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Some 30 Years Later, It's Still 'Muddah's' Day

Theater: Duo takes universal problems in Allan Sherman's parodies and turns them into a musical.

August 08, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 20 years before Weird Al Yankovic recorded "Like a Surgeon" or Cheech and Chong spawned the Springsteen sendup "Born in East L.A.," America laughed at Allan Sherman's parodies.

Sherman, who died in 1973, is best remembered for his 1963 hit "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (Here I Am at Camp Granada)," sung to Ponchielli's classical piece "Dance of the Hours." But there were dozens of others including: "Grow Mrs. Goldfarb," to the tune of "Glow Little Glowworm"; "Sarah Jackman" to "Frere Jacques"; "One Hippopotami" to "What Kind of Fool Am I?"; and "Harvey and Sheila" to "Hava Nagila" among them.

Moved to stitches by Sherman's humor, Rob Krausz and Douglas Bernstein created a cabaret piece, then a musical out of his songs. "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!" has played around the country, including a successful off-Broadway run in 1992, and starts a monthlong run Friday at the Forum Theatre of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Not simply a revue, "Hello Muddah" has a book that follows the lives of Sarah Jackman and her beloved Barry Bockman from birth until--as Krausz puts it--they are "called off to an early-bird special in the sky." In between, Sarah and Barry go to camp, go to college, go shopping, have a barbecue . . . typical suburban stuff.

Krausz, who is directing the Thousand Oaks production, said Sherman's songs have endured, in part, because they touch on universal problems, from homesickness to midlife crisis. The songs represented different stages of the characters' lives and gave the show a backbone.

Leslie Klein, who plays Sarah Jackman, said, "Even though it spans 80 years, we never really leave the early '60s--which is a really suburban time."

Klein first played Sarah off-Broadway and liked the show so much that she later directed it at a Catholic college in Vermont--where one might think Sherman's distinctly Jewish humor might fall flat. The show sold out and got standing ovations. "You can count on one hand the Jews in Vermont," she said, "but that was not a problem."

Krausz's command to the actors is that if a joke is bad, tell it louder. Groans are as important as belly laughs. There is only one ballad, and the actors spend so much time singing and dancing that Klein lost 15 pounds during the run in New York. "I'm hoping that happens again," she said.

Though others had tried, Krausz was the first to get Sherman's son, Robert, to release the rights to the parodies--but it took a good deal of pestering. Krausz made clear that he wanted to create a show, not retell Sherman's life, which was less consistently jocund.

Sherman's parents divorced when he was young and he moved all over the country with his mother. In his 20s, he started writing for television and created the game show "I've Got a Secret." Through he worked on the show for seven years as a producer, he sold the idea for $1 and never saw any royalties.

Steve Allen still remembers the dinner party where Sherman first showed off his parody talents. About 25 people gathered at Sherman's house. There was the usual socializing until Sherman stood up and said he wanted to show his guests something.

"For the next 40 minutes or so, Allen entertained us with those marvelous songs. They were marvelous. Very witty, very original," Allen said. "We encouraged him to get himself booked into some entertainment venue and not just consider these party entertainment."

Sherman tried to record a parody of "My Fair Lady" in 1956 but couldn't get permission from the music publishers. Out of work around 1960, he got a recording contract with Warner Bros. and created his first album, "My Son, the Folksinger." To avoid problems with rights this time, he stuck to parodying songs in the public domain. Since "Frere Jacques" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" are still well known today, Krausz said, Sherman's songs are still just as funny.

The album was an instant hit, and Sherman did two quick follow-ups, "My Son, the Celebrity" and "My Son, the Nut." The latter contained "Hello Muddah," which won a Grammy for best comedy performance in 1963. He headlined in Las Vegas, was guest host on "The Tonight Show."

In the meantime, Sherman and his wife, who had two children, divorced. He continued to record until 1967, though nothing compared with his initial flush of success. Plagued throughout his life with emphysema and obesity, Sherman died of respiratory failure in 1973. He was 49.

There's an irony to the success of "Hello Muddah." In the late 1960s, Sherman wrote a musical of his own, "The Fig Leaves Are Falling," with composer Albert Hague, who also wrote the score for "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." The show got financed immediately. Dorothy Loudon starred. George Abbott directed. Still, it was a disaster.

"It was the story of his life and he didn't want it to end," Hauge said. "It was very sad because it was a strong score, but there were problems with the story and he wouldn't fix it."

But Hague and Allen consider Sherman one of the few geniuses they've encountered. He had a tremendous command of language and could write three or four songs in a day. As long as people know the songs, it seems, they will appreciate Sherman's parodies.

"My definition of a masterpiece is a piece of art that appeals to more than one generation," Hague said. "His humor--it was designed for the young, but it appeals to all of us who are young at heart."

* "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!" at the Forum Theater of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Wednesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., through Sept. 8. Tickets $17.50-$19.50. Call Ticketmaster at (213) 480-3232 or (805) 583-8700.

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