The Broadway flop that spawned the USC fight song
"How Now, Dow Jones" was hated by audiences and critics. Its run on Broadway lasted only seven months. But it lives on forever in the University of South Carolina's fight song.
If, in 2022, a Southeastern Conference team suddenly had need of a brand new fight song, I’m not sure what the process would be for composing one. I suspect it would be a big, multi-department effort that was extensively PR-tested and focus grouped before it ever saw the light of day.
That was not the process in 1968, the year South Carolina head coach Paul Dietzel heard a Broadway tune he liked, wrote some alternate lyrics for it, and decided that it would be the new USC fight song.
If Will Muschamp had been granted this degree of power, the fight song might be a series of atonal grunts. If Steve Spurrier had been granted this degree of power, the USC fight song would be Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.”
Dietzel’s outsized influence in crafting the USC fight song is reasonably well-known to many Gamecock fans. What’s not talked about often enough is the completely bonkers Broadway musical from which the song originates.
What I’m going to do now is summarize the plot of the 1967 play How Now, Dow Jones. You will think that I am joking, but I promise I am not.
The woman who makes announcements over the public address system at the New York Stock exchange, named Kate, is engaged to be married to a stock trader, Herbert, who we soon learn made an incorrect forecast about how quickly the Dow Jones Industrial Average would hit 1,000 points. Apparently this error was made at great cost to Herbert’s employer and to Herbert’s reputation. We meet Kate and Herbert while they are in a café, mired in an ongoing argument over Herbert’s recalcitrance to set a wedding date, which we are left to infer has something to do with the downturn in his career prospects.
Herbert exits the scene, leaving Kate and a friend, Cynthia, to sing a barely comprehensible duet, in which they lament that the beta males of 1967 aren’t as horny as Henry the Eighth and Atilla the Hun (real examples from the song) or, more recently, their own grandfathers:
When your dear financier cannot get up at bat Like his grandfather got up before Yes, the kind of a guy where you know where you're at Who'd desert Merrill Lynch for a pinch or a pat Who wouldn't waste moments removing his hat No they simply They simply Don't make them like that anymore
What, you ask, is the connection between the sentiment expressed in this song and the conflict between Kate and Herbert that sparked it? Brother, I was hoping you could tell me.
The song ends, Cynthia leaves, and a stranger named Charley sits down at Kate’s table with a tray containing seven Manhattans. Charley announces his plans to drink all seven Manhattans himself and then go commit suicide. Kate, apparently so despondent over her fiancé’s lack of nuptial urgency, responds by saying, “Maybe I’ll join you.”
Kate and Charley seal their suicide pact with — what else? — a song.
Before we throw in the towel What say we live a little?
We soon learn that what Kate and Charley mean by “live a little” is “have unprotected sex.” And by the maxim of Chekhov’s gun, the unprotected sex produces an unplanned pregnancy. But before Kate realizes she’s pregnant, she tells Charley their fling is over and that she’s going back to Herbert.
Apparently all the sex-having made Kate forget about her interest in ending her own life, but Charley’s suicide plans are still on. A Wall Street tycoon finds Charley out on a 53rd-floor window ledge and concludes that this would-be jumper is exactly the sort of sad sack he needs to hire to help him sell stocks to the last demographic his firm has yet to capture: orphans and widows.
“Widows don’t go for types like you,” the tycoon, Mr. Wingate, tells his existing sales force. “Look at you, all slick and glossy and put-together. Widows want someone they can mother — someone gawky and tousled — like that nut out there on that ledge.”
Wingate hires Charley on the spot, and the next time we see Charley he’s surrounded by a group of widows who have formed a stock-buying club. After Charley helps the widows buy shares in American Optical, the widows inquire about Charley’s personal life and are flabbergasted upon learning that he is unwed and single.
The widows, who — just as Wingate predicted — are quite taken with Charley, ask him how this could possibly be the case.
“I don’t know,” Charley says, “Girls don’t seem to go for me. They like aggressive types — you know, leaders.”
It is in response to Charley’s low self-esteem that the widows, in an effort to buoy Charley’s confidence, begin serenading him with a song called Step To The Rear.
Meanwhile, Kate bumps into her her fiancé, Herbert, who announces that he’ll marry her as soon as the Dow hits 1,000; Herbert’s latest forecast has that happening within the next six months, he explains. Not willing to wait that long, Kate announces a falsehood over the NYSE intercom: the Dow has jumped almost seven percent to hit 1,000.
Massive logical problems notwithstanding, the plot forges ahead. Kate’s announcement causes a run of irrational exuberance in the market. Subsequently, the news that the Dow didn’t actually hit 1,000 causes a crash, putting the nation on the verge of financial calamity. And then the play abruptly ends when Charley alights upon a deus ex machina solution: let’s simply have a very rich person buy up every share of stock being sold in the panic.
4.5 million inflation-adjusted dollars of advance sales can cover up a lot of plot holes
Audiences of 1967-68 hated How Now, Dow Jones and so did critics. (After reading that plot synopsis, you probably hate it too.) The December 1967 write-up in the New York Times is as close as a theater critic has ever come to releasing a diss track.
One of the more interesting aspects of this [musical] is that its title is devoid of a question mark. Not “How Now, Dow Jones?” but simply “How Now, Dow Jones.” Perhaps they did not wish to risk an answer.
Personally I feel that a more suitable title might be “How to Try in Business Without Really Succeeding” — but certainly they try. Rarely before have I seen so much energy confused with invention, or noise confused with music. But if you have not got either a strong book or a strong score, any musical is in trouble.
During out-of-town previews, it was already clear that the show was in serious trouble. The producers parted ways with the play’s director, who later described his own motives in accepting the gig in the first place as a “venal” attempt “to get money to make some low-budget movies.” The new director described the show’s premise as “ridiculous” and brought in a new choreographers and songwriters in an attempt to salvage the production. Three entire songs were cut and one that stayed in was re-written five times.
During the financial crisis in 2008, Tony Roberts — who played Charley in the original production — was asked whether he could see How Now being revived in light of current events. He said no because the original play was “kind of frivolous.” Roberts didn’t know that in 2009 — 40 years after How Now flopped — someone would find a way to assemble a critically acclaimed revival. All it took was cutting five songs and four major characters, adding in three new songs, trimming the script from two acts to one, and moving Step to the Rear from the middle of Act I to the closing number.
The 2009 production kept the title How Now, Dow Jones, but The Musical of Theseus might have also done the job.
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If you’re wondering how on earth the original play ran long enough to produce an enduring piece of culture, then you’re asking the right questions. In his 1969 book The Season: A Candid Look At Broadway, theater critic William Goldman offers a theory as to how the show kept running as long as it did.
The show, for all the effort, was not well received, but because of its advance sale, it ran; not long enough to make its money back, but it it lasted the season. This show, with no names and a mediocre score and a premise beyond credulity, had a cool half million in the thill the night it opened. Care to guess why?
(The title, that’s why.)
How does a show rack up half a million dollars in advance sales ($4.5 million in 2022 dollars) based on its title alone? Goldman lays the credit (or blame) at the feat of a class of New York socialites he describes as “theatre-party ladies.”
The Times has said that the theatre-party ladies are “… agents, mostly women, who act as liaisons between major theatrical producers and the social, philanthropic and educational organizations that book performances as fund-raising benefits.” In other words, you have a charity and you want to raise some money for it. So you go to a theatre-party lady, and she books you an evening, say, for Plaza Suite. Your charity then takes the tickets and sells them for more than the box-office price, the difference being a tax deduction for the purchaser. Your charity makes its money on the difference between the box-office price and the price you decided to sell your tickets for … Obviously, from the charity’s point of view — since the profit is made on selling tickets — you want to pick a show that’s easy to sell. That is why certain shows will come in with enormous advances, while others have none. The shows with large advances are more salable: it is less work for the charity people to sell seats for the highest possible price, thereby assuring the greatest profit for their charity.
Goldman further explains why the title of How Now, Dow Jones made it ideal theatre-party fodder:1
Women tend to make the selection of the show for their charity.
Men tend to pay for the tickets for the show that the women have selected.
How Now, Dow Jones was a musical, and musicals generally meet less sales resistance than straight plays.
That title indicated that the show was at least intended to be funny.
The title also indicated that the show was going to be about the stock market.
Men tend to be interested in the stock market. Women tended to be reasonably sure their husbands wouldn’t snarl at them for their selection. (This last is surprisingly important. As one party agent put it: “People don’t want anyone getting mad at them. At least with a show like this, with a title like this, the wife could say, ‘Well, how was I supposed to know it would turn out to be terrible? I thought it was going to be funny.’ They buy an Arthur Miller, and their husbands turn n them and say, “I don’t suffer enough at the office? You’ve got to put me through it here too?’”)
In other words, the title proclaimed that the show was going to be a light, stock-market musical, and the party ladies could do business with it, regardless of its quality, because they could sell it to the charity ladies; the charity ladies could do business with, regardless of its quality because they could sell it to the people; the people took it, regardless of its quality, because it sounded like it might be “fun.”
The more I’ve read about How Now and it’s connection to the USC fight song, the more I’ve kept thinking about one central tension. Good fight songs typically rally the spirits of the fans and players to get them good and fired up. They’re supposed to fill you with a sense of pride and community and get you in the mood for, well …. a fight.
And yet here we have a song — “Step to the Rear” — whose original context is that a bunch of old widows are trying to brighten the spirits of a young man who recently attempted suicide. It’s a song that comes in the middle of a poorly reviewed, scarcely seen play that only ran for seven months.
So how did it happen that a national-title winning football coach:
a) heard this song at all
b) heard this song and thought, “This would be a good fight song.”
c) heard this song and thought, “Not only would this be a good fight song, but it’s so good that we should use it to replace our existing fight song, which people seem to like just fine.”
d) was so adamant that this be the fight song that he concealed his involvement in writing the song from other head coaches at USC so that they wouldn’t get mad at him
I don’t have answers to all of these questions. But I have answers to enough of them to make next week’s newsletter pretty interesting.
Expenses that paid subscribers helped to cover this week:
$16.92 for a copy of the script for How Now, Dow Jones
$300 in fees to access 1968 ABC News footage in the Vanderbilt Television News Archive
$3.12 is this week’s share of my annual Newsapers.com subscription
$122.50 in childcare, conservatively
Shoutout to the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for having a copy of a random, out-of-print theater book published in 1969 so that I didn’t have to drop $50 on a used copy.
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