Originals: Musical Comedy 1909–1935
- Disc 1
Musical comedy, as Harold Clurman once noted, is nothing to argue about; it is to be enjoyed. Musical comedy is what the public wants. It has been the most popular form of theater in America since the turn of the century. It is what melodrama was to the Victorian age. Aimed to please the tired businessman, it has rarely aspired to aim any higher, being satisfied to stick to merchandising rather than to concern itself with some vague consideration called “art.”
Those who write histories of the American musical theater and prate about musical comedy as a “perfected art form” are either victims of a “good-old days” delusion, of a nostalgia for the life of an imagined past, or are deaf, dumb, and blind. The one staggering truth about musicals is that most of them are incapable of surviving for as much as a decade, and when revived prove to be so rheumatic, so banal, so ludicrous that we groan at the shattering of our illusions and depart sadly and silently.
Did audiences really once thrill as the Red Shadow handed Margot his pistol in the Act I finale of The Desert Song, daring her to shoot him as he crooned to her of “sand kissing a moon-lit sky” and “a desert breeze whisp’ring a lul-la-by”? Did they really cheer when, in Good News, Flo and Windy declared, “Let the Professors … teach history – we’ll make it. Let ’em worry about their dusty old books. We’ll make Tait famous for the ‘Varsity Drag’”? Did they really sigh romantically when Magnolia, in Show Boat, murmured to Ravenal, “You’ve seen everything in the world,” and he, in an obvious song cue, replied, “I used to think so – until I looked into your eyes – and then I knew I had seen nothing – I hadn’t even lived”? Did they really roar with delight in Rose Marie when Hard-Boiled Herman, asked why he was wearing spurs, answered, “Oh, you never know when you may meet a horse”? And were they really satisfied with a librettist who cleared the chorus off stage at the end of a number by having the leader wave airily and cry, “Come on, chaps, let’s all go on board Sir Egbert’s yacht”?
Most of the musical comedies prior to World War II (and a considerable number of more recent ones) were loosely contrived vehicles, tailored to show off individual vocal, dancing, or comedy talents, or to serve as pegs on which to hang an attractive score, with all their clumsiness and ineptness camouflaged by animal gusto, bright music, exquisite settings and extravagantly clad (or unclad) curvaceous girls. It was a rare production that did not require the talents of multiple composers or lyricists or vaudeville specialties inserted to bolster weak spots, especially in the second act.
The real inheritance from musical comedy is the music – the lilting, rhythmic, incomparable melodies of men like Herbert, Cohan, Friml, Romberg, Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Youmans, Rodgers, and Porter. And by the miracle of the phonograph we are able to recapture the “first excitement” of the melodious past through recorded performances by the original stars of American musical comedy, some of them made more than half a century ago, revealing afresh that dynamism, that genius for projecting a personality across the footlights and creating an electric affinity with an audience, that set these stars apart from their now-forgotten competitors.
Blanche Ring – “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers”
In the first decade of this century Blanche Ring, a Bostonian of generous proportions possessed of a charming inauthentic Irish brogue, was one of the theater’s most popular stars. An ebullient singer of comic and sentimental ditties, she introduced “In the Good Old Summertime” in The Defender (1902) and “Yip-I-Addy,” which Max Beerbohm declared was “banality raised to the sublime.” Her lilting rendition of “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers” was so successful she repeated it a year later in The Yankee Girl – and in virtually every stage appearance thereafter.
Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth – “Turn Off Your Light, Mr. Moon Man”
Moon songs became the trademark of Bayes and Norworth during their five-year collaboration (1908–13) as songwriters and on- and off-stage partners. Their “Shine On, Harvest Moon” was the hit of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1908, and Little Miss Fix-It, billed as “a play with song interruptions” and described by a reviewer as an indulgence in “an interminably protracted saccharine coo,” was saved from disaster largely by their comically staged and engagingly harmonized “Mr. Moon Man.” Although Miss Bayes claimed to have a husky, unmelodious voice with a range of only eight notes, her energetic performances of songs like “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” and “Over There” endeared her to audiences until her death in 1928 at the age of 48.
Al Jolson – “That Haunting Melody”
In March 1911 the Shuberts unveiled their elegant new Winter Garden. The opening program included a Spanish ballet, a Chinese opera and La Belle Paree, a wild melange of spectacle, headline vaudeville, and laughter, with music by Jerome Kern. Minstrelsy was represented by the Shuberts’ discovery, Al Jolson. The blackfaced Jolson burst forth as a character named Erastus Sparkler, a colored aristocrat from San Juan Hill, proclaiming effervescently that “Paris Is a Paradise for Coons.” The Shuberts’ next production, Vera Violetta, starred Gaby Deslys and Jose Collins, but it was Jolson the audience craved. The New York World noted caustically that “the vociferous gentleman had nothing new to offer,” but the New York Times informed its readers that “Jolson, in the role of a colored waiter, … succeeded in rousing the audience into its first enthusiasm of the evening, and kept them enthusiastic much of the time afterwards.” He had two numbers: “Rum Tum Tiddle,” which he sang while racing up and down the aisles, and “That Haunting Melody,” written by George M. Cohan.
Elsie Janis – “Fo’ de Lawd’s Sake, Play a Waltz”
The Slim Princess had a score by Leslie Stuart, famed for his “Floradora,” and a book by Henry Blossom, noted as Victor Herbert’s collaborator. Neither was in top form on this occasion. The trivial plot concerned a millionaire’s son and a princess from Borivenia banished to America because she was unable to attain the standard of bulk which Borivenians considered to be the criterion of feminine pulchritude. The show’s most successful song – a comic protest against the insidious invasions of ragtime – was written by its star, Elsie Janis, who emerged here as a vivacious hoyden, a human dynamo whom a critic described as “seductively American and honest both in her industry and her youthful art.” Her voice was the least formidable of her talents, but audiences loved her dialect songs and the adroit imitations of Lauder, Cohan, and Ethel Barrymore with which she padded the anemic second act.
Edith Day – “Alice Blue Gown”
Irene was extolled by the reviewers as a fast-paced, wholesome, happy show. Its book, about a poor shopgirl “completely transformed in two days” by an “Alice blue gown” into a “fine lady” of a mannequin, owed a debt both to Peg o’ My Heart and Shaw’s Pygmalion. But all the elements blended well. The Tierney-McCarthy score bubbled with rhythm and “Alice Blue Gown” was the most lilting waltz heard on Broadway since The Merry Widow. Not the least of Irene’s pleasantness was Edith Day, an elfin bundle of charm who had offered an animated demonstration of the “tickle toe” two years earlier in Going Up. Miss Day’s sweet voice and graceful dancing enhanced the New York production of Irene, however, for only four months. In March 1920 she departed to star in the London production. Although she later returned to Broadway in Vincent Youmans’s Wildflower (1923), she eventually established permanent residence in England.
Fanny Brice – “Second Hand Rose”
The 1921 Follies was Ziegfeld’s fifteenth annual production – and the costliest. The Follies, proclaimed the Evening Telegraph, had “developed from a lively show of the burlesque type into the most artistic of musical productions.” The New York Times headlined its notice, “Follies of 1921 Best of Them All.” One of the principal reasons for this was Fanny Brice making her sixth appearance in a Follies since 1910 and “always seeming a little funnier than on the previous occasion.” The 1921 edition is recalled principally for Miss Brice’s plaintive rendition of “My Man,” but it was also highlighted by a deliriously funny scene in which she performed an Ethel Barrymore Camille (assisted by Raymond Hitchcook and W.C. Fields as her brothers). And, of course, there was Fanny’s inevitable Yiddish dialect number – this time the bitter-sweet “Second Hand Rose.”
Ed Gallagher and Al Shean – “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”
The 1922 Follies was enhanced by the presence of the shimmy sensation, Gilda Gray. Will Rogers was back. And Ziegfeld ballyhooed a new slogan, “Glorifying the American Girl.” Unfortunately, this Follies suffered from an undistinguished musical score. Its only memorable song was provided by an engaging pair of dialect comedians, Gallagher and Shean, recruited from vaudeville, whose specialty – billed as “By, about, and for Themselves” – held up opening night proceedings for several minutes.
Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake – “Manda”
Although the Negro breakthrough into musical comedy occurred as early as 1898, with the short-lived A Trip to Coontown, and though Williams and Walker had a moderate success with their In Dahomey (1903), it was Sissle and Blake who firmly established the Negro in the legitimate theater in 1921 with their long-running, all-Negro revue Shuffle Along. Ironically, although they were two of the most talented musicians and performers in the theater, they never could repeat this success. The principal assets of Chocolate Dandies (which survived in New York for only ten weeks) were the stunning Josephine Baker and a second-act interlude during which Eubie Blake, at an on-stage piano, and Noble Sissle ignored their faltering plot and indulged in some unexcelled pianistics and vocalistics with an infectious song titled “Manda.”
Beatrice Lillie – “Like He Loves Me”
Oh, Please! was unable to survive more than seventy-nine performances despite a pleasant score by Vincent Youmans and superb performances by Beatrice Lillie and Charles Winninger. The improbable tale of an actress who had aroused the wrath of an intensely moral perfume manufacturer was, in Alexander Woollcott’s opinion, “an uncommonly stale and witless musical comedy.” Still, nobody could find an unkind word for Miss Lillie’s acrobatic performance, replete with her inimitable quiet buffoonery, eloquent eyebrows and small sweet voice as, assisted by a male chorus, she mocked the “stuffy sentimentalities and mawkish romance of the musical stage” (Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times) in a delightful “moon” song, “Like He Loves Me.” Her accompanist, Vincent Youmans, here made a rare recording appearance.
J. Harold Murray – “Rio Rita and the Rangers’ Song”
The opening attraction at the new Ziegfeld Theater, Rio Rita was a lavish spectacle with a rich, pulsating score by Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy, earlier responsible for Irene and Eddie Cantor’s Kid Boots (1923). The plot involved a Texas Ranger (played by J. Harold Murray, a robust, relaxed singer with a voice rising from baritone to tenor) who, doing detective work among the bandits infesting the banks of the Rio Grande, fell in love with Rita (Ethelind Terry), whom he suspected of being related to a notorious bandit, the Kinkajou. Add the splendid low comedy of Wheeler and Woolsey and the result was, as Percy Hammond put it, “a distinguished triumph of matter over mind.”
Louise Groody and Charles King – “Sometimes I’m Happy”
Vincent Youmans and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote “Come On and Pet Me” for Mary Jane McKane (1923), but dropped it. Two years later, with a new lyric by Irving Caesar and known now as “Sometimes I’m Happy,” it was added to the score of A Night Out which never reached New York. It finally came to anchor in Youmans’s highly successful Hit the Deck as a duet sung by Louise Groody and Charles King. Miss Groody, a dimpled, dancing sprite, had starred previously in Youmans’s No No Nanette (1925). King’s performance in Hit the Deck catapulted him to stardom in Metro’s “all-talkie” musical The Broadway Melody (1929).
Eddie Cantor – “Hungry Women”
Ziegfeld’s Whoopee, with a cast headed by Eddie Cantor and Ruth Etting, a splendid score by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn, and a riotous book by William Anthony McGuire based on Owen Davis’s comedy “The Nervous Wreck,” may well have been the best musical comedy of the decade. The noted Irish playwright and critic, St. John Ervine, after seeing Cantor in Whoopee, linked him with Will Rogers and Bert Lahr as one of America’s three greatest theater comedians: “His nervously flickering eyelids, his quick, nervous hands, his little gulps and gasps, his look of bewilderment and his daredevil behavior when, unaccountably, he finds himself master of the situation – all these come out of a spirit that is overflowingly funny.”
Helen Morgan – “Why Was I Born?”
Sweet Adeline was an attempt by Kern and Hammerstein to duplicate the success of their great hit Show Boat (1927). Described as “a musical romance of the Gay Nineties,” it had a backstage setting, a heroine who becomes a singing star, a hit torch song (virtually a carbon copy in theme and tone of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”), and the same performer to sing it. The plaintive Helen Morgan, fresh from her triumph as the tragic mulatto Julie, was the jewel of this wispy, sentimental tale, affecting audiences with the passion and vibrancy of her tearful renditions of “Why Was I Born?” and “Don’t Ever Leave Me.” The play achieved a satisfying run of 234 performances.
Cole Porter – “You’re the Top”
Cole Porter was not physically present on stage the night Anything Goes opened, but even Ethel Merman (for whom he provided five musical comedies) would probably agree that he was the star performer of the evening, the Howard Lindsay-Russell Crouse libretto providing a frame for one of Porter’s most engaging scores. “You’re the Top” was so enthusiastically received during the Boston tryout that it became necessary for Porter, in New York, to dictate encore choruses over the telephone to Miss Merman, who jotted them down in shorthand.
Libby Holman – “You and the Night and the Music”
Libby Holman, like Helen Morgan, made her reputation as a singer of spotlit plaints, the smoldering quality of her female baritone moving audiences to strong emotional reaction. She was an overnight sensation as she sang with deep-throated abandon “Moanin’ Low” in The Little Show (1929). In 1932 her career was interrupted by a personal tragedy and scandal, but she returned in 1934 in the Dietz-Schwartz Revenge with Music, an overblown, romanticized version of Alarcón’s Three-Cornered Hat. Although she had the evening’s best number, Miss Holman was sadly miscast as the wife of a poor miller in this blatant operetta.
Eleanor Powell – “What a Wonderful World”
At Home Abroad was a musical travelogue by Dietz and Schwartz which floodlit the talents of Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters and Eleanor Powell. Miss Powell, a “lanky golliwog of a kid” (as one critic remembered her) dancing to “Button Up Your Overcoat” in Follow Through (1929), had now become the talk and toast of the town for the ease and precision of her dancing and the winsome quality of her small voice in songs like “Got a Bran’ New Suit” and “What a Wonderful World,” which she and Eddie Foy, Jr. performed while manipulating marionette dogs.
– Dan H. Laurence
Mr. Laurence, Professor of English at New York University,
is best known as editor of the Collected Letters of Bernard Shaw
(Taken from the original liner notes for LPV-560)