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.
Last week we covered 1928’s Whoopee! Today we continue with a forgotten musical from 1929…
1929. Sweet Adeline (09/03/29 – 03/22/30)
This spectacular star vehicle, with a score written for Helen Morgan by the Show Boat (1927) team — Hammerstein and Kern, is an embarrassment of riches. A followup to their aforementioned masterpiece, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II teamed up once again to tailor a new musical to the specific talents of Helen Morgan, the breakout star of Show Boat. With a book by Hammerstein himself, the show took place in 1898 Hoboken. Morgan played Addie Schmidt, a waitress and amateur singer in her immigrant father’s beer garden. There she falls in love with sailor Tom Martin, only to lose him to her younger sister, Nellie. Dejected, Addie moves to New York to become a singing star. She ends up in burlesque and meets James Day, a wealthy socialite who takes Addie under his wing and makes her Adeline Beaumont. Eventually she finds herself reciprocating James’s feelings, despite the disapproval of his snobby family. But things work out in the end when Addie gets success and happiness in the arms of Sid Barnett, a composer and orchestra leader. Along the way Addie meets diva Lulu Ward, and hick drama aficionado Rupert Day, played by comedian Charles Butterworth. The character of Addie was partially based on Morgan herself, and Lulu was named after Morgan’s own mother. To further evoke the era of the Gay Nineties, Hammerstein ensured that everything on stage was historically accurate, while Kern wrote an Overture consisting of all 1890’s songs.
Neither the story nor the score was as rich or diverse as Show Boat‘s, but, honestly, what is? I have not had the pleasure of seeing a live production or reading the libretto, but I have two audio recordings of concert productions, and I can tell you that Kern’s music is as achingly beautiful as ever, and Hammerstein’s lyrics are brilliant (as usual). Of course, Ms. Morgan got all the best numbers. Those include the charming “‘Twas Not So Long Ago” and the haunting “Here Am I.” In addition, the score’s two hits belonged to her as well: the pounding duet, “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” and Morgan’s OUTSTANDING piano-top signature, “Why Was I Born?”
If Addie’s songs pack an extra melodramatic punch, Lulu and Rupert are both on hand to provide moments of comedic respite. Together Lulu and Rupert get a raucous Bowery number, “Naughty Boy.” While Irene Franklin, who originated the role of Lulu, wrote the lyrics for the hilarious “My Husband’s First Wife”, and with Jerry Jarnagin, wrote the music and lyrics to the delightfully bawdy “Indestructible Kate.” (Dorothy Louden played Lulu in the 1997 Encores! production, and Paula Lawrence played her in the 1985 Town Hall concert.)
Some other notable numbers include Rupert and singer Dot’s delightfully cheery, “Spring Is Here,” the memorable march, “Out Of The Blue,” and a number for Tom and Nellie, “I’ve Got A New Idea,” which was cut during tryouts, but has since proved to be an entertaining ditty in later concert renderings. Here’s one of my favorites, Addie and Sid’s thrilling waltz, “The Sun About To Rise.”
The best unknown song from the score is “Some Girl Is On Your Mind,” an ensemble piece that begins with a man in a bar singing to his “Pretty Jenny Lee,” and ends with all of Addie’s boys — Tom, James, and Sid — leading the chorus in an orgasmically thrilling ode to the woman on their minds. To top of the brilliance of the moment, Addie reprises snatches of “Here Am I” and “Why Was I Born?” from backstage, as the men onstage sing of her. The crescendo at the end gives me chills. Here is an amazing showstopper that, for some reason, probably because it wasn’t published with lyrics like some of the other numbers, is SHAMEFULLY unknown.
Sweet Adeline was made into a film in 1934 with Irene Dunne and included some of the original score, though it was not faithful to the plot of the stage show. Unfortunately, the show has scarcely been performed since its original closing in 1930. In 1985, there was a Town Hall concert production with Judy Kaye that led to a few songs ending up on McGlinn’s 1991 recording, Broadway Showstoppers. The 1997 Encores! production has been the most notable production of late and seemed to revive a renewed, albeit temporary, interest in the show. It’s no wonder — listening to this score for the first time is a revelation.
But why hasn’t it been revived more? I honestly can’t tell you without having seen a production, but it’s most likely, as usual, the dated book. If we agree that modern theatergoers can’t accept revivals as flawed period pieces — in this case a 1929 depiction of 1898 — the perhaps creaky book would be the most obvious obstacle. Though, being a Hammerstein show, the songs are more integrated into the story than other shows of the era. Certainly the score needs no fixing. But why haven’t there been stronger efforts to bring this show back? Even Whoopee! received a moderately faithful and successful revival in 1979. My guess is the score, a 1929 pastiche of 1898, is not perceived as being accessible to a modern audience.
But that’s not entirely true. I think the score by itself won’t bring in audience members, because it’s relatively unknown and has never been recorded, but in a lavishly mounted production with contemporary stars of the caliber of Morgan and Butterworth, I think modern audiences would be pleasantly shocked with the beauty and the freshness of these fabulously gorgeous songs. In other words, a musical set in 1898 might be a hard sell, but with the right marketing and performers, anything is possible. Sweet Adeline is an embarrassment of riches. But nobody will experience these riches unless they’re given the opportunity. Faith in the unquestionably strong score coupled with bankable leads could make this deserving show a surprising new hit.
Come back next Monday for a 1930 show that’s Ripe For Revival! And tune in tomorrow for the best episodes of The Honeymooners‘ Classic 39!