SOMEONE IN A TREE- My view of Johnny Carsons last night

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Marc Shaiman
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SOMEONE IN A TREE- My view of Johnny Carsons last night
by Marc Shaiman

(WARNING: I DONT HAVE A BLOG OF MY OWN TO POST THIS ON. I KNOW THIS READS AS INCREDIBLY SELF-SERVING. AS USUAL, IT'S ALL ABOUT ME. SORRY!!)

As her musical director at the time, I co-wrote/conceived, arranged and played for Bette Midler on Johnny Carsons 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 Sondheims 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 Carsons 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 DIDNT WANNA DO IT
JACK PARR HAD PUT ME THROUGH IT

YOU MADE ME WATCH YOU
I LOVE THE JOKES YOURE FLOGGIN
WHEN YOU ARE MONOLOGUE-IN

I WATCHED YOUR HAIR TURN SLOWLY
FROM DARK TO WHITE
AND WHEN I CANT 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

ID DROP MY DRAWERS FOR
THE KIND OF BUCKS YOURE MAKING
FOR SIMPLE DOUBLE-TAKING

BEFORE YOU BID ADIEU
DONT BE CHEAP
PUT DeCORDAVA TO SLEEP

(see above digression!)

JUST THE THOUGHT YOURE LEAVING
SURE GIVES ME THE SHIVERS
ARSENIO IS AT THE GATE
AND SOS JOAN RIVERS!
YOU KNOW THEY MADE ME WATCH YOU!

(big finish)

HOW ILL MISS THE SOCIAL INTERCOURSE SO VARIED
NOW ILL HAVE TO HAVE IT
WITH THE GUY I MARRIED
YOU KNOW ID 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 singthe ballad.

Now, when she first called, I put my thinking cap on and tried to come up with the ultimate Ive 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 IVE 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 cant sing that songIll 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 Carsons favorite song was. In unison, they all said HERES 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 HERES 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 bands piano player is gonna join in, since it is now clear they are gonna sing the whole song! When he doesnt, 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 singingI HAVE TO PLAY FOR THEM!!

Well, I am having a schizophrenic discussion in my head This is so exciting, youre 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 ISNT!!

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 intros Bette and we start

ITS QUARTER TO THREE
THERES NO ONE IN THE PLACE EXCEPT YOU AND ME

I have tried to play the song in the style of Bettes 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 Ive 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 didnt 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 Bettes shoulder, we could see Johnny Carson, mesmerized as the rest of us by Bettes 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
THE LONGLONGROAD

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 Johnnys 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 shows staff, all sobbing.

As we all celebrated backstage, Mr. Carson disappeared into the night.

Well, thats 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 fragment, not the day.
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 history
And someone in a tree.
timote316
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Thanks for that. Very touching.

RIP Johnny
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wow i didnt realize you played for his last show.
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Simply extraordinary Marc, both that night (which I well remember and adored) and your recounting of the behind-the-scenes of it her. A moving, loving tribute to a great man who will be sorely missed (and a deft use of the Sondheim masterpiece). Thanks so much for sharing it.
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Marc, while you might think the post is self-indulgent :) it is always nice to hear personal experiences that one had with the person being remembered. It just puts a personal touch on a situation that otherwise we might be somewhat removed from -if that makes sense, I am a little out of my senses at the moment...
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Updated On: 1/24/05 at 01:12 AM
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Absolutely stunning. I will treasure this post forever. Thanks Marc.
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Not self-indulgent at all--selfless, in fact, for sharing such a personal moment with us. I remember it well, and it's nice to have such a special perspective on it, especially as it's been replayed so much today. Thank you.
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Indeed, thank you for sharing that with us.
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If self-indulgence be the food of love, play on.

Thank you.

MY self-indulgence is to send this out to everyone in my address book, so there re: SOMEONE IN A TREE- My view of Johnny Carsons last night
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Thank you. That was heaven.
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I did not have internet service over the weekend, but was thinking of Marc as I watched the coverage of Mr. Carson's passing, his final Tonight Show broadcast was such a memorable moment in time.

Thank you again for sharing that lovely story with us all.
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Thank you. That was heaven.
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I miss Jack Paar.
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Thank you for sharing that with us, Marc.
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How truly lovely. Many of us have memories of that final show but u have added another dimension & texture to it for us. Thanks again for sharing.
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I have watch THE JOHNNY CARSEN COLLECTION on DVD several times, especially the final song Bette sings. I never noticed before that that was you, Marc! Look at all that hair on your head!

That is my favorite moment from the Tonight Show EVER. Thank you for making it possible. One of TELEVISION'S greatest moments.
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Marc, you brought a tear to my eye. Thank you.

Johnny, we love you. Rest in peace.
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Marc,

I'm still crying like a baby over your post. I remember that show so vividly--and the lyrics about having intercourse so varied... LOL

Thank you so much for sharing this with us. It means a lot.

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Thanks so very much for sharing such a wonderful memory Marc. Johnny will be missed.
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One of the News Channels replayed the entire song yesterday. You could see Carson in the background fighting back tears. What a moment...
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Thank you Thank you Thank you Marc- I was hoping you'd check in with a memory or a comment on Mr. Carson.

And you are not in the least self-indulgent. You were a co-creator of the penultimate moment in the career of one of the few real titans of the entertainment world. It was an honor to hear your perspective!

I look forward to your eventual autobiography!
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Thank you, Marc. That was an extraordinary remembrance.
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Thank you, Marc. I have watched that show on video (and laserdisc!) over and over and every time I watch it, I'm moved. Thank you for sharing your perspective on that extraordinary event.
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Thanx and you SHOULD get a blog.
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Marc, thank you for sharing that with us. A beautiful, funny, poignant, heartfelt story of a night we all remember, from the inside.
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