Backstage is a world of rituals. Some are performed nightly by the performers: sipping the same soup an hour before curtain, listening to the same music while warming up, crossing oneself to the same theater gods before going on.
Other backstage rituals are more occasional and more communal: for example, the Legacy Robe, given to the chorus member with the most Broadway credits on opening night. Enacted more frequently is the “Happy Trails” ritual. It took place once again backstage at My Fair Lady this past weekend, as Dame Diana Rigg and Christine Cornish Smith ended their time with the production. Cast and crew assembled a half-hour before curtain in the backstage canteen to sing “Happy Trails to You” to Rigg and Smith; afterwards, the two actors gave brief, teary-eyed speeches of thanks.
I’ve never heard nor found a satisfactory explanation as to why “Happy Trails,” written by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, is used to bid a fond adieu. Its use backstage in the very East Coast world of Broadway seems a little incongruous: there are few tunes more folksy and Western than this number used by Rogers and Evans as the theme song for their 1940s radio program and 1950s television show.
Do a little digging, however, and you discover that “Happy Trails” has been reclaimed by artists who don’t know the difference between horsehide and cowhide. The number was covered in 1969 by the psychedelic-rock band Quicksilver Messenger Service and in 1982 by the big-hair band Van Halen. And on October 1, 1970, quintessential blues rocker Janis Joplin left a taped recording of the song as a birthday greeting for John Lennon, who received it a week later – four days after Joplin died.
Backstage happy trails, I’m glad to say, are considerably less tragic. I especially enjoy watching them, or, rather, listening to them because the vocal quality among revelers from a Broadway musical are of a level far removed from the singing at your average birthday celebration. This past weekend, the “Happy Trails” rendition backstage at My Fair Lady provided a harmonic blend exceptional even by this quality cast’s standards. I didn’t dare join my voice to theirs: that would have been sacrilege to the ritual.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com