Well before Billy Collins’s hilarious send-up of nostalgia (Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult) came the work of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross in their musical Damn Yankees. Adler died Thursday at the age of 90, having long survived his collaborator. Ross died in 1955 at only 29, having helped by then write the lyrics and music for two blockbuster Broadway hits.
In Damn Yankees, the Devil, disguised as the magician Mr. Applegate, sings, “Those Were The Good Old Days.” In it he laments:
I see Bonaparte a mean one if ever I’ve seen one,
And Nero fiddlin’ through that lovely blaze,
Antoinette, dainty queen,
With her quaint guillotine,
Ha, ha, ha, those were the good old days….
For writers, so-called “book songs” such as this one are the biggest delight of classic musicals — pieces to learn from. These are the songs that never make it to the top of the charts, but advance the plot and reveal the characters.
It was, indeed, Adler and Ross’s first hit, Pajama Game, also in the mid-50s, that introduced to me the idea of the book song. As a kid I went around singing “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” and “Seven and a Half Cents” so often that my friends were certain I’d gone berserk. Wasn’t I more impressed, they wanted to know, with the blue suede shoes of Elvis Presley?