August 2012 Script
Background music: Dave Koz - Over the Rainbow
And that should be enough to give away the subject of this edition of Queer Music Heritage. This is JD Doyle and this is a show I've been working on for a while now, gathering material and a special interview. This show will be about music inspired by the movie "The Wizard of Oz." Now, it won't include cover versions, but instead will have original works that drew their influences from that iconic film. It's another two-part show, and the second part, found at queermusicheritage.com will bring you songs by GLBT artists. But in this part I've got an exclusive interview that fits this show oh so well.
In 1983 composer Fred Barton created a cabaret act on the premise that the character of Almira Gulch had been ignored by the world. It was called "Miss Gulch Returns." The cabaret act was recorded as an LP in 1986, and I loved it immediately. Fred gave me a delightful interview telling me all about it, but before we get to that let's hear the opening track of the recording, where he introduces Almira Gulch.
Miss Gulch Returns - You're the Woman I'd Wanna Be (all 1986)
JD: This sounds like an obvious question, but what was the inspiration for "Miss Gulch Returns"?
Fred Barton: Well, it was an accident. And basically what happened was I played the part of the Wicked Witch and Miss Gulch in a production of "The Wizard of Oz," and this was at A Theatre By the Sea, in Rhode Island, which is a summer stock theatre. And I worked there when I was 18, doing I was a musical director there, and played a few parts, and performed in a cabaret, which they did after the evening productions. So, we did "The Wizard of Oz," I played the witch and one day I just had this bizarre notion that maybe the Miss Gulch character should get up and sing in the cabaret, which was a free-for-all late night entertainment for the audience after the show. Part of the reason for that is I was also musical director for "The Wizard of Oz," so off-stage I played the piano. But I had to be ready to come on as Miss Gulch, and right before Miss Gulch comes on the actress playing Dorothy sings "Over the Rainbow," so I had to be in the full drag off-stage playing "Over the Rainbow," and people took pictures, thought it was funny, Miss Gulch playing the piano for the Dorothy character.
And one thing led to another in my brain. I thought, okay, Miss Gulch plays the piano, maybe she sings, maybe she a little bit of a cut-up. And that night I got up in the cabaret, and put on the costume in front of the audience, so they could see it was me, and sang a song that I had written previously called "I'm a Bitch." So it just started as a three and a half minute routine. And down came that house, so I thought, okay, I'll keep doing that.
And two years later I moved to New York, and I was at the piano bar where we were just starting to do "Forbidden Broadway," and we would hand around, same type of thing, after the show, and entertain the audience stranglers. And I thought, let me try that Miss Gulch thing again. I didn't use the costume, I just talked about the character, and sang the song. And I thought, well, maybe people in New York are too sophisticated for this. Not in the least, it went great. So that's how it began to grow in my mind, that there was something there to develop.
JD: So, how did it become a full musical?
FB: What happened was, I wrote the song "Pour Me a Man," and I originally wrote it for an audition for a movie, for the Mel Brooks office. I ended up not showing it to them, for various and complicated reasons. But I had the song and I thought, okay, this has got to be done. And I couldn't get any of my girl actress friends to do it. They didn't want to do it, so I said, I'm going to have to do it myself. And I remembered of course the Miss Gulch routine and thought Miss Gulch could sing that. And then I wrote a bunch of other songs, in a very short period of time, that I thought would be great for Miss Gulch to sing in an evening. And this was 1983. It was another day, there was not a lot of drag. "La Cage aux Folles" had just opened on Broadway, so there weren't a lot of people doing this kind of thing at that time. And I conceived an evening, in a way that would feature Miss Gulch, and as myself I would present her. So from the beginning it had a lot of me in it, me in a tuxedo presenting this woman, and then turning into her. And the show was originally more of a standard club act. I did songs by other people, like Kander and Ebb, and Strouse and Adams. After the first performance people unanimously said, get rid of those songs, get rid of the Broadway songs, just do your own songs. So I systematically and pretty immediately replaced the songs by other people with songs by me. And that's how it became an integrated show.
I mean, it was tricky with Miss Gulch, because it was a bit of bait and switch. A lot of people thought from the poster that, oh, we're going to go see this campy drag show. And then I'd come out in a tuxedo and sing and talk and carry on for twenty minutes as myself and the audience got very confused. I loved playing with that. I loved watching their confusion. "I thought we were coming to see a drag show, who's the guy in the tux." And then when the least expected it I'd stretch it out as long as I could and then I'd get the drag on, and then it turned into what it turned into. But even then it wasn't just some campy show, campy drag show in a bar, which is back in 1982 that's all there was but there were people, to be fair, there were people who resented that. You know, Iike I told you before, I got more of the straight audience, the more conventional audience. That's not what I expected. I expected that gay audience that were the taste-makers and king-makers of that era, the early 80s, and I think they felt bait and switched, because I wasn't just doing the usual drag show. So a lot of people didn't like the fact that I was bait and switching, that I wasn't what they were expecting.
Okay, you've waiting long enough, time to hear from Miss Gulch herself, singing the song Fred just told you about.
Gulch Returns - I'm a Bitch
Of course that song, "Born on a Bike" was a direct homage to "Born in a Trunk," from the Judy Garland film "A Star Is Born."
JD: The lyrics are so, so witty, were they difficult to write?
FB: Not in the least. I don't have trouble writing lyrics and it's in those instances that it was a matter of once you get the idea, you know, my brain just goes on automatic pilot. I try not to get in the way. So I don't think hard about lyrics. I just let whatever the idea is go. It's sort of a zone that you go into in your head. And I think even though some of them are complicated, some of them are very rhymey and sort of tricky technically, it was not the result of white-knuckled head work. And that's when you know you probably have a good idea, when it comes out of your brain without a lot of grinding.
JD: Talk about Miss Gulch, as you saw her?
FB: Well, the way it developed, as I did the show, after a few performances, I realized and I didn't go into it with this in mind I realized that Miss Gulch, the way the show came together, was actually functioning as a metaphor, for being single, and a little smarter, and a little faster than people around her. She talks fast, she's a quick wit. So once I realized she was a metaphor I went back to the show and sort of stressed that and sort of wrote the show more heavily toward the metaphor. You know, women can get away with more in cabaret. You expect women to be confessional and women can wear their heart on their sleeve, but it's more hard for men. You don't particularly I feel that way you don't particularly want to see a man wearing his heart on his sleeve and sobbing about his life in the cabaret, even in the confessional, autobiographical cabaret scene.
But the Miss Gulch character enabled me to give voice to some of the dark things that I felt about the world, in a funny way that made it palatable. It would have been sort of grotesque if I had done this as myself. So she became a metaphor, almost like "The Purple Rose of Cairo," the Woody Allen movie, when the black and white character jumps off the screen and has to run around contemporary New York, trying to figure everything out. That's basically what I did with Miss Gulch. She steps out of 1939 and 1903 and all the periods from which she came, and becomes this sort of figure outside of the timeline, outside of our timeline, and is a metaphor from the medley for being single and comic. You know, that's why there's that song, to me the centerpiece of the show, the song called "Everyone Worth Taking's Been Taken." Now, "Pour Me a Man" became sort of the takeaway hit that people are singing in all the cabarets, and have been since 1983 now. But to me the center of the show was really the following song, which is "Everyone Worth Taking's Been Taken." It's got some funny to it, but it also nails a little emotional reaction that and I've gotten some good comments on the song, when people get that song I know they get my show. Because that song nails the experience one has if you're single, and you're reading the wedding announcements in the paper you know, the little tinge of is it jealousy or you know, there's a little feeling you get and I tried to get it into that song.
JD: The why-not-me feeling.
FB: Yeah, exactly, exactly, and she never does find out why like, what is different, and it turns out that I struck a chord and I didn't know I would. I thought, oh, maybe this is just my problem or my characteristic. For instance I remember I had two reactions that I always remember to this day about the show. One show incidentally, I didn't play to gay audiences. They stayed away in droves. I got mainly a heterosexual audience this is again, back in '83, '84, '85 and I remember this fairly young woman came up to me, you know, I was 23, 24. So this woman came up to me, she might have been 29, 30, and after seeing the show she came up to me with almost tears in her eyes, she held my hand and said "how did you know what it was like?" I just looked her in the face and said, "believe me, I know what it is like." And then on another occasion a young guy came up to me after seeing the show and said "I've never seen anyone put on such a ridiculous get-up and become so naked." And those are two of my favorite reactions to the show.
Miss Gulch Returns - Everyone Worth Taking
JD: I understand you got to know Margaret Hamilton.
FB: I wish she had seen the show, and she almost did. At my very first performance in the audience was John Fricke. John Fricke is the head of the Judy Garland Fan Club and has written books and books on the subject. He does the notes and the commentary for the MGM DVDs and so forth. And he came to see the show, he had been a friend of mine, he came to see it, and he took the program from the show to Margaret Hamilton, cause he was a friend of hers. And he told me that she thought it was funny that someone had pulled this character you know, people think of the Wicked Witch, but they don't think of Miss Gulch so much so she thought it was funny that someone had picked up that character and done something with it.
But at that time I was doing the show late at night, like eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock, that was when the city stayed up and did fun stuff, and she couldn't come in that late and see the show. And then she passed away about three, four months later. But I had met her and had a correspondence with her earlier on. And I saw her in "Oklahoma" in 1968, here in New York, a production of "Oklahoma" and then I wrote her a letter, a fan letter. I guess that was 1969, I remember Judy Garland had just died. And then she sent me letters and we wrote back and forth, and she sent me autographed pictures, which are hanging here on my wall.
And then I met her when she came to Boston in "A Little Night Music," the Sondheim musical, when she was Madame Armfeldt. I went backstage, she spent some time with me. She was so great with her fans. She would spend any amount of time with them, and she sat and talked with me for a long time. And actually there was another thing too, in 1983, in the summer of 1983, they refurbished "A Star Is Born," the Judy Garland movie and they also did a screening of "The Wizard of Oz" in L.A .I was living in L.A. at the time, and they did a screening of "The Wizard of Oz" and had a symposium, a presentation with all the surviving people who worked on "The Wizard of Oz." And Margaret Hamilton was there, and you could have heard a pin drop. There were maybe 1500 people in the Academy Theatre, and she spoke so eloquently and so wisely and with such humanity. And I remember it thinking I didn't know I was going to be writing a Miss Gulch show, but at that time it stuck in my head at how ironic it was that in the movie "The Wizard of Oz" everyone identifies with Dorothy. She's the heroine and the person that everyone identifies with, but all those years later there was an audience rapt listening to Margaret Hamilton offer her words of wisdom and very humanistic reflections on life, from the end of her life. It was amazing.
So that planted, subconsciously probably in my head that, oh, it's the older woman, it's Miss Gulch, she's the one who's got the wisdom and reflection and philosophy. So that turned up in the show a few months later when I wrote it.
JD: I understand you had to change the playbills from "Miss Gulch Lives" to
FB: That was one of those crazy things. I mean, the show was originally called "Miss Gulch Lives!" with the picture of me as Miss Gulch, so I did it that way for a number of performances. And then, I think what happened was I changed venues, I moved to a different performing space in New York and I had new posters done, called "Miss Gulch Lives!" and they were about to go up all over town. In New York they plaster these posters on every available space. And over night Margaret Hamilton passed away. And there I was putting up posters all over town that say "Miss Gulch Lives!" I felt horrible. I thought, what an unfortunate title, it had become an unfortunate title, just by a bad luck piece of timing and then I thought, you know, I'll change it to "Miss Gulch Returns!" So it was her death that inspired me to change the title, and it actually is a better title, so that's how the title change came about.
JD: To me the stand out song has always been "Pour Me a Man." Would you talk about that song in particular?
FB: Well, that song, I can tell you how I wrote it. Mel Brooks office was producing a movie and they were looking for a song that the leading lady would sing in a bar. It was a twenties movie and they wanted the leading lady to sing a song in a bar surrounded by men. And I heard about this search for the song, and at that time I was not a writer. I was a piano player and a musical director, and I knew people who were auditioning to write that song, and a friend of mine got an audition to write the song and I went with him, as a piano player to Mel Brooks' office to accompany him on the audition. And they were not 100% happy with what he wrote, so they sent him away to write it again. And I couldn't say anything cause basically I am a good friend. So I didn't want to say, oh, by the way everybody, I could write this song. And I also wasn't even sure I could, cause I hadn't been writing regularly.
So I went home to my hotel room, in L.A., thinking, okay, that could have been me. I have lost an opportunity here and the only reason it wasn't me is because I haven't been writing. I thought, if I'm so good why haven't I been writing? And just as an exercise for my own head, I said if that had been my audition what would I have written? And I sat down and about an hour later I had "Pour Me a Man" sitting on my desk. And I went to bed and I got up the next morning and it's the first song I'd written in a couple years, cause I was busy doing all this other musical direction and such I got up and I looked at this song, and it was almost as if some total stranger had come in and left it on my desk. I thought, where did this come from? It was almost dissociative, the song coming out of me, thinking again to when a song just comes out of your brain without a lot of grinding.
That is how "Pour Me a Man" came into being, and that's largely what led me to do the Miss Gulch show, I thought, well, great, I've got two songs, cause I had "I'm a Bitch," "Pour Me a Man" and very quickly, in a week or two, all the rest of the songs came out of me, and I did the show.
JD: Is "Pour Me a Man" the only song that's been taken out and recorded by others?
FB: "Everyone Worth Taking's Been Taken" has been recorded, and I'm trying to think of any of the others, I think it's just those two. It's funny, I actually I would have expected more to be recorded than "Pour Me a Man," and maybe we'll get more in the future, I hope so, because a ton of people have sung it. I mean, I've literally walked into cabaret rooms, around the country by total coincidence, and someone gets up and sings "Pour Me a Man." And I've heard of people doing it all over the place. It's just become one of those go-to songs for usually a woman singer, sometimes a drag singer. And originally I just had the first verse and chorus, and then it went so well in the show that I wrote a whole second verse and chorus, so now that's why it occurs twice in the show.
Miss Gulch Returns - Pour Me a Man
JD: I listened again this morning to the entire CD, I also have the vinyl copy, and marveled that the material is not dated at all.
FB: Well, I guess that's partly because of luck and partly because I guess because I was writing about something emotional and human. It's hard to say. There actually are aspects of it that are dated to me, which I'm not happy about but that's life, thirty years, what are you going to do? Because, when I wrote the show there was a place, well, there still is, a place in the Village here in Greenwich Village in New York called Marie's Crisis, where in my day, when I was 18 years old there would be a hundred men in there at the bar singing Judy Garland songs, and show tunes. And so that's why I wrote the song "It's Not My Idea of a Gig," also known as "62 Men and Me Singing 'Over the Rainbow.'" Because I was making fun of this particular bar, and I had seen some similar bars around the country when I was touring. So now they don't sing Judy Garland songs, and show tunes. They sing a lot of rock and pop, like the piano bars in the cabaret world have all gone off the rail, to my mind. That particular song has become nostalgia, because the bar isn't like that anymore. It was like that for decades and decades and decades, so I basically was trying to write a tribute and pastiche of those types of bars, which really no longer exist, because again, in 1983, we still had an old school cultural outlook about musical theatre, about Judy Garland, these were our cultural icons. Now the icons have shifted. There's still some Judy Garland left in our culture, and Broadway, but now people are outside, it's no longer the dominant cultural icon. You know now people quote people like Barbra Streisand as gay icons. It is less Judy Garland, that's very old school. And I was definitely old school.
Miss Gulch Returns - It's Not My Idea of a Gig
JD: Do you have any very funny memories of performing the Gulch show?
FB: Let me think, I can't say I did, but it's hard to say because I was mostly so concentrating you know, it was, it's much longer than the CD, or the LP. The recording was done, it was one of the last vinyl recordings ever done, literally, in a masterpiece of bad timing. I mean, CDs were coming in but at that time we didn't think they were more expensive, they were kind of new. So we you know, there was still vinyl being sold so we did a vinyl album. But the restriction on a vinyl album was how much music you could get on one side, and still have it sound good. There are all these technical reasons why, you know, the more music you pack onto an LP the worse it sounds. So the standard for a basic LP was 22 ½ minutes per side, so that's what it is. But the show was 75 minutes, so there's a whole 30, 35 minutes that's not on the LP.
JD: Are there one or two audio versions I could in my show, as like, songs not on the original
FB: Yeah, I did the show, the 20th anniversary version of the show, and that was in 2004, and for the occasion I wrote a new song for the show. I looked at the show and thought, you know, I can use another up-tempo, and I can use it in the second half of the show. So I wrote a new song called "I Can Be an Icon, Too," and I have a good recording of that which I can send you.
JD: Great, thank you.
Miss Gulch Returns, 20th Anniversary (2004) - I Can Be an Icon Too
I'm nearing the end of the show, and when Fred was discussing the song "Pour Me a Man" he mentioned he wrote a second verse, which I can't resist giving you.
Miss Gulch Returns - Pour Me a Man, Part II
While I love, Love the album "Miss Gulch Returns," I would not be doing justice to Fred Barton if I didn't mention some of his other accomplishments. And they are many, as a songwriter, TV composer, orchestrator, conductor, pianist, actor-singer, and writer. To go way back he was the original arranger and musical director of the long-running revue "Forbidden Broadway." He also served those roles on the hit show "Whoop De Doo," which won two Drama Desk Awards. His arrangements and orchestrations have appeared on numerous CDs and he has done so many for orchestras that they are played almost weekly by symphonies throughout the country. I could go on and on but check out his website, at FredBarton.com for more info.
This is JD Doyle, and don't forget that on my own website, queermusicheritage.com you can find Part 2 of this show, for a whole segment on songs by GLBT artists influenced by "The Wizard of Oz." To close I asked Fred if he had any final comments.
FB: "Miss Gulch Returns" started as my personal club act, in the cabaret rooms of New York. I think partially because I got extraordinary press, in those days people didn't run club acts indefinitely, and I ran it indefinitely, I just went on and on and on. So I got national press, which was very unusual, I had a really great press agent. Over the years it turned into, as I moved on to Broadway and other things, people wanted to do Miss Gulch as a piece of theatre, and it's now turned into a theatre piece, frequently it's been presented at theatres across the country and in England. So it's quite phenomenal to me that it has a life beyond me, and the first time I went to see someone else do the show it was an out-of-body experience, watching another actor, reading my life, having my life coming out of this other person's mouth very strange experience, and a lot of fun. But again, it was just a very unusual circumstance over the years that this thing transmogrified itself from its humble origins as a three minute cabaret turn, into a cabaret show, into an album, and then into a piece of theatre that theatres produce now.
And here's the finale of "Miss Gulch Returns," "Everyone Worth Taking."
Miss Gulch Returns - Everyone Worth Taking Part II / Finale
This is JD Doyle and welcome to Part 2 of Queer Music Heritage for August. As you heard on Part 1 the show this month is dedicated to songs inspired by the story "The Wizard of Oz." I'll feature only original songs by Friends of Dorothy, I mean, by GLBT artists, and my criteria is to not include cover songs, either from the movie or its direct offshoots, like "The Wiz," "Return to Oz," or "Wicked." I've found quite a variety of songs, and started with the most obvious one of all, Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," a huge hit from 1973. You may not recognize another song on the rest of the show, but that's never stopped me in the past. Some of the songs may only have a passing reference to the story and others may keep to the idea throughout, like this next one. It draws metaphors all through the song and is by one of my favorite artists, Mark Weigle. From his very first CD, from 1998, called "The Truth Is" comes the song "Oz."
Weigle - Oz (1998)
What a nice set that was. In the middle was Roger Kuhn and "No Place Like Home," from his 2006 album "Proof." And then I played "The Tinman," by Kevin Wood. That's from his CD from 2002 called "Haven't Had Enough."
Here are three songs, this time by female artists, starting with Nan Collie, who is also a member of the group Motherlode, and that group has performed together for over 30 years. Nan had a solo release in 1991, a cassette called "I Will Listen," and from it is "Wings of Song."
Collie - Wings of Song (1991)
In the middle of that set was a very rare cassette recording by Paula Walowitz & Friends, called "Last Night at School Street." There's a story behind that title, and it involves Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, a long running woman-only space in Chicago. In 1990, after renting the same space in a church for over 13 years, the church, under new management, decided they no longer wanted to rent to lesbians. So that live recording was the last at that location, but happily they found a new and more supportive space. The coffeehouse closed in 2005, making 31 years of celebrating womyn's community. The song, by the way, was just called "Oz." Finishing the set was Ann Reed, a prolific artist who has also been a performing musician for over 30 years. You heard the title track from her 1993 album "Hole in the Day."
Here's something a little different. I guess it should be of no surprise that "The Wizard of Oz" has inspired entire musical shows based on the premise, but taking things in the authors' own directions. One example is from 2003 when English playwright Peter Scott-Presland, formerly known as Eric Presland, came up with a show called "Dorothy's Travels." He did the book and lyrics and David Harrod provided the music, and the plot and characters were, let's say familiar. Once Dorothy had accidently dispatched with one of the wicked witches she decided to flee to London to get help from, not a wizard, but an advice columnist. Along the way she met a window dresser named Dizzy Queen, a leatherman named Butch Queen and a policeman named Closet Queen. Here's a snippet where they recruit the last of the trio, Closet Queen, to join them. The song is "We're Going to the City."
Dorothy's Travels - We're Going to the City (2003)
And here's one taking a lot more leeway with the story. In 1981 there was a musical named "Sparkles, The Ultimate Fairy Tale" and it even was released on vinyl. Written by Michael Lewis and Jim Murdock, the story is very, very gay. Instead of Dorothy in a hurricane, we find Larry, a hairdresser, toiling away in a posh beauty salon, when suddenly a terrific electrical storm shorts his hairdryer and he finds himself in mystical La La Land.
- La La Land (1981)
Not your typical Scissor Sisters song, that was "Return to Oz" from their 2004 debut album. That song is said to be about drug abuse, particularly of crystal meth, in the gay community.
Here comes the only punk rock song on my list, "Dorothy's Last Fling," by the Chainsaw Kittens. It's from their 1996 self-titled album.
Kittens - Dorothy's Last Fling (1996)
Following the Chainsaw Kittens was Anthony Whitaker and the title track from his 2003 EP "All in Good Time." And then came Brian King and his band called What Time Is It, Mr Fox. You heard "Song for the Tinman" from their 2005 release.
Up next are two songs by Allison Tartalia. Lately she's been releasing music under the name Allison's Invention, but in 2000 she recorded a demo called "Mr Wizard," and then in 2002, when she released her CD "Ready," it included the song "Dorothy's Reply."
Tartalia - Mr Wizard (2000)
I've kind of been saving these two songs, not only because I think they are excellent but because I like the novelty that they have the same title. In 1982 Cris Williamson included a song on her album "Blue Rider," and in 1996 Michael Holland had a song on his album "Thank You for the Afghan." Both were called "Surrender Dorothy."
Williamson - Surrender Dorothy (1982)
I just love that one, and about everything else Michael Holland records. This is JD Doyle and I have been wanting to do this show for a while now, so I thank you for joining me to see how it turned out. Of course I also thank Fred Barton for the wonderful interview in Part 1. For the closing song I'm slightly breaking my rule about not including cover songs, but I think this one is special. It's by theatre, television and movie star John Barrowman and actually I had two choices for this one. The song is "The Wizard and I," from "Wicked," and I have John singing it, wonderfully, in concert. And I also have him doing a version called "The Doctor and I," which he did because in 2005 he had a featured role in the British TV show "Doctor Who." He became so popular in it that it led to his own series, "Torchwood," in the very sexy and gay role of Captain Jack Harkness. As that version's a little harder to find, I'm giving you "The Doctor and I."
Barrowman - The Doctor and I (2010)
Above, THE best Wizard of Oz