Archive for marilyn miller

The Best Of Broadway’s Roaring Twenties (I)

Posted in Musicals with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2014 by upperco

Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the first post in our extended series on the best musicals from the 1920s! This infamous decade was a booming time for musical theatre as the emergence of new talent — both onstage and off — led to a culture that more than ever celebrated outstanding individuals and their creative accomplishments. Broadway was the brightest place on Earth. Though the incredibly important Show Boat (1927) appeared three-quarters through the decade, its narrative strength wouldn’t begin appropriation to other musicals until midway through the next decade. This landmark musical aside, the musicals of the 1920s are largely frivolous affairs — trivial books (if there IS a book) with sizzling scores, memorable dances, lavish production values, and the most exciting musical theatre stars of the century. Over these next few months, we’re going to be looking at some of these notable musicals. We’ll be going chronologically, but we won’t be doing one per year like we have in the past; some years will be skipped, others will house multiple shows. In these regards, I really am presenting to you what I think is the best of the best. To kick of the series, we’re beginning in 1920.

 

I. Sally (12/21/20 – 04/22/22)

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How else can we begin our exploration of 1920s musicals than by covering the fourth longest running show (not counting Irene, which officially premiered in 1919, but ran well into the ’20s) of the decade — the Ziegfeld spectacle that skyrocketed showgirl Marilyn Miller to stardom, making her a veritable Broadway legend? With a musical score by Jerome Kern and several lyricists (as a handful of songs from the score were culled from prior shows), Sally told the story of a dishwashing orphan who — after three acts and several dance numbers — rose to notoriety in the Ziegfeld Follies.  These tales of young girls making their way from nothing to something are known as “Cinderella stories” and they were incredibly popular in the first part of the 20th century. Sally just happens to be the best. Why? Its star and the way in which she was presented.

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Orphan Sally Green (known as “Sally of the Alley” and played by Marilyn Miller, of course) is hired as a dishwasher, along with several other waifs, at the Alley Inn in Greenwich Village. There she befriends a waiter, Connie (Leon Errol), who happens to be an exiled grand duke (of the country of Czechogovinia). Connie has been given the following night off to attend a ball in his honor, hosted by millionaire Richard Farquar. At the Inn, Sally meets and flirts with Farquar’s son, Blair (Irving Fisher), who is there hosting a dinner party of his own. When Sally impresses Connie with her dancing, he arranges for the dishwasher to perform at the Inn. She is spotted by theatrical agent Otis Hooper (Walter Catlett), who has just learned that his famous French ballerina client, Madame Nookerova, is unable to make her forthcoming appearance at the Farquar affair. Hooper decides to pass Sally off as the ballerina, and she goes off with Hooper and his fiancé Rosie (Mary Hay) to prepare. Blair returns to the Inn with his friends and tells them of his new love — whom he intends to take out of the Alley.

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As Sally performs at the ball the following evening as Madame Nookerova, Connie flirts with a widowed social worker (Dolores). Meanwhile, Blair begins falling in love with the ballerina, unaware that she is the same girl that he met the previous day. But when Sally tries to halt Blair’s amorous adavances for “Madame Nookerova” by telling him that she’s a wild and wicked woman, Blair angrily denounces her, and a tearful Sally breaks down and admits her deception. But things turn out fine and dandy in the end, after Hooper gets Sally a job in the Ziegfeld Follies and makes her into a star. Blair eventually returns and reunites with Sally. The pair, along with Otis and Rosie, and Connie and his widow, have a triple wedding as the curtain falls. (Check out the libretto courtesy of the NYPL here!)

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Sally quickly earned a reputation as the quintessential musical of the decade following its lengthy Broadway run, a smashing West End production starring Dorothy Dickson, and a brief return engagement with Miller on Broadway in 1923. But the show — with a bareboned book that’s apparently more bare than boned — has never received a successful major mounting. An attempt in 1948 (that improved on the score by substituting other Kern songs) folded within a month. It would seem then that Sally, though certainly OF its time, has an appeal that’s also LIMITED to its time. Of course, the other school of thought, which may be applicable to most musicals of this decade, is that the show was only successful under the powerful combo of Ziegfeld and Miller. (Though the 1921 London production ran even longer than the Original Broadway Production and featured the hands of neither.) But when we think of Sally, those are the two names who immediately come to mind.

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I think its more correct to say that Sally has never been successfully revisited because it is a sacred musical. It’s the show that kicked the decade into high gear — seeing a triple alliance of talent: Ziegfeld, Miller, Kern — that has rarely been so perfectly aligned. It really was THE show of the ’20s: the benchmark for future productions, the one that audiences looked back on with wistful nostalgia. However, some scholars, among them the notorious Ethan Mordden, argue that Sally is a lesser work and that its exclusive appeal is in the triple alliance, and not in the quality of the material itself. That also may be. But it’d be foolish to reach that conclusion without understanding what audiences of 1920 saw, and that’ll never happen for us. However, Marilyn Miller starred in a 1929 film adaptation that, though fairly faithful to the plot, only featured three (of the best) Kern songs. Still, the film is mesmerizing — the purest example of the magic of Marilyn Miller. It’s the closest that 2014 audiences will ever come to understanding the Sally phenomenon.

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Nowhere is Miller’s charm more evident than in the “Wild Rose” number, which contains the only surviving two-strip Technicolor footage from the film. Written especially for Sally, this song features lyrics by Clifford Grey. Here is the number as it appears in the film. 2014 audience, here is Ziegfeld’s own Marilyn Miller.

I want to feature a few other numbers from the score. The next two, which have since become classics, were written and included in the 1919 musical Zip, Goes A Million, which closed during its tryout. Kern resurrected these two glorious tunes, with lyrics by Buddy DeSylva, the following year for Sally. Here is “Look For The Silver Lining” as it is sung (as one of the few Kern numbers) in the 1929 film adaptation by Miller and Alexander Gray.

The other holdover from Zip, Goes A Million is “Whip-Poor-Will”, which was introduced in Sally by Sally and Blair. This rendition comes from McGlinn’s 1992 Jerome Kern Treasury album.

Other numbers came from additional sources. For instance, Otis, Rosie, and their friend Jimmie teamed up for a song written by Kern and Anne Caldwell for the 1920 musical The Night Boat. This is “The Lorelei,” as performed by the Original London Cast — who collectively recorded eight numbers and an excerpt of Victor Herbert’s third act ballet for Miller.

Another one of the few songs written exclusively for Sally is the title song. Though not the greatest number, I think this best gives you a flavor of what typical 1920 scores were like. This rendition comes from a live recording of a 1988 concert.

For access to the Original London Cast recordings headed by Dickson or a “songs only” recording of the 1988 concert production, subscribe and comment below!

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Come back next Monday for another 1920s musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Two of Gilligan’s Island!

Ripe For Revival – 1933 Edition

Posted in Musicals with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2013 by upperco

Welcome to the start of a new week on THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT!  Today we’re continuing our 15-week series on forgotten musicals that are ripe for reviving! Each Monday, we’ll be covering a different show from the years in between two landmarks – Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943). This period, the years immediately preceding the “Golden Age”, encompasses the entirety of the Great Depression, and represents an oft maligned period of the American musical’s history. Many of the shows from this era are considered unworthy of reviving because, despite electrifying scores by some of the best composers Broadway has ever known, their comparatively trivial books could only be carried by the unique and dynamic stars of the era. But such thinking only deprives theatre goers of the musical thrills that once helped make Broadway the landmark that it is today. The musicals that I’ll be covering over these next 15 weeks deserve re-examination. They deserve to be seen again. These shows are worth it.

So far we’ve covered Whoopee! (1928), Sweet Adeline (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), The Band Wagon (1931), and Face The Music (1932). Today’s featured musical is from 1933…

 

1933. As Thousands Cheer (09/30/33 – 09/08/34)

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As Thousands Cheer is the second musical revue to be featured on That’s Entertainment! It’s also the second show in a row with a book by Moss Hart and a score by Mr. America himself, Irving Berlin. However, As Thousands Cheer is totally unique in form — structured like a newspaper with each sketch and/or song introduced by a news headline. Thus the book automatically sets itself up for datedness. But with a timeless score and an inventive concept, the news headlines of 1933 don’t seem impossible to connect with; rather, they are a slice of depression era life. Not only is As Thousands Cheer one of the most unified revues of the ’30s, it was also the first musical to give a black star, Ethel Waters, a curtain call with her white co-stars, the beautiful Marilyn Miller, the debonair Clifton Webb, and the comedic Helen Broderick. (Ethel did NOT get equal billing as it is sometimes reported; her name was below the title except during Miller and Webb’s vacation in 1934.)

The first headline was MAN BITES DOG, which established the revue’s newspaper format, and featured a Park Avenue man biting his dog in retaliation. As the reporters proclaimed in the song, “A bitch bit a man, and the man bit the bitch right back!” With that, the revue was off and rolling, poking fun at many of the celebrities of the day. Indeed, the first official sketch was headlined FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT INAUGURATED TOMORROW and featured Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Hoover on their last day in the White House. The next headline was BARBARA HUTTON TO WED PRINCE MDIVANI, in which the Russian prince (played by Clifton Webb) wooed the Woolworth heiress (Marilyn Miller) with the delightful and airy “How’s Chances?” (This was Marilyn Miller’s, a former Follies showgirl, last stage appearance.)

Next came HEAT WAVE HITS NEW YORK, and featured Ethel Waters singing the steamy “Heat Wave” (which was later sung by Marilyn Monroe in the 1954 film, There’s No Business Like Show Business). Miller and Webb returned next in JOAN CRAWFORD TO DIVORCE DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, JR., in which both stars argued about who gets publicity rights to their divorce. Next came MAJESTIC SAILS AT MIDNIGHT, in which representatives from four European countries sang in counterpoint to the Statue of Liberty (Helen Broderick), who forgets the words to her National Anthem. That was followed by the LONELY HEARTS COLUMN, in which a reader asked for romantic advice to the wistful “Lonely Heart.”

The rich were sent up again in WORLD’S WEALTHIEST MAN CELEBRATES 94TH BIRTHDAY, which featured John D. Rockefeller so displeased with his birthday gift — Radio City Musical Hall — that he attacked his son with a cake knife. Then Marilyn Miller got a big solo spot with THE FUNNIES, which she sang before a backdrop of comic strips and a chorus of cartoon characters. The next sketch, GREEN PASTURES STARTS THIRD ROAD SEASON, featured Ethel Waters singing “To Be Or Not To Be,” as the bitter wife of her egotistical actor husband currently starring in The Green Pastures, the acclaimed 1930 play that featured Biblical stories told from the point-of-view of young black children. The first act closed with the ROTOGRAVURE SECTION, in which an image of the 1883 Easter Sunday on Fifth Avenue came to life in the charming “Easter Parade,” which was adapted from one of Berlin’s old trunk songs, and would become popular by Astaire and Garland as the title tune in MGM’s 1948 film of the same name.

The second act opened with the headline, METROPOLITAN OPERA OPENS IN OLD TIME SPLENDOR, and spoofed not only the acquisition of opera tickets by the nouveau rich, whose seats formerly belonged to the now bankrupt aristocracy, but also the Met’s recent (financially necessitated) turn to radio. In the sketch, the contrast between opera and trivial radio advertisements provided a source of much humor. But the next headline, UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB, is arguably the show’s most notable and poignant sketch. A star turn for Ethel Waters, she sang Berlin’s famous “Supper Time,” the tale of a woman whose husband was lynched at dawn. (Though popular today, the number was detested by a handful of Philadelphia critics, and even Water’s co-stars fought to have the number removed. Fortunately, they were not successful.)

The next headline lambasted two more popular figures — pacifist Mahatma Gandhi and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson — as the latter tried to get the former to end his hunger strike and join her act in GHANDI GOES ON NEW HUNGER STRIKE. A number for the dancers followed in REVOLT IN CUBA. But the next headline, NOEL COWARD, NOTED PLAYWRIGHT, RETURNS TO ENGLAND,  brought more laughs, as the four stars played hotel attendants forced to handle the eccentric playwright. SOCIETY WEDDING OF THE SEASON followed, with bridesmaids and ushers preparing for the most important wedding of the season, as the groom tries to wake up his sleepy bride for “Our Wedding Day.” Ethel Waters returned as Josephine Baker for the next headline, JOSEPHINE BAKER STILL THE RAGE OF PARIS. In it, she sang, “Harlem On my Mind,” in which the international star longs for her old neighborhood. With some of my favorite Berlin lyrics, the number was another smash success for Waters.

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The following headline was PRINCE OF WALES RUMORED ENGAGED, in which Broderick as Queen Mary interrogated the Prince with her husband, King George V, after the pair had learned about their son’s engagement from Walter Winchell’s column. The BROADWAY GOSSIP COLUMN followed with Clifton Webb as a gossip columnist singing “Through A Keyhole.” (This number was cut during the Broadway run.) The last headline was SUPREME COURT HANDS DOWN IMPORTANT DECISION, in which the Supreme Court ordered that musicals can no longer end with reprises of their hit songs, so Webb and Miller are forced to sing a new one: “Not For All The Rice In China.” Backed by the ensemble, As Thousands Cheer ended on a cheerful note, but it took Berlin and Hart much pains to get there; the original finale was “Skate With Me,” with the entire cast as Park Avenue folk on roller skates, but it proved disastrous on a non-linoleum stage.

The show was revised and presented in London as Stop Press (1935), with a handful of Schwartz-Dietz numbers supplementing the score. Since then, As Thousands Cheer has been presented a few times in concert, and was awarded a cast album after the 1998 Off-Broadway revival. But as that production lacked orchestrations, a full recording of the score has yet to be produced. As usual, the score for this forgotten gem is excellent and varied. Berlin’s music would need no supplementing or revising for a 2013 revival. But there are two major obstacles preventing As Thousands Cheer from being an easy show to remount: the stars and the sketches. The sketches are incredibly topical, as the nature of the show requires them. And though I think the book is excellent in its representation of a slice of life through 1933′s headlines, an insert in the program with notes about Barbara Hutton and Aimee Semple McPherson would be essential.

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And how about those stars? Though I’ve discussed Ethel Waters and her excellent numbers, the other stars, Miller, Webb, and Broderick were on par — each unique and dynamic. Surely they brought in audiences of 1933; contemporary stars would need to do the same today. But could anyone sell a “Supper Time” as honestly as Ethel, and not oversell it? Does anyone have the charm to play “The Funnies” like beautiful Marilyn Miller? And could anyone today possibly know how to play Mahatma Gandhi and Aimee Semple McPherson? I’m willing to bet there are some that could, but they may not be stars. In fact, I think As Thousands Cheer would be a hard show to sell to non-theatre buffs. And not just to uninformed audiences, but to uninformed stars as well. They’d have to be attracted to the music — which is a cut about the scores of 2013.

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I think, though the sketches could be tinkered with to make them more accessible to modern audiences, re-writing them totally would not be a good idea — the difference between the authentic 1933 sketches and remodeled 2013 ones would be too apparent. Either the producers commit to mounting the show close to how it was presented in 1933, or write completely new sketches around headlines from 2013. (But then, why even bother to use the Irving Berlin score?) As Thousands Cheer is perhaps the most period of period pieces. Witty and topical, it would only work if presented by people interested in presenting it as a 1933 musical. But that’s precisely why this show could and should be seen again: it’s 1933 Broadway at its funniest, most musical, and most enjoyable. All that and Irving Berlin too? That’s more than enough for me!

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Come back next Monday for a 1934 show that’s Ripe For Revival! And tune in tomorrow for the best Our Miss Brooks episodes from Seasons Two and Three!

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