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 have covered Whoopee! (1928), Sweet Adeline (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), The Band Wagon (1931), Face The Music (1932), As Thousands Cheer (1933), Revenge With Music (1934), and Jubilee (1935). Next up is 1936! In regards to musical theatre, 1936 was not a year of quantity — but it was a year of quality. In addition to The Show Is On, a revue that starred Bert “Cowardly Lion” Lahr and Beatrice Lillie, with a score by many notable composers (Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, and George Gershwin are but a few), Cole Porter teamed up with Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, and Jimmy Durante for Red, Hot, And Blue!, which had an excellent score that was only slightly inferior to Anything Goes (1934) and Jubilee, but a plot that was sillier than both combined. However, the best show of the season was Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, which is unfortunately disqualified from being “Ripe for Revival” because of a recent Encores! production and the fact that the show has been successfully revived a handful of times since the 1930s. That leaves one other major contender for today’s post. It’s an extravagant star-filled musical revue (it’ll be the last revue I’ll be covering from the ’30s — I make no promises about the ’40s though). Any guesses?
1936. Ziegfeld Follies Of 1936 (01/30/36 – 05/09/36)
Honestly, I’m more surprised than you to be highlighting ANOTHER musical revue as “Ripe For Revival,” especially since this one is neither as innovative as The Band Wagon (1931) or as witty as As Thousands Cheer (1933). In fact, by all accounts, the sketches, while tailored to the specific talents of our luminous stars (particularly the zany Fanny “Funny Girl” Brice), are nothing more than mildly entertaining — especially when compared to other revues of the decade. And that was the general conception in 1936. Imagine how they would play today. Well, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading or seeing the sketches (save one Brice recreated on film ten years later), but audiences of the 1999 Encores! production got to see a majority of the original sketches. That production, apparently one of the company’s best, was so excellent that the score received a full recording. And such a wonderful recording it is! Because, as usual, the show’s merits lie almost exclusively in the score; Ira Gershwin wrote lyrics for one of Vernon Duke’s snazziest. And that’s precisely why this show is being featured today: the phenomenal score. So if we can accept that the sketches are generally average — and it’s a big leap since we’re pretty much going by hearsay — we can at least regard them as a sublime mechanism for time travel. The sketches, even the whole show, affords us an entertaining look into 1936 musical comedy, but even more excitingly, a look into the infamous Ziegfeld Follies revues. That’s something pretty special.
First a tiny bit of history. The 1936 revue was the second Follies produced by Billie “Glinda” Burke, wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, after her husband’s death in 1932. The previous edition — Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 — starred Fanny Brice, Everett Marshall, Jane Froman, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen, Eve Arden, and others. (The first known complete Broadway bootleg is an audio recording of this production from summer 1935.) Most of the score was by Vernon Duke and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Duke wrote the music for the 1936 production as well, but this time he was assisted by Ira Gershwin, who also wrote the sketches alongside David Freedman. The stars in 1936 included Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Gertrude Niesen, Hugh O’Connell, Judy Canova, Josephine Baker, and Eve Arden (to name a few). Also of note: during the run, a radio show called Ziegfeld Follies of the Air was airing simultaneously, and in April of 1936, MGM’s Ziegfeld biopic, The Great Ziegfeld was released. Brice even had a cameo in the film. So as you can see — The Ziegfeld Follies was still quite the institution!
Before diving into the score, we need brief understanding of a few of the sketches. Many of them were tailored around Brice. In one, she mugged as the winner of a sweepstakes, whose bumbling husband (played by O’Connell) lost the winning ticket. (This was recreated in the 1946 Ziegfeld Follies film. See that here.) In another, she and Bob Hope spoofed the wealthy British elite. But perhaps the most remembered sketch was “Baby Snooks Goes Hollywood,” in which Brice played the bratty Baby Snooks (who was also featured in the ’34 edition) as she wreaked havoc on a Hollywood soundstage. Another of the more acclaimed sketches occurred at the end of the first act: a spoof of Warner Brothers’ musical comedies (think 42nd Street), with Brice as “Ruby Blondell,” Hope as “Bing Powell,” and Niesen as “Dolores del Morgan.” The shenanigans evolved into a lavish musical parody entitled “The Gazooka,” which though fascinatingly silly, is not one of my favorite offerings from the score. Other sketches included a disastrous radio “Amateur Night, “The Petrified Elevator,” and “Of Thee I Spend,” an obligatory political satire with Hope as Rexford Tugwell.
Following the overture, the show opens with “Time Marches On,” a song that automatically gains points with me for its self-awareness. Rodney McLennan, the original production’s principle male vocalist, tells the audience that times have changed: no longer is the Follies about beautiful showgirls; it’s now about substance. Of course, all during the number, the audience is treated to beautiful girls and everything McLennan insists they WON’T see. It’s a fabulous way to reckon the tradition of the Follies with the changing ways of 1936. It’s utterly Ziegfeld in it’s mock decision not to be. Evidence of the changing times continues with Fanny Brice spoofing her 1920 hit, “My Man,” with “He Hasn’t Thing Except Me,” in which she complains about her man, then goes off-book and begins to tell the audience what she’d REALLY do if she met a bum like him (until she’s forced back on track by the conductor, that is).
Brice also gets a pretty amusing duet with Hope in “Fancy, Fancy,” playing a stuffy British couple. However, the highlight of Brice’s evening is her 11 o’clock spot — “Modernistic Moe” — in which she parodies Martha Graham by playing a former stripper who was persuaded by a man named Moe to give up the clubs and become a modern ballerina. Of course, it turns into a bit of physical comedy genius for Brice as she “rewolts” against the system.
Niesen, the production’s principle female vocalist, gets a trio of excellent numbers too. In addition to the exquisite “Words Without Music,” there’s the exotic and incredibly danceable “Island In The West Indies,” and an elegant duet with McLennan, “That Moment Of Moments.” All really great Duke tunes. (With wonderful Gershwin lyrics, I might add!)
French dancer Josephine Baker gets a chance to shine with “5 A.M.,” and as the title character of “Maharanee,” which she sings with McLennan and the male ensemble. Supporting players Duke McHale and the Pressier sisters also get a joyously bright tune with “My Red Letter Day.”
Meanwhile, Eve Arden has a nice little comedic gem with “The Economic Situation,” in which our favorite sardonic comedienne complains about the effects of the Depression on her love life.
But the show’s best and most well-known tune was awarded to Bob Hope. In “I Can’t Get Started,” he plays a chap who can’t even get a kiss out of his cold date (Eve Arden). Brilliant lyrics and a beguiling tune that gained real prominence after a recording by Bunny Berigan.
The show closed in May when Brice was suddenly taken ill. The show re-opened a few months later with Brice and almost a whole new cast that included Bobby Clark and Gypsy Rose Lee. Arden went Hollywood and Hope went to Porter’s Red, Hot, And Blue! (Additional non-Duke/Gershwin songs were added — the only perhaps noteworthy tunes were Fain & Yellen’s “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” and Burke & Leslie’s “Midnight Blue.”)
Like all Ziegfeld revues, the show was unseen after it closed… until Encores! had the genius idea to mount a concert production in 1999 with a great cast that included Christine Ebersole, Ruthie Henshall, Peter Scolari, Howard McGillin, Stephanie Pope, Mary Testa, and Karen Ziemba. A thrilling recording was produced in 2001 that I recommend to all classic theatre lovers. (My mind is rarely blown, but this recording managed to accomplish just that. In fact, all songs included in today’s post — save “Midnight Blue” — are from this CD.)
So, the score is excellent and had a successful concert production in 1999. How do you mount the show in a settling unlike Encores!? Well, I think the only way to make it work is to take it as it is — an artifact. (That means the entertaining, but not brilliant, sketches too.) And the only way to really do that is to have actors that can successfully play the stars of the original production. Essentially, you’d need someone to play Fanny Brice and do all of her material. Likewise for Hope, Arden, and the rest of the gang. By presenting the show as close to its original incarnation as possible, you not only get a piece that has historical merit for the theatre nerds like myself, but a piece that could also entertain and draw in curious theatergoers who know little more than legends of the Ziegfeld Follies. It’s musical theatre history. But beyond that — it’s an expertly rendered show with songs that could be among the best of the decade.
Come back next Monday for a 1937 show that’s Ripe For Revival! And tune in tomorrow for the best The Dick Van Dyke Show episodes from Season Two!