by Ernest Leogrande
Some people have got upset over the fact that Peggy Lee’s latest hit, “Is That All There Is?,” is an uncredited musical version of a Thomas Mann story, “Disillusionment.”
You’d think that she and the song’s lyricist, Jerry Leiber, had been caught shoplifting at the Metropolitan Museum. The criticism upsets her and puts an expression in her face that might be a glower if it were stepped up a few notches in intensity, but it doesn’t interfere with her delivery of the song in her act at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room.
Look at it this way: How many people did Mann reach with his story and how many does Peggy reach? If the aim is communication, there’s no contest.
Leiber has been writing with composer Mike Stoller for 20 years, since he dropped out of college, where he was majoring in philosophy. They’re the men who gave us “Hound Dog.” Leiber thought about setting the story’s idea to song for years. “It’s is an example in existentialist thinking,” he said, “like Heidegger and Camus, and I was fascinated by it. To me what I did was no great secret.”
Mann was 24 when he wrote the story. That’s a fun age for disillusionment. Peggy, coming up to 50, invests the words with authority, a relaxed defiance, and low-key optimism, “…let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all…”
She shouldn’t be stuck with the song’s sentiments any more than Frank Sinatra was expected to go into retirement after chewing it up and spitting it out with “My Way.” Nor should Peggy’s fans, listening to her these nights in the great big gorgeous Empire Room, have to get stuck with a case of terminal experience just because so many of them are 40-ish or over. They also like “Mañana,” which she still sings.
“They even tell me there are jokes going around about it,” she said, “like men looking at their bankbooks and saying, ‘Is that all there is?’”
Another thing that upset her is Women’s Lib. Aggressive females put her on guard. Her long blond hair brushing her shoulders and her attention to clothes emphasize that she’s a woman, W-O-M-A-N. She likes flowers and bouquet after bouquet from well-wishers make her suite smell like a florist’s shop.
She isn’t keen about talking about her appearance before President Nixon either. A woman newspaper reporter accused her of “undulating suggestively” during her performance and of putting her hands on our leader and giving him a kiss afterward.
“I was just leaning forward to whisper, ‘I want to thank you for having me,’” she said indignantly.
Peggy brought her production – and it is that, a production – to the Empire Room last Monday and will continue there through next Saturday, 9 p.m. and midnight Monday through Saturday. She has her own lighting man and a basic corps of musicians with whom she works consistently. When a new song lineup is set, they rehearse for two weeks until the performance is machine-tooled precise and shows it.
She likes to keep her material current, so her new act has Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge,” and “Love Story” by 26-year-old singer-composer Randy Newman, who also did her arrangement on “Is That All There Is?” Newman has a dark sense of humor that has him wind up his “Love Story” with the married couple, old now, sent by their kids to a “little home in Florida,” where “we’ll play checkers all day until we pass away.”
Peggy, with Randy’s permission, ends it, “We’ll play checkers in the sun. Playing checkers can be fun.” It makes the song more up. After all, when you’ve paid $8 to $10 cover per person to see a show, who wants to be brought down?