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), Jubilee (1935), and Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (1936). Up next is, you guessed it, 1937! The best show from the year, as far as I’m concerned, is Rodgers and Hart’s Babes In Arms. I must not be the only person who feels that way; the show has been recorded (virtually in full) TWICE in the past 25 years. Since that show won’t be featured here today, I’m picking a show that has always fascinated me. With great stars and great tunes, I’m thrilled to be including this little known gem here. Any guesses?
1937. Hooray For What! (12/01/37 – 05/21/38)
Imagine this: A musical comedy in which Ed Wynn plays a scientist whose formula for insecticide turns out to be a deadly form of poison gas. Vivian Vance is the foreign secret agent determined to steal the formula for a U.S. war profiteer, hoping to launch a war at a Geneva Peace Conference. There’s a ballet, a fashion show, a bonfire, and songs by the duo who later gave us the The Wizard Of Oz (1939). These are some of the ingredients for the thinly drawn, incredibly silly, but brilliantly song-filled Hooray For What!
The story revolves around Breezy (Jack Whiting), who returns to the small town of Sprinkles, Indiana, not only to be near his old childhood love, Annabel (June Clyde), but also to retrieve the formula for a poisonous death gas from silly inventor Chuckles (Ed Wynn), who was only hoping to invent an insecticide to stop worms from eating the apples in his orchard. To retrieve the formula, Breezy, under orders from his munitions maker and war profiteer boss, hires famous international spy Stephanie Stephanovich (Vivian Vance). As a love triangle develops between Stephanie, Breezy, and Annabel, the gang makes plans to attend a Peace Conference in Geneva, where Breezy hopes to sell the gas and profit from a war. But Annabel, displeased with the thought of war, encourages Chuckles to also bring his formula for his new “brotherly love” gas.
At the conference, Stephanie meets up with Herr Zingaroff, the head of the spy union and her former lover, who hopes to get the formula before he has to pay Breezy for it. But before Breezy can sell the formula, Stephanie must first retrieve it from Chuckles. She catches a glimpse of the formula in her compact mirror and jots it down. However, as Breezy and Zingaroff are to make the deal, Annabel convinces Stephanie to withhold the formula from Breezy, which not only jeopardizes the spy’s position in the love triangle, but angers the excited foreign delegates, whom Chuckles has been telling about his “brotherly love” gas. The first act ends as the entire company has a bonfire — throwing in anything that reminds of love — brotherly or otherwise.
The second act opens with a presentation of weapons and equipment in the form of a fashion show. Hoping to regain Breezy’s friendship by sacrificing his love for her, Stephanie decides to sell the formula to Zingaroff. The war breaks out and it turns incredibly bloody; even Breezy and Zingaroff see the error of their ways, begging Chuckles for his “brotherly love” gas. Unfortunately, he’s misplaced the formula and the gang decides to return to Sprinkles before the nations break out the death gas. Fortunately, the death gas turns out to actually be the “brotherly love” gas. When Stephanie wrote down the formula in her mirror, she saw it in reverse and wrote it down backwards. Everything ends happily!
That synopsis comes from the revised script for the 42nd Street Moon production in 2004. (I have included only what I’m certain was present in the original version. An additional character — a rival female spy — was included in 2004, but there is no evidence that the role existed in 1937. If anyone knows otherwise, please contact me!) The story, while quite silly, is not as trivial as I initially expected, with a fairly logical trajectory, and several very funny moments. But I should also note here that the original production also took on a revue-like feeling with the presentation of several specialty acts, one of which was a dog act featuring Ed Wynn and Al Gordon’s dogs. (This had nothing to do with the plot, but apparently tried to make a small comment on the satire by having each dog carry signs with caricatures of various political/business figures.)
Before we dive into the excellent score, it’s important to note some of the talent involved. The score was by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and the book was by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The play was staged by Vincente Minnelli. Though Wynn, Vance, Whiting, and Clyde were the stars upon the Broadway opening, the original stars included Kay Thompson, Roy Roberts, and Hannah Williams, who were all fired during the Philadelphia tryouts. (Thompson, of course, became a well known vocalist and author.) Another personnel change was the firing of Agnes de Mille, who choreographed the nine-minute “Hero Ballet,” but clashed with producer Howard Kaufman and was replaced by Robert Alton. (Also in the ensemble were Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.)
Several notable songs emerged from the uniformly strong score. The most famous of which was “Down With Love,” which was led by Vance, Whiting, and Clyde as they tossed things into a bonfire and ended the first act. Vance had two other songs. The first was “Moanin’ In The Mornin’,” in which Stephanie decides to stop carrying torches. The second, which I have never had the pleasure of hearing, entitled “The Night Of The Embassy Ball,” was singled out by the critics for being extra lascivious. Here are the lyrics:
Harburg instilled a handful of numbers with biting satire, which was growing even more popular (with shows like The Cradle Will Rock and Pins And Needles appearing within a year of Hooray For What!). In addition to the title song, a patriotic petition for war and the common cause that emerges, there was the militarily themed fashion show and “A Fashion Girl,” an obvious take-off of Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” and the delightful “Napoleon’s A Pastry,” which warned of the eventual triviality of fame. (The latter was rewritten as “Napoleon” from Jamaica (1957).)
Another charming number was “Life’s A Dance,” sung by Stephanie’s press agent, a relatively unimportant role. (Yet, Ed Wynn — the star — had no numbers. That would never fly today!) Meanwhile, the two main lovers, Whiting and Clyde, got two other unjustly forgotten duets. The first was “I’ve Gone Romantic On You,” with charmingly simple lyrics and an incredibly dreamy and romantic tune. The second was “In The Shade Of The New Apple Tree,” which reckons modern times with life spent under the old apple tree. Apparently, this was one of the numbers that specifically led to Arlen and Harburg being hired for The Wizard Of Oz (1939).
Aside from “Down With Love,” two other numbers have seen relative popularity. The first is the rousing and lyrically excellent “God’s Country,” led by Breezy and company.
The second was written for Hannah Williams’ Annabel, but cut after she was replaced by June Clyde. The song is “Buds Won’t Bud,” which tells of life’s backwardness when one is a victim of unrequited love. This is a totally unique and engaging number. Here it’s sung by composer Harold Arlen.
As with every single show featured on this blog, the score is unbelievably great. Satirical, romantic, rousing, hummable — everything a solid ’30s musicals needs. What’s kept the show out of commission is, not surprisingly, that darn book. Well, the adaptation I read, while thin in spots, is actually humor-filled and pretty character driven. There are a few beats that need more fleshing out, but I actually think it’s not in as bad a shape as scholars have been led to believe. Furthermore, the anti-war stuff is not only relevant, but it doesn’t get too preachy. (And I’m one of those people who hates heavy-handed preachiness.) You’d obviously have to, like the 2004 adaptation did, remove the specialty acts. I mentioned earlier that Wynn, though the star, did not have any numbers. I think a revisal would need to give him more meat and a number or two.
Hooray For What! has serious undertones, but there’s a sense of fun that prevails throughout the entire show. Additionally, Arlen’s music adds a sense of simultaneously biting and idyllic magic. Pad out the score, fix the weak narrative problems, beef up Chuckles’ part, and cast each role appropriately, and I think you’d have a toe-tapping, thought-provoking, and most importantly, ENTERTAINING night of musical theatre. Totally unique, totally engaging.
Here are a few brief excerpts from Harold Arlen’s home movies of Hooray For What! rehearsals. Kay Thompson is still playing Stephanie, but Vance can be seen in the ensemble.
Come back next Monday for a 1938 musical that’s “ripe for revival!” And tune in tomorrow for my picks of the best episodes of Dick Van Dyke‘s third season!