My view of Johnny Carson's last night
SOMEONE IN A TREE
My view of Johnny Carson's last night
by Marc Shaiman
As her musical director at the time, I co-wrote/conceived, arranged and played for Bette Midler on Johnny Carson's penultimate show.
As it has been played over and over and over today, I felt a lot like the young boy in a tree in Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures. The night had nothing to do with me, and yet I have my own unique perspective on it and feel inextricably a part of it.
When Bette called to ask me help her put together her performance as Johnny Carson's last guest, I was thrilled. The whole country at the time was watching every night, as star after star were making the final appearance to thank him. I knew it was an honor to be part of this final evening with guests (his last night was a monologue).
So, Bette, Bruce Vilanch and I got together and immediately thought of writing new lyrics to the Judy Garland version of "You Made Me Love You", which Judy has sung as a worshipful fan. It seemed perfect. We wrote:
YOU MADE ME WATCH YOU
I DIDN'T WANNA DO IT
JACK PARR HAD PUT ME THROUGH IT
YOU MADE ME WATCH YOU
I LOVE THE JOKES YOU'RE FLOGGIN'
WHEN YOU ARE MONOLOGUE-IN'
I WATCHED YOUR HAIR TURN SLOWLY
FROM DARK TO WHITE
AND WHEN I CAN'T SLEEP
I COUNT YOUR WIVES AT NIGHT
(That line got a huge reaction, especially from JC. It is very odd to write something like that, knowing it is going to be sung to the actual person, and then watch him crack up. Anyway, I digress...)
I'D DROP MY DRAWERS FOR
THE KIND OF BUCKS YOU'RE MAKING
FOR SIMPLE DOUBLE-TAKING
BEFORE YOU BID ADIEU
DON'T BE CHEAP
PUT DeCORDAVA TO SLEEP
(See above digression!)
JUST THE THOUGHT YOU'RE LEAVING
SURE GIVES ME THE SHIVERS
ARSENIO IS AT THE GATE
AND SO'S JOAN RIVERS!
YOU KNOW THEY MADE ME WATCH YOU!
HOW I'LL MISS THE SOCIAL INTERCOURSE SO VARIED
NOW I'LL HAVE TO HAVE IT
WITH THE GUY I MARRIED
YOU KNOW I'D RATHER WATCH YOU!!
Well, that number was fantastic. I was over with the band, playing it and BEAMING with pride! I mean seriously, playing for Bette at anytime is beyond thrilling, but co-writing lyrics and watching her bat them out of the park like that is positively orgasmic.
So, after that, I am brought backstage to the piano on set, where she will, after talking, come to sing...the ballad.
Now, when she first called, I put my thinking cap on and tried to come up with the ultimate "I've talked to you for years and now you want to go home and I would just love to thank you" song. I jumped into the shower, started scrubbing, when "One for My Baby" popped into my head. I think I almost had an embolism. I called Bette dripping wet "I'VE GOT IT!! THE MOST PERFECT SONG!" I told her, and as she did pretty much with every idea I ever threw at her, she said "eh".
But I was like a dog with a bone. I could literally hear and see it in my head and I would NOT let her pooh-pooh it. Despite her moaning "I can't sing that song...I'll be too nervous to hit those notes", I persevered.
When she came over, we rehearsed it. She was frightened of it, but at least she sat with me and we even started to toy EVER so slightly with the final verse, to make it more specific to MR. CARSON. Now, that takes balls, to re-write Johnny Mercer!! But neither Bette nor I seem to lack chutzpah!
Ok, cut to the sound check at The Tonight Show. Earlier in the day, Bette started second-guessing "ONE FOR MY BABY" and asked the guys in the band what Carson's favorite song was. In unison, they all said "HERE'S THAT RAINY DAY".
I sensed "One for My Baby" was doomed.
Ok, so now, it is the segment after "You Made Me Love You". I am seated at the piano, behind the curtain. I have a monitor at the piano. Bette asks Johnny what his favorite song is and starts singing "Here's That Rainy Day" accapella.
I think "NO!! She is sabotaging my musical director masterpiece!! They are gonna run out of time! AAIIIEEE!!!!!"
Meanwhile, Carson has started singing along with her, completely sincere and totally in tune! I wait to see if the band's piano player is gonna join in, since it is now clear they are gonna sing the whole song! When he doesn't, I plunk a high note to confirm the key and just jump in, hoping I am miked, but who even cares. I am a accompanist and I hear people singing...I HAVE TO PLAY FOR THEM!!
Well, I am having a schizophrenic discussion in my head "This is so exciting, you're PLAYING FOR JOHNNY CARSON/Stop playing, this moment is gonna spoil the one you fought so hard for!"
Anyhoo, they finish, they go to commercial and I am sure they are about to tell me the final song is cut for time.
GOD SMILES!! IT ISN'T!!
Bette takes her place. The entire staff of the show is huddled in the wings, watching her live and on the monitors. They are VERY emotional, this is THEIR final night also.
We come back from commercial and Johnny Carson intro's Bette and we start...
IT'S QUARTER TO THREE
THERE'S NO ONE IN THE PLACE EXCEPT YOU AND ME...
I have tried to play the song in the style of Bette's first two albums, where her original musical director and arranger Barry Manilow had created beautiful arrangements of standards using Laura Nyro type chords. To say you could hear a pin drop would be the understatement of the year. As I've listened to it today, I am reminded that there were little "licks" I meant to play between lyrics, but the moment was SO tender and I was on such pins and needles, my fingers didn't even attempt ANYTHING but the most simple accompaniment.
Then, right before the final verse, they cut to a new angle, one never used on the show. Over Bette's shoulder, we could see Johnny Carson, mesmerized as the rest of us by Bette's performance, his eyes locked with hers. She sings our "adapted" lyrics:
FOR ALL OF THE YEARS
FOR THE LAUGHS, FOR THE TEARS
FOR THE CLASS THAT YOU SHOWED
MAKE IT ONE FOR MY BABY
AND ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD...
I swear, I felt like I was floating on a cloud. There is no other way to describe it.
On the final measures, I did what any other gay musical director would have done, I incorporated THE TONIGHT SHOW THEME into the final measures.
We finished, and the place went insane. Bette was so overcome that, after placing a lei around Johnny's neck (she is Hawaiian, ya know) she ran backstage so as to not be seen so overwhelmed.
I myself was in a daze, as I walked through the show's staff, all sobbing.
As we all "celebrated" backstage, Mr. Carson disappeared into the night.
Well, that's it. I just wanted to write this down. I hope no one is TOO disgusted by the self-serving perspective of this remembrance, but Sondheim (as always) put it best, when two witnesses to a historic event sing:
I am hiding in a tree.
I'm a fragment of the day.
If I weren't, who's to say
Things would happen here the way
That they happened here?
It's the pebble, not the stream.
It's the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
"Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone,
Only cups of tea
And someone in a tree." It's the fragment, not the day.
©2005 Marc Shaiman