When Kathy announced that she was going to throw a talent show for Maggie and her cronies at “Maggie Manor,” I was thrilled. It sounded like one of those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “My dad’s got a barn, let’s put on a show” musicals. For those of you too young or too straight to know what I mean – let’s just say she was going to put on America’s Got Talent, but without the budget…or the talent.
As the producer of the D-List, my first concern was how were we going to afford to air the talent show if people sang real hit songs. One chorus of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” even without the Bette Midler vocals, would cost enough to send our budget crashing. Luckily in music there’s a great thing called “public domain,” which means that any song published in the U.S. before 1922 is free to use. So Beethoven is good to go. “Roll over Beethoven” — not so much. The public domain song list is surprising too. For instance, “Happy Birthday” is not public domain. Neither is “God Bless America.” “The Star Spangled Banner,” however, is. You get the idea.
So I breathed a sigh of relief, figuring that most of Maggie’s friends pre-date 1922, or at least remember that era of music, and provided Maggie with a list of songs that the Manor residents could perform. That was before I got the call from Kathy. She gave me the “good news” that she wanted to invite celebrity guests to perform at Maggie’s musical. Now, it’s one thing getting Bertha McNobody to sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It’s another thing to get country music and Broadway star of “Legally Blonde, The Musical” Laura Bell Bundy to sing it. These songs couldn’t just be old; they had to be classic and star-worthy. It was time for me to really hone the list and make suggestions.
For Laura Bell Bundy, I recommended “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town).” Sure it was written in 1922, but if it was good enough for Sinatra to perform, it was good enough for Bundy. The “King of Confetti,” comedian Rip Taylor, wanted to do a funny song for Maggie so I suggested, “I’m just Wild About Maggie” instead of Harry, and luckily he bit. Kathy wanted to rewrite the lyrics for a song to her mom. I figured she’d want a classic, sentimental tune that Maggie would recognize and she responded to “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It, I Didn’t Want to Do It).” Of course, when Kathy got through with it, it was hilarious. Luckily, Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth liked the song too, and was willing to sing it on camera. Whew. Then along came Cloris….
Cloris Leachman is an amazing woman. She started her career as a classical pianist and won a beauty pageant as Miss Chicago. She went on to win an Oscar for her dramatic turn in The Last Picture Show and has won seven Emmy Awards. Her genius in Young Frankenstein was enough to make me a hopeless fan on set. I gave her three choices: 1) Gershwin’s “Swanee” – a great song, but notoriously performed in blackface by Al Jolson, 2) George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and 3) Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano.” Let’s face it, Cloris wasn’t getting another Emmy with any of these three tunes, but the TV gods smiled and Cloris liked “I Love a Piano,” so we were in business. She also loves Kahlúa and Cream before bed, so go figure.
In the end, our public domain musical was a hit! A big credit goes to Seth Rudetsky who understood our financial dilemma and volunteered his time to work with our talent and musically directed those well-worn classics with spirit. Maggie was in musical heaven and Kathy beamed at the sight of her mom’s smile. I breathed a sigh of relief when it was all over and that we had made through the musical matrix because “I didn’t wanna do it, I didn’t wanna do it.” American Idol doesn’t have these problems, but such is life on the D-List.