In 1957, Bill Thom, then a high-school student in Hartford, Connecticut, played Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom in the senior production of Of Thee I Sing.
Remember Of Thee I Sing? No? Well, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin and a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, it was hot stuff when it opened on Broadway in 1932. It even won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the first time that award was ever given to a musical. The music, of course, was magnificent and included several Gershwin riffs that would reappear later in more well-known compositions--the most Paris-y theme in An American in Paris, for instance, or the simple musical phrase underlying the words "Who could ask for anything more?" in Girl Crazy.
Thom was replaying that Gershwin score in his mind on a recent drive from North Dakota to Colorado, remembering his supporting star role of more than forty years ago. "I played a buffoon role," he recalls, "but that was fine. I liked getting on stage. Also, because of the plot, there were more girls around than I ever knew existed. For someone who was an uneventful student, it was wonderful."
No one performs Of Thee I Sing as a full-blown musical anymore, Thom thought as he drove across the plains. The music has endured because of its sheer Gershwin-ness, but the story line "proceeds from the absurd to the absurder," according to the liner notes on a CD Thom had back home. "The plot is just too improbable, or so they say," Thom muses. "Except..."
Except that as he drove and remembered and hummed, in the background, hour after hour, talk-radio hosts picked apart the impeachment hearings. And suddenly Thom realized that Of Thee I Sing concerns the election campaign of a bumbling, likable presidential candidate, his spurning of a Southern belle who ultimately sues him for "breach of promise," his long-suffering wife who ends up displaying most of the backbone in the couple, and the subsequent impeachment hearing.
"The woman who sues President Wintergreen is Diana Devereaux--I think of her as the Paula Jones character," Thom elaborates. "She sues him for breach of promise only because there was no sexual harassment on the books back then. And that is the only charge on which he is impeached. I, as Throttlebottom, played the Al Gore role, and in the play I end up being president. It's just great. Someone should revive it."
That someone may as well be Thom himself, who, in all his years of teaching and practicing law, has never forgotten his dramatic roots. "It's a natural for someone who makes a living making a point to gravitate to the stage," he explains. "Most lawyers are extravagant, with good voices, and they are hams."
Thom grew up with an excellent role model for this stock character. Starring as the attorney/ham was his Uncle John, who ran a law practice in Waterbury, Connecticut, was once in line for the governorship of the state--"but something happened; we were never supposed to ask what"--and seemed to lead a charmed life. "I was planning to be a railroad man like everyone else in my family," Thom remembers, "but here was Uncle John in a little office with his shoes up on the desk, smoking a big ceegar, and he'd always say, 'The point is, Bill, never work too hard.' Who wouldn't want to be him?"
And so after college--"There was theater there, but in college it got so kind of rarefied"--Thom went to Yale Law School, earning tuition money by working on the New Haven railroad at night. His Uncle John had died the day he entered law school, putting to rest any thoughts of a partnership. Instead, Thom went on to an "undistinguished career with the Interstate Commerce Commission," he says, then progressed on through jobs and advanced degrees in Chicago, Michigan, Georgia and New Orleans, "where I moonlighted as a ragtime piano player," he adds. "It wasn't as hard as it sounds. I was playing for drunks."
In 1973, after a misleading interview in what seemed to be a state with a mild climate, he accepted a job as a law professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. "It isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from there," he says. "But I grew to like its small-town feel. It was a wonderful place for my daughter to grow up." In fact, though he became professor emeritus in 1995 and now lives in Evergreen, Thom continues to keep a home and business affiliations in Grand Forks.
"There wasn't much entertainment at all," he remembers of his days at UND. "I thought, let's arrange some. We put on Trial by Jury, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, with an all-law-student cast. It's terribly hard to sing, but North Dakota is a state of doers. A lot of them come from towns of 35 people, where everyone's used to having to do everything."
Most of them were up to the challenge of Trial by Jury. And Thom--who directed, played the piano, coached the singers and rehearsed for countless hours--was just beginning. "In the next twenty years, we did all kinds of revues and musicals," he says. "I met a wonderful Jungian analyst who became my lyricist, and we wrote original plays--Dakota Dream, which is a cowboy romance, and a rather cynical work called The Hills of Nebraska. In 1981, devoid of ideas, I came up with an idea..."
It went like this: Everyone knows that Cole Porter dropped out of Harvard Law when his first play was about to be produced in New York. Titled See America First, it featured music by Porter and some lyrics by a fellow student named T. Laurison Riggs. In Thom's (imaginary) plot, Riggs comes back from an obscure bank job to sue Cole Porter for copyright infringement, claiming that all of Porter's alleged lyrics were actually his.
"We called it Trial by Music," Thom says proudly. "It was an interesting musical and a very interesting way to get the musical back into the courtroom." Which is precisely where it belongs, he adds. "W.S. Gilbert was a lawyer, a barrister. He sued Sullivan, you know. They couldn't stand each other."
Even those musicians who didn't practice law had their celebrated brushes with it, both during and after their lifetimes. "I do a sort of musical copyright talk as a road show," Thom says. "I bring along my synthesizer and explain the whole thing on the premise that there are only 88 notes and only a certain number of combinations. Is it infringement or fair use? Beethoven was one of the biggest musical snitches of all time. So is Dan Fogelberg."
Unconsciously "borrowing" a musical phrase is second nature to most composers, he explains. Part of the natural order of things. As predictable as the fact that if you ask thirty lawyers (or law students) to participate--pro bono, of course--in a musical revue complete with skits and singing, thirty lawyers will report for duty. "I've only been in Colorado a few years," Thom observes, "but you have some real talent here. Or that's what I've noticed at the bar association conventions--really excellent singers and actors."
"We do have a talented bunch," agrees Jen Williams of the Colorado Bar Association. "They're always willing to put on a show. Luckily, most of them are very good."
"I did stand-up while I was in law school," explains attorney Cliff Eley, who still does comedy at lawyerly events around town. "It was a great way to make fifty bucks in twenty minutes. I went to law school in Provo, Utah, and the big change I noticed afterward was how much it helped to have a little alcohol in the audience."
For material, Eley seldom has to look further than his own career as a workers' comp attorney. One of his finest courtroom moments came when he wanted to show a video of a client fishing. The opposing attorney said: "Your honor, this is a fishing expedition," Eley recalls. "And I got to stand up and say, 'Stipulated!' which is like saying, 'Boy, is it ever!' More recently, I wrote this song, to the tune of 'Candle in the Wind,' which no one will understand if they don't know a whole lot of workers' comp law. It's too bad. It was the best thing I ever wrote."
"I begged him not to do that song," counters Craig Eley, Cliff's brother. "It was devastatingly accurate, almost cruel. Not his best work, although everyone thought it was hilarious." A fellow workers' comp lawyer, Craig performs with his brother at conventions and Denver Law Club shows. To prepare, the brothers riff into a tape recorder for hours on end, looking for material. "Although on election years, our routine practically writes itself," Craig adds. "It's gotten to the point where we've noticed that writing and performing is more fun than practicing law."
Sound incongruous? "No," Craig says. "Congruous. Some of the most dignified, staid lawyers--the guys who never leave their desks--are really, really gifted. There is no dearth of lawyers willing to make fools out of themselves. The thing is, though, they have to have something funny to say, or sing, or whatever."
Bill Thom has an unimpeachable suggestion for such show-biz barristers. "Dust off Of Thee I Sing," he says. "The time is right.