By Peter Filichia —
As we go to the polls this week, let’s talk about two musicals that deal with elections: Of Thee I Sing and its sequel Let ‘Em Eat Cake.
Both had books by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind, music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his brother Ira. Each musical had the same stars, too, although their names today are only remembered by aficionados: William Gaxton was John P. Wintergreen and Victor Moore portrayed Alexander Throttlebottom, the National Party’s candidates for president and vice-president. Lois Moran played Mary Turner, the woman of Wintergreen’s dreams.
But there were profound differences between the two shows. While both shows were satiric in nature, Thee was spoofy while Cake was caustic.
Of Thee I Sing opened in 1931, became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize and emerged as the longest-running musical of the ‘30s. It had a Broadway revival in 1952 and even a television adaptation in 1972, with then white-hot Carroll (Archie Bunker) O’Connor and recent Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman as the Wintergreens, and Jack Gilford as Throttlebottom.
Let ‘Em Eat Cake debuted in 1933 to less enthusiastic reviews – probably because it was far more ambitious in nature. The authors didn’t want to simply repeat themselves. Their sequel paid the price for their audacity, for it lasted a mere 90 performances, about a fifth as long as Thee‘s 441.
And while Thee produced three standards (“Love Is Sweeping the Country,” the title song, and “Who Cares?,” – although that had been written for a 1924 musical called Bombo), Cake was lucky to manage one: “Mine.” To add injury to the many insults: when Thee was revived in 1952, it even appropriated “Mine” into its score.
That 1952 revival got a recording, but it offered little more than 41 minutes of Gershwin’s extraordinary score. Many begged for a complete recording, but the original orchestrations were lost.
Until 1984, when Samuel French was relocating from 25 West 45th Street to, ironically enough, 45 West 25th Street. While moving and packing, music editor Ron Spivak found that some shelves had been obscured by wall paneling. Behind them were all the orchestral materials from Of Thee I Sing that could now allow it to be recorded with dozens of musicians playing almost a half-hour more music.
And while a half loaf would be better than none, the discovery of these materials spurred the Gershwin family to commission new orchestrations to replace Let ‘Em Eat Cake‘s lost ones.
In March 1987 the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted both scores under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. It was a Kert-Gilford ticket, for Larry portrayed Wintergreen and Gilford reprised his TV Throttlebottom. Happily, CBS recorded the evening, and the result was two hours, twenty-three minutes and twenty-nine seconds of Gershwin. Taken together, we can see that each score has great merit.
Thee starts with candidate Wintergreen’s campaign. If he wins, he’ll be married to the incoming Miss America – “because the president deserves the most beautiful first lady,” wrote Ira Gershwin, gently criticizing the value system of many of “the 122 million” Americans the country then had.
Certainly the photographers appreciate the beauty they see. “Oh, the man who is not hot is not a man,” they sing in a lyric that many of us would now dispute. “The thrills you’re sending through me all prove that you will do me” – a lyric that in 1931 sounded more benign than it does now.
The winner is Diana Devereaux, Miss Louisiana, but Wintergreen prefers the more homespun Mary Turner. It’s her corn muffins that did the trick, proving that the way to a man’s heart is indeed through his stomach. Diana is outraged, feeling that if a girl is as pretty as a Miss Atlantic City, she should be rewarded.
No matter. “Love” is Wintergreen’s platform and “Love Is Sweeping the Country” is his slogan – and a pretty snappy song, too. One must question Ira’s word choice in “All the sexes (from Maine to Texas)” – as opposed to “BOTH the sexes?” Perhaps Ira was prescient in acknowledging the LGBT communities.
Did the Gershwins not know that they had a Gershwinner in “Love Is Sweeping the Country”? Usually songs expected to be hits appear in the overture. This one doesn’t.
We think we’re in litigious times now? Diana sings “I’m doing a bit of suing” and takes her breach-of-promise case all the way to the Supreme Court. When that doesn’t work out, she calls in the French Ambassador, who protests because Diana is “the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon” and such a legacy has its privileges.
Paige O’Hara, Diana in this recording, would later play a fully French character: Belle in Beauty and the Beast. And to add to the French sound, a bit of “An American in Paris” is played; getting the rights from the composer posed no problem.
Perhaps Wintergreen should be paying more attention to this threat; there is a reference to “the 17 vacations you’ve had.” But even when the Senate wants to impeach him, his response is “Who cares?”
Throttlebottom takes the roll call: Minnesota, Dakota; Louisiana, Montana; Nebraska, Alaska. (That was prescient, too, for Alaska was just a territory then; it wouldn’t have a senator for almost 30 more years.) Those are the only states mentioned because, as Throttlebottom sings, “I simply can’t be bothered when the names don’t rhyme.”
But the solution is one you might not expect – Mary’s expecting, as she sings in a fetching Gershwin waltz. Maureen McGovern displays the elegance that first ladies must have.
Wintergreen is judged not guilty, because emotions take place over legalities. But not for long, as Let ‘Em Eat Cake shows. After a stirring seven-minute overture, we’re taken to the next election when John P. Wintergreen is up against John P. Tweedledee; his name is a subtle way of showing that all candidates are the same.
And Wintergreen loses. He and Mary set up a shirt-making business in Union Square, then as much of a hotbed of revolutionary politics as it was in Emma Goldman’s day. The Wintergreens meet a particular malcontent named Kruger. The character has no first name, although the performer who wittily portrays him does: David Garrison.
Kruger recruits the Wintergreens. Given that Mary’s specialty is blue shirts, and we have brown-shirt and black-shirt revolutionaries respectively in Italy and Germany, the shade of shirt is enough to start a revolt.
All right, it does sound dour and even more far-fetched, but Gershwin’s music continues to sparkle. The title song has some nifty changes in time signatures that slyly comment on the chaos.
Best of all, in an era where many of Broadway’s orchestras only include the strings coming off the frayed jackets of the musicians, how wondrous to hear a generous string section. Note, too, an enormous chorus with extraordinary voices to back up the material. Of these singers we sing, too.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com