by Laura Frankos
Football Fight Songs in Musicals
It's fall, and that means football, the favorite sport in musical theatre history, is back! In honor of the new season, the Great White Wayback Machine travels from 1917 to the present day, looking at football fight songs written for musicals. In the next column, we'll check out actual college fight songs written by men who had careers on Broadway, and ones adapted from show tunes.
Leave It To Jane (1917), based on the earlier play The College Widow, is set on the campus of Atwater College, which is about to face off against its arch-rival Bingham University in the Big Game. Lyricist P.G. Wodehouse, though an Englishman, was an avid sports fan, and had no problem coming up with songs targeting a specifically American sport. Jane has not one, but two fight songs; the second is sung during the game when Atwater is trailing. The "Bum! Get a rat trap!" line was an actual cheer that saw much popular use in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As we'll see below, Lorenz Hart also adapted it. The "cannibal" reference also appears as "cannonball" in some versions of the cheer.
The rivalry between Atwater and Bingham is matched only by that of Tait College and Colton College in 1927's Good News. In keeping with the show's setting, the ushers at the theatre wore college sweaters and the orchestra entered by running down the aisles, chanting football cheers. Naturally, there's a big pep rally, where the students sing the "Tait Song."
In 1939, the students of Pottawatomie College, setting for Too Many Girls, weren't afraid to challenge the best schools in the nation in their fight song. Of course, it's easy to trash talk the other guys when you've got Lorenz Hart writing your cheers.
Best Foot Forward (1941), set at Winsocki High, focuses more on what happens when a glamorous actress came to the campus than on the success of the school's team. But since they're backed by one of the best fight songs ever written, you know they're winners. This song was revised as a wartime hit ("Buckle Down, Buck Private"), and was used in public-safety ads in the sixties to promote the use of seat belts ("Buckle Up for Safety").
"Look Out" wasn't the only Broadway fight song Rodgers composed. For 1947's Allegro, he and Oscar Hammerstein chronicled the life of lead character Joseph Taylor, Jr. from birth to adulthood, including his time at a Midwestern college. Taylor was on the cheer squad, shouting rousers like this one while watching his pal, a star player for the Wildcats.
I was unable to track down the lyrics for a couple of football flops, both set on real campuses. In 1946, an angel arrives to help Notre Dame's backfield in Toplitzky of Notre Dame, but falls for a mortal woman. Composer Sammy Fain and lyricist/librettist George Marion didn't use the actual "Notre Dame Victory March," but came up with "Let Us Gather at the Goal Line." The following year, Broadway audiences saw what happened to a naive frosh at the University of Minnesota in the satirical Barefoot Boy With Cheek, with Max Shulman adapting his novelization of his own college experiences. The Golden Gophers' real fight song is "Minnesota Rouser," but composer Sydney Lippman and lyricist Sylvia Dee created "Star of the North Star State" for the show.
The first intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1867, and 1947's High Button Shoes, set in 1913, looks at this great rivalry. Con man Harrison Floy, trying to fix the results of the game, addresses the Rutgers players in the locker room at halftime with the satirical, "Nobody Ever Died for Dear Old Rutgers." There's a story behind this song. During the Rutgers-Princeton match in 1892, the Queensmen's best player, Frank "Pop" Grant, was carried off the field with a broken leg. He allegedly said, "I'd die for dear old Rutgers," which became a catch phrase popular throughout the twenties and thirties, no doubt aided by the fact that after that initial victory over Princeton, Rutgers lost the next sixty-eight matches. School tradition may not be accurate, however. One alumnus said Grant really muttered, "I'll die if somebody doesn't give me a cigarette."
In 1961's How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, young J. Pierrepont Finch gets on the good side of his boss, Mr. Biggley, by pretending to be a fellow supporter of the Groundhogs of Old Ivy, dedicated to stomping the rival Northern State Chipmunks.
In 1962's All American, immigrant Professor Fodorski suddenly takes over as coach of the Southern Baptist Institute of Technology, smack in the middle of their big game against Texas Mohammedan, the mighty rival who had previously "clobbered the Alabama Agnostics ...and demolished the Louisiana Zen Buddhists." (Who but Mel Brooks could write such a libretto?) The Professor uses his knowledge of engineering to, er, engineer a victory with a ninety-eight yard field goal, but the cheerleaders do their part, too, with this rouser.
In Grease (1972), Sandy opens a scene late in the first act at cheerleader practice, where she demonstrates a Ryder yell, and is soon joined by Patty. They perform the school's fight song.
1978's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas does have a kind of fight song in it, though "The Aggie Song" describes how the football players will score at Miss Mona's, not on the gridiron. Elsewhere in the show, the cheerleaders for Texas A & M, the Texas Aggie Angelettes, "as fine a bouquet of long-stemmed American Beauties as you'll find," enter to the music of the "Angelette March" for the big game with the Longhorns. The libretto also calls for the playing of the real "Texas Aggie War Hymn" over the loudspeakers while the announcer broadcasts the game. The "War Hymn" was written in 1919 by J.V. "Pinky" Wilson, an Aggie whose college career was interrupted by the First World War.
Bringing the Wayback Machine to more recent times, we note last year's Lysistrata Jones updated Aristophanes' classic comedy about Greek women withholding sex from their men to end a war to cheerleaders at Athens University using the same ploy to reverse the basketball team's decades-long losing streak. (I'm not sure how their football team has been faring.) A successful series of movies about competitive cheerleading led to 2012's Bring It On. Its Broadway run ends in December, but it is sure to have a long life in school productions. Cheerleader Campbell discovers she has been reassigned from suburban Truman High to inner-city Jackson High, which doesn't even have a cheer squad.
Right now, at the Cutting Room, is a musical based on William Peter Blatty's 1963 novel John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, which was filmed two years later. In the mythical Arabian kingdom of Fawzia, young Prince Ammud is obsessed with football, and I don't mean soccer. He may get his chance to play after a former college player turned pilot crashes his spy plane in Fawzia and is forced to become a coach. Michael Garin, one of the show's creators, tells me that, while there's not a school song for Fawz University in the score, Goldfarb's opening number, "American Football," is a fight song in itself, albeit with a Middle Eastern beat. Prince Ammud manages to name nearly a dozen gridiron heroes of the fifties and sixties, ranging from Sonny Jurgensen to Y.A. Tittle to "Night Train" Lane. Will the Prince's dreams come true? See for yourself at the Cutting Room.
The Great White Wayback Machine will next visit some real college campuses, uncovering actual fight songs written by Broadway greats, including Porter, Willson, and the Gershwins, and solving the mystery of how a song from How Now, Dow Jones became a collegiate cheer.