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) and Sweet Adeline (1929). But before I introduce today’s show, I would like to make clear that the best musical of the year was the Gershwin brothers’ Girl Crazy. With a fabulous score and a cast that introduced Ethel Merman and starred the likes of Ginger Rogers, it’s not only the best 1930 musical — it’s one of the best musicals of the entire decade. However, for the same reason that I excluded it from contention in our previous three-week Gershwin series, Girl Crazy will not be featured here today. Much of the score can be heard in the Gershwin jukebox musicals, and in particular, Crazy For You, which is (VERY) loosely based on Girl Crazy. So though I’d love a revival of the original show, most of the score is still being heard. And we’ve already covered another 1930 Gershwin show, Strike Up The Band, so that won’t be featured today either. Now that that’s settled, let’s move on to the show we WILL be covering today…
1930. The New Yorkers (12/08/30 – 05/02/31)
This smart Cole Porter musical was not featured in our earlier Forgotten Porter blog series. Truthfully, it’s not one of his most notable scores. However, it is sadly overlooked — even by fans like myself. I seem to go through a pattern with this show: writing it off as second-tier Porter, then listening to it through and loving it. Then writing it off again as second-tier Porter, until once more listening and loving. Why is this? Probably because the score is painfully unrecorded. In fact, certain numbers I’ve only heard in a live recording of a 2009 London concert production. When examining Porter’s work as a whole, it’s easy to skim over The New Yorkers, even with its customary wit and consistently pleasing melodies, because there was only one hit number. But I think the score is classically Porter – an embodiment of his life and work. For Porter fans tired of seeing the bastardized Anything Goes revisal, but interested in another of his ’30s vehicles, The New Yorkers could be an interesting choice.
The show was inspired by Peter Arno, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, who helped write the book, design the sets and costumes, and create the logo. The show was subtitled “a sociological musical satire” and starred Hope Williams as Alice Wentworth, a socialite who becomes involved with murdering bootlegger Al Spanish (Charles King) because she’s turned on by his “coolness in killing people.” Over the course of the evening, Alice escapes the coppers, visits a bootleg factory, and arranges a raid on her home-operated speakeasy. Meanwhile, her father, a doctor, runs around with a mistress named Lola, and her mother makes equal time with a young gigolo. Lew Clayton, Eddie Jackson, and Jimmy Durante (an iconic comic trio) are also on hand as clowning bootleggers who sing a few songs, create a new beverage, and preside over Al’s gangland wedding. And Alice’s maid of honor is pistol packing Mona Low (Frances Williams), a nightclub hostess and singer. In the second act, the cast heads down to Miami, where Spanish in finally arrested and sent to Sing Sing — not for murder or bootlegging — but for parking too close to a fire hydrant. After masterminding a jailbreak, Alice wakes up from her dream.
Poking fun at both prohibition and the rich, Herbert Fields’s book featured many delicious lines, including the oft-qutoed gem about Park Avenue: “The street where bad women walk with good dogs.” Other beauties include “There are only two kinds of girls: those who do and those who say they don’t.” And this exchange between Al and Alice upon their first meeting:
AL: Are you a wet?
ALICE: I’m so wet that if you blow on me, I’ll ripple.
Notable gags included Durante’s repeated shooting of Feet McGeehan, a rival bootlegger who miraculously comes back to life three times over the course of the show, and mother Wentworth bestowing her daughter with a bejeweled machine gun as a wedding present. With a riotous book that several modern reviewers have deemed still fresh, The New Yorkers was an ideal ’30s musical — a satire with ample gags.
The constant in all these shows ripe for revival is their wonderful scores, and Cole Porter provides The New Yorkers with one of his most urbane. Take for instance, “Love For Sale”, the only real hit to emerge from the score. The number was originally given to Kathryn Crawford, as a prostitute outside of Reuben’s restaurant. She was backed by Fred Warring’s Three Pennsylvanians as “The Three Girlfriends.” After several complaints from critics, the producer replace Crawford with Elisabeth Welch, a black woman who now sang the song on a Harlem street corner. Somehow a black prostitute made the risque lyrics more palatable? Nevertheless, the song was deemed unacceptable for airplay due to its content, and became one of Porter’s favorite songs as a result.
A handful of other numbers achieved moderate fame. Coincidentally, they all seemed to be about New York. “Take Me Back To Manhattan” was Mona’s rollocking ode to the “dear old dirty town” to which she longs to return, while the lovers disparaged the city in the wistful, yet delightfully topical “Let’s Fly Away.” To that sentiment, a minor character, Mildew (Oscar Ragland) rebutted with the insistent “I Happen To Like New York.” All three are unique and memorable, and while “I Happen To Like New York” has been recorded the most times, some fans might recall “Take Me Back To Manhattan” from its inclusion in the 1962 revival of Anything Goes, which is still performed today. But I think “Let’s Fly Away” is vintage Porter — with witty double entendres and his characteristic name-dropping. (Wish the verse was sung in the clip below.)
However, not all of the score was Porter’s. While one number was written by Waring especially for the Pennsylvanians, with the gravely-voiced Durante in the cast, there were also several of HIS specialty numbers: “The Hot Patata,” “Wood,” “Money,” “Shiekin’ Fool,” and “Data.” Of those, only two-and-a-half survive, with “The Hot Patata” being the only recorded number. From my understanding, they were even less integrated into the book than Porter’s numbers.
Yes, this is still a 1930 musical, so Porter’s tunes are hardly dependent on the plot. But a song like “Say It With Gin,” is quite satirical and furthers the tone, and “Sing Sing For Sing Sing” establishes setting. So they aren’t completely trivial! Meanwhile, Al and Alice’s first meeting gets a rather ordinary duet, “Where Have You Been?” that, though too white-bread for their characters, still manages to be melodically pleasing and, we could argue, beneficial to the satire. Plus with Porter’s lyrics, the song never loses its air of sophistication.
Meanwhile, numbers were given to performers rather than characters. Beyond Clayton, Jackson, Durante, and the Warings, we have Mona (Williams) and Lola (Ann Pennington), two characters peripheral to the plot, who duet with their two men on “I’m Getting Myself Ready For You,” apparently just for kicks. And Williams, a rather well known starlet, also got several numbers to herself — “Go Into Your Dance” and the saucy “The Great Indoors.”
As you can see, The New Yorkers is not without its flaws. Though I have not had the pleasure of reading the script, it appears to be a satirical string of gags interspersed with numbers too dependent on specific performers to be entirely coherent today. (That is the norm for musicals of 1930.) Still, this show remains a cut above the rest. Yes, there’s a great Porter score that typifies his ’30s life and work. But beyond that — the satire! As Anything Goes satirizes the public’s fascination with crime, The New Yorkers takes aim at those Americans always like to see hit: the wealthy. The theme is still relevant, and if we trust those contemporary critics, the jokes are still funny. The trick is to find a way to unite everything into a more cohesive narrative, so scenes and songs do not appear episodic.
The Durante numbers would probably need to be eliminated, and other Porter songs would need to be implanted. (Though I’m against this with Anything Goes because the 1934 score is fine as it is, this show would benefit from a few strong interpolations from Porter’s late ’20s and early ’30s stack.) But with a great foundation and fun, witty, memorable tunes, I think audiences would be thrilled to enter a world of 1930 rich New Yorker hijinks. And as always, some contemporary names would help sell tickets. Find a way to make the laughs as fresh as the little-known Porter score and the audience will have a good time.
Come back next Monday for a 1931 show that’s Ripe For Revival! And tune in tomorrow for the best Honeymooners‘ sketches from 1951-1954!