the rehearsals and any time we work that opening for any reason) without repeating myself, though I would probably have to do a little research eventually.

And while I’m on the subject, a question for y’all Gentle Readers that is only tangentially related but I’m interested in what y’all think… The vast majority of the versions of “Mademoiselle from Armentières” that I’ve seen (which is of course a tiny subset of them) delineate the duration of the titular Mlle’s erotic deprivation as forty years. And yet, it seems to me clear that fifty is both funnier and more alliterative than forty. Is the vowel sound that much better? Is there some other reason why the lower number is the canonical one and the rounder number the variation? Or am I wrong about which is funnier?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “Barrymore’s Ghost Sings!

  1. Vardibidian Post author

    Update: I am being encouraged to continue coming up with new songs… and on a related question, in the song I know as The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, my source indicates that “the verminous pinochle game seems to have been introduced sometime after the war.” I like the pinochle game, though—would it be remiss to include it?


    1. Michael

      Your source is an excellent piece of ethnomusicology. The lyric alternatives quoted do not precisely capture the version of my camp years (whenever those ended, amirite, nudge, nudge), but it’s a lot closer than I expected.


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