Five Reasons Why 'Turkey Lurkey Time' is a Perfect Broadway Musical Moment
Yes, of course you've seen this video dozens, perhaps even hundreds of times. The 1969 Tony Award telecast of Donna McKechnie, Baayork Lee and Julane Stites singing and dancing the weird and wonderful "Turkey Lurkey Time," from the hit musical PROMISES, PROMISES. You've probably sung and danced along to it with your friends and maybe even spent a night in the emergency room after trying to replicate McKechnie's head-pop at the 1:37 mark.
But did you ever take a good look at these three and half minutes of wild exuberance set at an office Christmas party and consider the qualities that make it a perfect Broadway musical moment?
Based on the Oscar-winning film THE APARTMENT, PROMISES, PROMISES starred Jerry Orbach as a young, corporate flunky climbing the ladder of success by regularly loaning his small Manhattan apartment to his boss in order to help him cheat on his wife with the love-struck Jill O'Hara. Neil Simon, at the height of his popularity, wrote the wisecracking urban-humored book and the score by composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David was heavy on pulsating city rhythms.
It was the third Broadway musical choreographed by Michael Bennett, and its contemporary setting and cast of characters representing young New York corporates looking for after-hours kicks gave him a chance to utilize the swinging, disco-tech moves he and McKechnie used when they were regulars on the pop-dance TV show HULLABALOO.
And yet, in the middle of this evening of hip, sophisticated musical comedy came this corny number with its oddball staging.
(Note: Stites, on the right, replaced original cast member Margo Sappington, who left the show to choreograph OH! CALCUTTA!)
So what makes this moment so perfect? As is usually the case with good musicals, it all comes down to the book.
It's perfectly placed. A critical aspect of writing the book of a musical is figuring out which moments need to be expressed in song and how music sways the audiences' emotions. On the surface, "Turkey Lurkey Time" seems to be a simple time-out from the plot to give the dancers a big moment, but it also serves a dramatic purpose. Act one of PROMISES. PROMISES ends with a quick non-musical scene that leaves the leading man devastated as he realizes the consequences of his actions and has the leading lady on the verge of suicidal depression. Having an explosive dance number just before that scene helps keep the audience energized and excited during intermission.
The song is written in character. "Turkey Lurkey Time" sometimes gets criticized for being a ridiculous, even terrible song, but that's the whole point. In the context of the plot, the bit was written by three secretaries volunteering to provide party entertainment. They probably collaborated on the tune and lyric themselves over a couple of bottles of wine. The word that seems out of place is "gadabout." Where did that one come from? Did one of them find it in a romance novel?
The choreography is so deceptive. Since this is a realistic moment where the characters themselves are performing, Bennett first staged the number to make the trio seem a bit underprepared and amateurish, but the audience wasn't buying it. Instead, he switched the concept to begin with corny steps that looked simple, but were done with rapid-fire physical transitions that created striking visuals. Check out the incredible physical lines and isolations McKechnie, Lee and Stites achieve while doing silly bits like waving their palms in the air or pointing to their eyes on "something that I would like to see." Reality is heightened when McKechnie goes into her solo, but she still gives the appearance of a 1960s single who works in an office by day and goes out clubbing at night. Once the new level of reality is achieved, Lee and Stites join in for a breathtaking threesome.
The ensemble surrounding them is so realistic. While the focus is on the three dancers, the party is still going on, with ensemble members drinking, flirting and imitating their performances. Some are loosening up and swaying their shoulders, others look stiff and uncomfortable. When Bennett has the full company join in the dance, he's once again using common disco-tech movements, including hand-clapping, to emphasize that these are normal folks dancing. The crowd is obviously getting drunk, but instead of showing that by letting them get sloppy, he heightens the difficulty factor with a combination that has them flailing their arms and legs in unnatural extensions. It's been said that chiropractors made a fortune off the PROMISES, PROMISES dancers.
The audience recognition factor. Audiences are accustomed to being dazzled by the incredible skills of Broadway dancers, but the full effect of "Turkey Lurkey Time" lets you see yourself up there on stage, remembering a time when you and your friends let your guards down a little and had some loud, silly, off-the-cuff fun. The brilliance of this moment is that the book, the song and the choreography combine to allow seasoned Broadway professionals to portray intoxicated amateurs having a ball without losing a step of their professional expertise.