History Lesson

By Weimer, Christopher | The Sondheim Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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History Lesson

Weimer, Christopher, The Sondheim Review

A reference guide to Merrily's "Bobby and Jackie and Jack"

One of the most remarkable songs in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along is "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," the send-up of the Kennedy family performed by the young Charley, Frank and Beth in their 1960 Greenwich Village nightclub act. Just as he did in Follies' "I'm Still Here," Sondheim uses specific historical references to evoke vividly America's past - in this number, the moment of John F. Kennedy's election to the White House.

When Merrily opened in 1981, Sondheim and his collaborators could be reasonably certain that most audience members would recognize the dozens of names cascading through the lyrics. For younger spectators at the many new productions of Merrily mounted each year, however, a glossary of the lyrics might prove useful.


With the first set of references in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," Charley and Frank focus on the many technological, cultural and political landmarks specific to 1960.

Xerox: The Xerox 914, the first plain paper photocopier, revolutionized office work by superceding previous duplicating methods such as carbon paper and mimeograph machines. Sales skyrocketed from 1960 onward, and its popularity made "Xerox" a generic term in American English for a photocopy.

Lasers: An acronym for Light Amplification by Standard Emission of Radiation. The first laser beam device was demonstrated in May 1960. Newspapers and science fiction were quick to present it to the public as a death ray, although many scientists were initially unable to imagine how the laser might be put to practical use.

The Twist: Perhaps the first worldwide rock-and-roll dance fad, "The Twist" caught young people's imaginations in the summer of 1960, when Chubby Checker's recording climbed the Billboard chart. The dance infuriated American parents, teachers and clergymen, who considered its pelvic gyrations sexually provocative.

The Pill: The Combined Oral Contraceptive Pill (COCP) was first approved by the FDA for contraceptive use by women in June 1960. More effective than any prior form of birth control, the pill separated the pleasures of sex from its reproductive consequences, empowering women and contributing to the "Sexual Revolution" during the decade to come.

A city in Brazil that no one wants to fill: Commissioned in 1956 and built in only 41 months, Brasilia was officially inaugurated as the new capital of Brazil on April 21, 1960. Although heralded as a model of modern urban planning, Brasilia was at first populated mainly by reluctant government officials and bureaucrats.

Khrushchev stopped screaming: Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) served as premier of the former Soviet Union from 1958 until he was forced from office in 1964. In September and October of 1960, Khrushchev repeatedly interrupted speakers in the United Nations General Assembly with his outbursts, on one occasion pounding his shoe on the table and on another promising the capitalist countries what was translated as "We will bury you!"

Librium: A sedative first marketed in 1960, Librium was widely prescribed for anxiety, symbolizing a new era of psychopharmacology in which pills increasingly took the place of psychotherapy's "talking cures." Though Librium and its successors Valium and Xanax are still prescribed today, their place in the American popular imagination has been overtaken by antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft.

Nixon/Dicky: Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-1994), elected vice president of the United States in 1952, narrowly lost the 1960 presidential race to John F. Kennedy in a defeat that many attributed to the impact of the first televised presidential debates. He was elected president in 1968 and re-elected in 1972. In 1974 he was forced to resign by the Watergate scandal.

Ike: President Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower (1890-1969) was John F. Kennedy's immediate predecessor in the White House, elected in 1952 and 1956 after serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.

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