IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF YOU SLAY WITH NO SWING: Finding Murderous Inspiration from the Great American Songbook

When I’m at work, teaching drama students and musical theatre students and film students and credit recovery students (don’t ask!) and producing two musicals and one play a year and acting as department co-chair for the Visual and Performing Arts . . . well, there doesn’t seem to be much time for Golden Age anything! And yet my mind is always racing, making connections, looking for any chance to mull over murder mysteries. Recently, inspiration presented itself in, of all places, my musical theatre class. Since the course is repeatable for credit, many students take it multiple times, so I try each year to focus on a different aspect of the art form. This time out, we’re studying the classic composers who created the Great American Songbook from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. Most of these songs were written for stage or screen musicals and were the top songs to be found on the radio, in nightclubs, and at record stores – that is, until the dreaded rock and roll reared its head and rendered musical theatre songs to relative obscurity.

It’s always hard to be on the wrong side what’s popular, and I long for an era I never really knew, a time when if you turned on the radio, the songs over which you swooned came from the likes of Richard Rodgers rather than the Ramones, Gershwin instead of Gaga. It was a time when a name like Irving Berlin was cool, when you could listen to Cole Porter and get all the double entendres, when well-dressed toffs danced romantically with ladies in ball gowns to the lush romantic strains of Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. Popular music accentuated the positive, and even though the titles ranged from “Let’s Not Talk About Love” to “By Myself,” romance was always simmering over the airwaves.

But my post today is really more about time management! For while I give the students a crash course in Kern and Berlin, I struggle to find a spare hour to read Carr and Brand. That’s why I’m here in my credit recovery class (don’t ask!), making connections between one obsession and the other. The picture that heads this post comes from a production of Something’s Afoot, a 1972 musical that spoofed the work of Agatha Christie. To be deadly honest, the connection between musical theatre and murder mystery has been tenuous at best, and you can probably count the number of major works that fit into both genres on one hand. Besides Something’s Afoot, there’s Redhead, a Victorian whodunnit that starred Gwen Verdon, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which offers multiple solutions to Dicken’s unfinished final novel and even lets the audience select the murderer; and, most recently, Curtains, Kander and Ebb’s slightly-less-than-charming final show.

And yet . . . even if the number of actual mystery musicals is small, I have to ask myself: what if, as they were composing some of my favorite tunes, those brilliant songwriters were actually inspired by classic mysteries they had read? Such inspiration could happen, couldn’t it? See for yourself (and click on the song if you want to hear it) . . . .


When he wrote  “Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead” for The Wizard of Oz, do you think Harold Arlen was thinking of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca?

The book came out in 1938 and the movie in 1939, so there’s proof! Oh sure, Arlen’s being clever about it! The Wicked Witch of the West is an emerald green hook-nosed, cackling crone, while Rebecca de Winter was so beautiful that her presences haunts the grand halls of Manderley as surely as if she were a real ghost. Yet even though the novel drips with the best that gothic romance has to offer, it ultimately offers up a real mystery as to the cause of Rebecca’s death. Did Maxim de Winter love her so much that he can’t give up the ghost, as his mousy second wife believes, or did he despise her guts enough to send her to her grave? Other men in her circle seem equally suspicious, and can we count out Rebecca’s deliciously loony acolyte, Mrs. Danvers? Plus, remember, what Arlen wrote:

  • She’s gone where the goblins go, below, below, below,
  • Yo ho
  • Let’s open up and sing
  • And ring the bells out!

“Yo ho” is the pirate’s call! And where the heck does Rebecca’s body lie?????


When he wrote “Oh, You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” for Annie Get Your Gun, what if Irving Berlin was thinking about Agatha Christie’s The Hollow? Let’s see . . . both of them came out in 1946. In the musical, Annie Oakley is a sharpshooter par excellence, but she doesn’t seem to have much luck with the fellers.

  • A man’s love is mighty
  • He’ll even buy a nighty
  • For a gal who he thinks is fun.
  • But they don’t buy pajamas
  • For Pistol packin’ mamas,
  • And you can’t get a hug
  • From a mug with a slug,
  • Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.

Annie would have been happy to learn that you most certainly can get Dr. John Cristow with a gun, although not quite into the romantic position for which she yearns. Certainly many women have been moved by Cristow’s romantic yearnings: his wife, his two mistresses, and the young cousin whose happiness depends on Cristow leaving one of those “other women” alone. For the longest time, John had achieved a miraculous balance between his professional and his tangled personal life – that is, until he tried to juggle too many romantic balls in the air. That’s when poor John learns that “a man never trifles with galls who carry rifles!” You tell him, Mr. Berlin!


I think it’s clear that when George Gershwin wrote “A Foggy Day” for the 1937 Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress, he laying the foundation for Christianna Brand’s London Particular/Fog of Doubt a mere fifteen years later. Oh sure, you’ll argue that this means Brand was thinking of Gershwin. Well, go start your own blog!

  • A foggy day in London town
  • Had me low, had me down
  • I viewed the morning with alarm
  • The British museum had lost its charm

Well, sure it’s going to lose its charm if you’re a pregnant girl and you’re waiting in a car and then this awful blackmailer or something gets murdered and you know it’s one of the lovely people in your circle, maybe even the man you love! That can give you a downtrodden feeling – just like hanging out in a pea souper. And Gershwin’s music, along with his brother Ira’s lyrics, perfectly capture that feeling. And when at the end:

  • Then suddenly I saw you there
  • And in foggy London town
  • The sun was shining everywhere

. . . well, doesn’t that perfectly capture the feeling we get when Inspector Cockrill is struck with that inevitable illumination and reveals the solution? I know that’s what it’s like for me.


When Showboat opened on December 27th, 1927, it gave proof to the fact that 42-year-old Jerome Kern must have had a deep personal relationship with 32-year-old New Zealand theatre director Ngaio Marsh, who laid out for him the fact that she would soon be embarking upon a career as a mystery writer, and that her best work would reflect her passions for the theatre. And so he wrote “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” to foreshadow her 1935 novel Opening Night (a.k.a. Enter a Murderer)

  • Life upon the wicked stage ain’t ever what a girl supposes,
  • Stage-door Johnnies aren’t raging over you with gems and roses.
  • If some gentleman would talk with reason
  • I would cancel all next season.
  • Life upon the wicked stage ain’t nothin’ for a girl!

Nobody talks reasonably in Opening Night, and as a result an actor dies on stage, right during a performance. If only the killer had had as much common sense as Showboat’s Ellie, who sings this song: instead, the murder is committed before the watchful eyes of none other than Inspector Roderick Alleyn! And just to point out the solid connection between the two, the heroine of Showboat is named Magnolia Hawks. Just look up “growing magnolias in New Zealand” or “hawks in New Zealand,” and I think you will discover that I really need to get a life  some more fascinating connections between composer and writer!


When he wrote the haunting song “Laura,” was Johnny Mercer thinking of Vera Caspary’s novel of the same name?

Well, yes, in fact – in a way at least! For Mercer was commissioned to write the title tune for Otto Preminger’s immortal film adaptation of the self-same novel – and history was made!




When Cole Porter wrote “I Happen to Like New York,” isn’t it obvious that he was thinking about Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails, another great ode to the Big Apple? Dozens of characters populate Queen’s 1958 magnum opus, and the city is one of the most vibrant of them. The vicious serial killer haunts every corner of every borough during an unbearably long heat wave, wreaking havoc, yes, but also bringing a team of people together to end this nightmare. And you know why all of them want to stop the Cat?

  • I happen to like this town
  • I like the city air, I like to drink of it
  • The more I know New York the more I think of it
  • I like the sight, the sound, and even the stink of it . . . .
  • And when I give the world a last farewell
  • And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell
  • I don’t want to go to heaven, don’t want to go to hell!
  • I happen to like New York!


When Richard Rodgers finished the melody to “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” I imagine he turned it over to his lyricist, the genius haunted by demons, Lorenz Hart, and whispered one word: “Impossible!” (He tried the same stunt years later with his second collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein, in Cinderella.) Hart replied with these lyrics:

  • Once I was young
  • But never was naïve
  • I thought I had a trick or two
  • Up my imaginary sleeve
  • And now I know I was naïve

The song came out in 1939 – which means Rodgers and Hart had obviously been stewing for four years about John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, with its murder victim, Professor Grimaud, whose past actions lay proof to his lack of naivete, and of the double murder one snowy evening where nobody could tell you exactly what time things happened, despite the great clock that rose over the neighborhood. Carr plays with time brilliantly here; why it even makes me want to write a song.


How sophisticated was composer Arthur Schwartz when in 1929 he stuck “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” in a musical review, sung by a heartbroken Clifton Webb in top hat and tails.

  • I guess I’ll have to change my plan,
  • I should have realized there’d be another man,
  • I overlooked that point completely,
  • Until the big affair began, . . . . .
  • My feet are back upon the ground,
  • I’ve lost the one girl (man) I found.

I can’t help but think of poor Dr. Bickleigh in 1931’s Malice Aforethought, the classic inverted mystery by Francis Iles. Maybe Anthony Berkley got home from the theatre and dreamed up the good doctor, so tired of his shrewish wife, so enamored of the lovely Madeleine. Every scheme to capture her heart and find happiness undergoes a change, plunging our murderous hero into a nightmare, but a very witty and satisfying one, to be sure.


Oh, sure! You could argue that Jimmy Van Heusen wrote “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” in 1960 for Dean Martin – and even rearranged it that same year so that Martin could sing it in the Rat Pack heist flick, Ocean’s Eleven. But those of us with a lick of sense can tell that Van Heusen’s mind was far away from Vegas. It was, in fact, in a bucolic pasture in rural New York, facing a great bull named Caesar. For it must have been Rex Stout’s Some Buried Caesar that inspired this songwriter and his lyricist, Sammy Cahn. They must have both been picturing two gargantuan figures – the bull and Nero Wolfe – facing off in utter perplexed fury. Of course, Wolfe is just a big pussycat, going out of his way to solve Caesar’s murder – oh, and the death of some guy, too.

  • My head keeps spinnin’
  • I go to sleep and keep grinnin’
  • If this is just the beginnin’
  • My life is gonna be beautiful!


Finally, when Harry Warren wrote “Jeepers Creepers” in 1938 he must have been thinking back three years to the shivery Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin novel, The Grindle Nightmare. Of course, you have to understand the meaning of the lyrics:

  • Jeepers creepers
  • Where’d ya get those peepers?
  • Jeepers creepers
  • Where’d ya get those eyes?


Hold on a second . . . the only way the connection works is if the eyes belong to an animal and have been plucked out of their sockets. Oh, dear, that actually works! I’m telling you, folks, this novel is sick!!!!

You might wonder if it’s possible that these “connections” are the product of the fevered imagination of a man tired of hacking up a lung, bored with his job, and desperate to play around in the blogosphere . . . . . . .

Nope, every word I write down here is true.

6 thoughts on “IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF YOU SLAY WITH NO SWING: Finding Murderous Inspiration from the Great American Songbook

  1. I love this post, Brad! There is, I’ve often thought, a deep connection between music and murder mystery (I know – I need help. Now.). There are many songs, as you know, related to murder mysteries, or that tell the story of a murder, or… And now you’ve shown how this also relates to musicals, and I think that’s brilliant. If you think about it, it does make sense, actually. The stories behind murder mysteries really are human stories. So are the stories told in good musicals and good songs. Thanks for sharing this. You’re the tops!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey, Brad—hoping all’s well!

    Like Margot, I love this post… I’m also a huge fan of the Great American Songbook (and show tunes in general), and when you think about the connections between them and mysteries it’s interesting. Jaime Weinman, who wrote a great (now defunct) blog that touched on a lot of topics but often discussed musicals once wrote that “the great rhymers in lyric writing, people like [Carolyn] Leigh, Sondheim, Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Yip Harburg, are like escape artists” in how they figure out rhyming challenges they set for themselves. ( Escape artists or, for that matter, mystery writers!

    Both Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg were, we know, fans of G.K. Chesterton. In “Lyrics on Several Occasion,” by the way, Gershwin specifically cites Chesterton’s “A Ballade of Suicide” as an inspiration for one song lyric, and I’m convinced that Harburg’s “I Don’t Think I’ll End It All Today” is based on the same poem.

    The thought processes behind song lyrics and mystery plots seem to be similar as well—both use fairly strict rules (proper rhyme and meter in classic song lyrics, complete fair play cluing in classic mysteries) that were thought necessary then but unfortunately aren’t in vogue now. Both also let the writers’ imaginations and cleverness run wild exactly because of those rules.

    And then there’s that famous mystery-lover Stephen Sond… What’s his name again? 😉

    One small thing, but I’ve got to point out that Harold Arlen (whose music is brilliant—moody and jazzy and bluesy) didn’t write those witty lyrics for “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”; that was lyricist Yip Harburg, probably Arlen’s best partner and (IMO) probably the greatest lyricist of all.. And the Showboat lyrics aren’t composer Jerome Kern’s but lyricist Oscar Hammerstein’s. And the lyrics are Howard Dietz’s, not Arthur Schwartz’s, for “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.”

    Anyway, excellent post, and thanks!


    • Yes, of course you’re right. And if I credited George Gershwin, I should have instead credited Ira. I really do know this stuff; I just slipped!

      Mr. Sondheim’s love of mysteries and puzzles has not been lost on me – although I discovered this fact well after I laid claim to him as my favorite composer of all time. Well, he’s my favorite lyricist – and that’s where most of the puzzle-making comes from anyway, isn’t it?!?

      Many years ago, a college friend invited me to work with her on an original musical called Speakeasy. She would write the music, and I would write the book and lyrics. I was thrilled – and completely unqualified to do any such thing, so the project came to naught. But I made it into a musical murder mystery and had great fun doing it for as long as our collaboration lasted. Most of these have not been great successes; I think the average theatre-goer is unable to be “double-dazzled” by both a musical plot and a mystery plot. Or maybe there’s a problem when a murder mystery is really clever in that it’s hard to want to come back to an ending you know. That’s why Edwin Drood was fun to watch: every performance was different due to the audience votes on multiple issues. (And the score is actually quite good!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m astonished to find that I never responded to this post before. I actually think there are quite a few other mystery musicals out there, including the rather underrated Nick & Nora, the excellent if hardly puzzle plot-based City of Angels, and at least two major Sherlock Holmes musicals (one titled Baker Street and the other just Sherlock Holmes). And quite a few others, I’m sure. But, admittedly, except for City of Angels ( which I’d certainly more about the style of a genre than its structure), I don’t suppose any are considered a major success.

    I will say, with no undue modesty, that perhaps the most pleasing mystery musical to the lover of Golden Age Detective fiction— while admittedly in many ways the worst of its type (I.e. re: characterization it probably makes Something’s Afoot look deep)— is my very own Murder on the High C’s. Despite its undeniable flaws, what GAD fan wouldn’t love an “Anything Goes”-type shipboard mystery taking place in 1933 aboard the S.S. Van Dine steamship, with a hooded phantom killer, Cabin B-13 as a clue, a pre-denouement “challenge to the playgoer,” pompous world-famous detective Professor Alastair Kenworthy (“this man was murdered— fatally!”) being outshine by children’s mystery writer (of the “Marty Murnie Mysteries”) Caroline Cardell, and a sturdy denouement centered on (but certainly not limited to) a music-based dying message clue with four different interpretations (and thus three prior false solutions)?


    • Did you just plug your play on my blog, mister? Was this also done as dinner theatre? If I had any of my old scripts in digital form, I’d trade you for reading.

      Do you know Redhead, the Victorian serial killer musical that starred Gwen Verdon? Weird stuff! I tried to co-write a musical mystery called Speakeasy many years ago. It was highly derivative, as you might imagine, But for a while I had a great deal of fun plotting it all out.


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