Sapelnikoff, Dimitrieff, Tscherepnin, Kryjanowsky…”—“Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians),” from the musical Lady in the Dark, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, music by Kurt Weill, book and direction by Moss Hart (1941)
I could go on and on like this. But aside from copyright restrictions, a little bit of this goes a long way—or, as the intro to the song goes, it’s enough to “give me brain concussion.”
Now imagine this, but instead of just eight tongue-twisting Russian names, you have more than 50—and sung in less than 40 seconds!
That was the frightening technical challenge facing Danny Kaye (pictured) in Lady in the Dark, which premiered at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre 75 years ago today. The star of the show, Gertrude Lawrence, had her own second-act showstopper in “The Saga of Jenny,” but Kaye, a supporting player, came close to upstaging her with this number.
I had always thought that “Getting Married Today,” the Stephen Sondheim number from Company, sung by a bride-to-be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, was the most astonishingly fast song I had ever heard until I got a load of this. The task facing Kaye may have been greater because those words had at least three, often four, syllables, often with an "s." Now, multiple that in a compressed time frame when you barely have time to catch your breath, and you’ll have an idea of what was involved.
(If you still can’t imagine this, then listen to this YouTube clip of Kaye reenacting the number for radio some years later.)
Lady in the Dark would have been an event to remember in any case. It marked Ira Gershwin’s return to Broadway for the first time since his brother George had passed away tragically from a brain tumor four years before. It starred Lawrence, a transatlantic star of the stage. And, in depicting a magazine editor’s monologues to her psychotherapist as songs, playwright-director Moss Hart helped musical theater take further advances along the road paved by Show Boat and Pal Joey.
But the presence of Kaye was something else entirely. His performance helped get him discovered by the wife of producer Samuel Goldwyn, who soon brought him out to Hollywood and got him under contract. Though he appeared on TV in later years, and even returned to Broadway in the 1970 Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two, it is through the cinema, in the likes of White Christmas, The Court Jester, and Hans Christian Andersen (scripted by Hart), for which he is best known today.
I may well have come across the star in a rather unusual setting. In the mid-1970s, I was with my brother and a friend on a road trip to New England when our car pulled right behind a limo slowing down at a Connecticut toll plaza. “Look!” my friend said, pointing to the vanity license plate of the limo. It read DANNY K.