Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 26, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Beautiful, Eggs, Quotations
I'm looking forward to seeing the movie Jersey Boys, precisely because it's a "jukebox musical"
-- a Broadway show that strings together a bunch of songs recorded by one group, linking them
with a story that is more or less based on the performers' lives.
Last Thursday we had a chance, passing through New York, to perch in the mezzanine of the
Stephen Sondheim Theater and watch Beautiful, a jukebox musical built around the story and
the music of Carole King.
I had first heard about the musical when I watched Theater Talk on UNC-TV a few weeks ago.
This is a delightful program that originates with CUNY, the City University of New York. The
May 10th episode focused on Beautiful.
They began with Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the songwriting team who in real life were best
friends of and competitors with Carole King and her husband and songwriting partner, Gerry
Goffin. The musical Beautiful, while it is definitely about Carole King, includes actors
portraying Weil and Mann in most scenes, and their hit songs from the 1960s are featured in the
show right along with Carole King's.
Which is actually part of the fun of the musical, because in our era of the singer-songwriter, it's
easy to forget that until the British invasion and the ascendance of folk music, most popular
songs came out of songwriting "factories" in New York City.
Aspiring songwriters migrated to New York because that's where their music might be sold to
publishers -- or, as record sales rather than sheet music began to drive the industry, the songs
might be picked up and recorded by popular groups and soloists.
Getting your song recorded by a popular singer who might take it to the top of the charts was the
quickest and surest way to make a living as a songwriter -- but they couldn't record a song that
they never heard. So the songwriters came to work for publishers, inhabiting tiny cells that
contained, as Weil and Mann explained, "a piano, a couple of chairs, and an ashtray."
All four of them auditioned for Don Kirshner, the "man with the golden ear," who managed
groups and soloists, published music, and maintained a collection of songwriters and songwriting
teams. He would go from office to office, telling the teams, "I need a song for the Drifters," or
"I've got to have a girl song for the Shirelles."
In the meantime, the songwriters were coming up with their own tunes on speculation, and they'd
play the songs for Kirshner or record demos so that singers could imagine what the song would
sound like with their own spin on it. So even though few of the songwriters thought of
themselves as singers, they all sang -- because if they didn't, nobody would know what their
song sounded like.
Kirshner's songwriters included Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Phil Spector, and
many others. When The Monkees was launched on television, each episode had to have a new
song, and if the songs on the show didn't sound like hits, the show would flop. So the producers
turned to a proven hit-maker, Kirshner, who turned to his songwriters to fill the need.
The result was that the fictional "Monkees" had genuine hit songs in the real world. The first
year, the actors sang the songs but others did the instrumentals, for the practical reason that the
shooting schedule didn't allow time for them to learn and record the instrumentals for a new song
Besides, Micky Dolenz, the "drummer," was only just starting to learn how to play. In later
years, they did play the instruments and asserted more control over the music, even writing some
of their own songs. But without Kirshner's teams, that first year might not have gone well
enough for there to be later seasons.
This is the background to the story of Beautiful, which chronicles the marriage and songwriting
partnership of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Were they successful? "Will You Love Me
Tomorrow" (The Shirelles) was a number one hit, as was "Take Good Care of My Baby" (Bobby
Vee). "Some Kind of Wonderful" (The Drifters) never rose higher than number 32 on the
Billboard list -- but I think we can agree that the song had staying power.
When they wrote "The Loco-Motion," a catchy dance tune, they got it recorded by their
babysitter, Little Eva, so that when it became a hit and she went on tour, they had to scramble
to find daycare for their children.
I think we can agree that times have changed, when you realize that one song they wrote was "He
Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)." No, it didn't.
Other songs, though, were recorded again and again. "Go Away Little Girl" charted at number
one for Steve Lawrence in the 1960s -- and then became a number one song again for Donny
Osmond in the early 1970s.
They wrote pop songs, but they also reached into rock and roll: "Don't Bring Me Down" was
recorded by The Animals in 1965 -- and then by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1986. And
Aretha Franklin made sure that "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" had complete
credibility as a woman's soul song in 1967, even though the songwriters were white, and the
lyricist was a man.
Songwriters were the ones who get paid royalties every time their songs were played on the radio,
so that a hit single that got a lot of airplay could earn songwriters a very nice income. But the
songs could mean much more than that. "One Fine Day" (The Chiffons) transcended the
spitefulness of the premise to become more of a triumph song.
And "Up on the Roof" captured the romantic loneliness of adolescence more than any other
song; my generation sang along with fervor -- even if we lived in suburbia and the back lawn or
the car was our place to be alone.
In the musical Beautiful, the Goffin-King songs are joined by a few of Mann's and Weil's mega-hits, most notably the Righteous Brothers end-of-love hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin',"
reputed to be the most-played song in radio history, and "On Broadway," which has become the
anthem of the Broadway stage and has been recorded by practically everybody, including a
memorable part in the musical All That Jazz.
Let's just say that Beautiful was able to draw on a deep and wide selection of beloved, powerful,
But looming over the entire show is one fact: Carole King's first album as a singer, Tapestry,
whose creation marks the end of the play, was for many years the top-selling album in history,
and it became the epitome of the singer/songwriter solo album.
There in the Stephen Sondheim Theater, the vast majority of the packed audience was people my
age ... or older. White hair prevailed (where there was hair at all), and more than once we heard
voices singing along, softly, because ... because we all memorized these songs, playing the album
over and over and over again.
For my wife, Tapestry is tied with her memories of a semester in Paris. For me, it's tied with my
missionary service in Brazil. So my wife's beloved "Paris album" is linked in my mind with
Brazilian singers like Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Chico Buarque.
As a result, nobody in the theater minded that the book was thin and obvious -- the show existed
to string together the songs.
Besides, even with an understudy playing Gerry Goffin, the cast was brilliant. Jessie Mueller,
who plays Carole King, resembles her a little -- but what matters is that she was utterly
convincing as an actress and she performed the songs brilliantly. She was not singing
imitations of Carole King -- she's got more voice, a wider range, a great deal more power,
and she used it all.
In fact, that's one of the glories of Beautiful -- the arrangements and performances of the songs
are respectful to the originals, but they are reinvented to suit the way they're used in the story,
and to fit the needs of the live Broadway stage.
When you consider that the show begins with Carole King in her mid-teens and carries her
forward into wifehood, motherhood, and maturity as a creative and performing artist, the
demands on Jessie Mueller are considerable. I only hope that if someone's going to make a
movie of this musical, they'll do it while Jessie Mueller is still young enough to play the role.
Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector also gave powerful performances -- including first-rate singing
-- as Weil and Mann. Jeb Brown was excellent as Kirshner, and the whole ensemble is effective
at slipping in and out of roles as the various singers and groups who originally recorded the
The set design was a delight, as items of furniture roll in and out and rotate without anyone
touching them; as walls move into place, and platforms slide in from the wings to be various
different settings. The result is a seamless, continuous performance, with set changes going
on in the midst of scenes. It's theatre in its unrealistic but vibrant glory.
If you're going to New York, you can buy tickets in advance at
http://www.BeautifulOnBroadway.com/ . Broadway tickets are not cheap -- but keep in mind
that, unlike a movie, with a play all the actors and crew have to show up every time an audience
is assembled, and of course they all need to be paid each time.
It's worth remembering that just because a show is on Broadway doesn't mean it's good, and just
because you've heard of an actor doesn't mean his or her performance will be worth seeing. I
remember watching Bernadette Peters phone in a truly wretched performance in the title role of
Annie Get Your Gun, and it often happens that the chorus is the best part of the show, as the
weary leading actors are outperformed by the eager young singers and dancers.
But with Beautiful, you get a show that's a pleasure from beginning to end, with no slackers
among the very talented cast.
I've been eating eggs all my life. I even wrote a novel that began with a little kid gathering eggs
from the chicken coop her family kept. I thought I knew how the whole chicken-and-egg
So I'm talking to my brother-in-law, who started raising chickens in their back yard here in
Greensboro a few years ago, and I realize that until this moment I didn't know anything about
chickens and eggs.
Maybe you all knew it and I'm the only ignoramus. But just in case there are others as naive as I:
Did you know that hens live by the feminist slogan, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a
bicycle"? That's because hens can lay eggs quite regularly even if they've never met a
rooster in their lives.
The eggs they lay are infertile -- they can't develop into baby chicks no matter what -- but when
we're eating the eggs, the less baby chick we find inside the shell, the happier we are likely to
I also didn't realize that egg shells are somewhat porous -- but until you wash them, they are
covered with an invisible protective membrane that keeps bacteria from getting inside. This is
vital for the survival of the chicken species, because when a hen "gets broody" she doesn't lay
six or eight or ten eggs at once -- she lays one a day, as always.
As long as she doesn't sit on the eggs, any embryo that might be present won't start developing.
An egg can sit there in the open, uncovered, unheated, and nothing happens -- it doesn't
develop, and because of the protective layer, it doesn't rot.
Then, when the hen has assembled all the eggs she wants in this clutch, she settles in to get keep
their temperature high enough that the embryos will start developing into chicks. Hens will
sometimes pluck out enough front feathers that there's no insulating barrier between their warm
skin and the surface of the eggs, so their body heat is more efficiently transferred.
Of course, my brother-in-law is obeying the law and not keeping a rooster inside city limits. So
when one of his hens gets broody, there's no point to it -- the eggs aren't fertile. Besides, the
family isn't in the chicken-hatching business. They're keeping chickens in order to get eggs, not
However, this one broody hen is tempting them to buy fertilized eggs from somewhere else, and
then swap them for the infertile eggs the hen is brooding on. The eggs she sits on won't be hers,
but chickens aren't famous for their perceptiveness, and she'll no doubt cluck proudly over
"her" little chicks.
What surprised me most was how long unwashed eggs can last without refrigeration. In fact, my
brother-in-law lived in England for a time, and when he first arrived, he was shocked that eggs
were not refrigerated in English grocery stores. They were displayed and sold at room
Likewise, smalltime egg farmers will often gather, keep, and use their eggs without any kind of
refrigeration. They keep them unwashed, allowing that protective layer to keep the eggs fresh
inside the shell. Only when the eggs are washed, exposing the porous shells to the unfriendly
world of eager bacteria, do they start to need refrigeration.
As my brother-in-law explained this to me, I felt as ignorant and yet delighted-to-learn as George
H.W. Bush must have felt when, during a presidential campaign, he saw grocery-store barcode
scanners in use for the first time. Of course, the leftist media had a field day ridiculing him for
how "out of touch" he was with the common people, but at that time barcodes had only been in
use for a few years, and when, exactly, was he going to go out and do his own grocery shopping?
So if you think it's absurd that I could reach 62 years of age without ever knowing that eggs in
their natural state don't need refrigeration, and that hens don't need roosters in order to produce
eggs ... well, I'm a suburban boy and so I only know the things that suburban kids learn.
But that certainly won't be the case for my brother-in-law's kids. All of them help with the
chickens, but their four-year-old has never known a life without chickens in the yard. She
goes out and gathers eggs quite handily, reminding her parents of the fact that we're only a few
generations away from an era when children performed important household tasks from the
moment they were old enough to learn them.
And it's not just egg-gathering. The four-year-old is perfectly able to open the gate and let the
chickens out into the yard to scratch for bugs and seeds and all the other things free range
chickens are wont to do. Then, when it's time to bring them back inside the chicken run, she
claps her hands and the chickens all swarm back into the run in order to receive the treat of
scratch grain (ground corn).
Later, the chickens will be ushered inside the secure coop, which will be locked. This became
part of the routine after raccoons wiped out all but one of their first chicken flock; it's just
one of the joys of living in the woods, as all Greensboro residents do, since our yards are
regularly inspected for dining opportunities during the nighttime rounds of coons and possums.
It's not the same as living on a full-fledged farm. I had cousins who kept a vineyard and orchard
in southeastern Washington, and while we loved to visit them, I never envied them the farming
life. I much preferred curling up with a book to going out and working the farm. The human
race is evolving toward laziness, and I am in the vanguard of that behavioral transformation, the
That sounds like a superhero title -- Sloth-Man! -- except that if Sloth-Man has superpowers,
nobody will ever know. He's just too lazy to use them.
After reviewing the British trivia game show QI, I ordered many of the trivia books that were
recommended on their website. One such book was Advanced Banter: The QI Book of
Quotations, edited by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson.
Books of quotations are great fun to read; they might not be quite so much fun for anyone in the
same room as a person reading one, because the temptation to read them aloud becomes
Even though I'm not a Second-Amendment activist, I did enjoy this quote from Benjamin
Franklin: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a
well-armed lamb contesting the vote."
But imagine my surprise to find that the very next quote was: "If pigs could vote, the man with
the slop bucket would be elected swineherd every time, no matter how much slaughtering he did
on the side." It sounded familiar to me for an excellent reason: I wrote it.
I had no idea that something I wrote had popped up in a book of quotations.
Nor could I tell you exactly where the quotation appeared. I have a vague idea that it was
something I had one of my fictional characters say. This seems likely because my fictional
characters are often much cleverer than I am, and therefore are more prone to say quotable things.
The very next day, someone mentioned "small talk" and I remembered having read somewhere a
comment about how somebody stopped seeing certain friends because "the talk just got too
I said aloud that I wondered where I had read that, and my daughter looked it up ... on her phone,
of course. (Remember when phones just sat there, stupid and plastic, waiting for us to tell them
what number to connect us with?)
At first she didn't find it, because she looked up "the talk got too small." I told her to insert
"just" before "got," and then the quote came right up.
Do you know who said it? Me. It was in one of my best stories, "Feed the Baby of Love." And
as soon as she found it, I remembered exactly the context in which it appeared, and which
character said it.
But I have to say, a writer must be getting old when he remembers a line but doesn't remember
that he wrote it himself.
George Bernard Shaw embraced this quirk and proclaimed, "I often quote myself. It adds spice
to my conversation."
I don't have quite the same attitude, though, for several reasons. First, I plainly don't notice
when I'm quoting myself. Second, I don't memorize my own lines so I couldn't quote myself on
purpose if I tried. Third, I'm not as good a writer as George Bernard Shaw, so I have far fewer
lines worth quoting. Fourth, I'm also not as vain as George Bernard Shaw, and therefore don't
think my lines are worth quoting, or that, by quoting them, I'm "adding spice to the
I have the opposite problem. Because I write this column, my opinions on everything are
already published. I don't ask my friends which of them, if any, read what I write here. But I
run the serious risk of having exhausted all my dinner conversation before I get to the dinner.
My friends have learned that if they interrupt me quickly with, "Oh, I know -- I read your
column on that," it stops my pontification at once. They don't even have to have read my
column, nor do I have to have actually written about the topic. They know I won't remember
when or whether I wrote about any subject, and so they're perfectly safe to shut me up by
claiming to already know what I wrote.
Thus, other people at the table have a chance to talk, even though my natural tendency is to talk
constantly, rather like Winston Churchill did, only he was worth listening to. (He was also
impervious to interruption.)
But in case I should get vain about being in a book of quotations, I'm not the only Card in the
book. My grandfather, Orson Rega Card -- a wise, good man, but not famous and not often
published -- is quoted: "Amongst my most prized possessions are the words that I have
I haven't left enough words unspoken to know what he means.
Let me add just one more quotation, this time from Ambrose Bierce: "War is God's way of
teaching Americans geography."
He wrote this back when geography was still taught in the schools, so apparently the failure to
learn about the rest of the world (or even the rest of the country) is a longlasting American habit.
I'm not sure if that should make me feel better about the current state of education, because we
were never very good at learning geography, or feel even worse, because now about half the
population goes to college and yet we're still as ignorant as when most Americans lived on the
farm, quit school after eighth grade, and never traveled more than ten miles from home.