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), Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (1936), and Hooray For What! (1937). Next up is 1938, an excitingly rich year for musical comedy. Choosing a show for this week has been my toughest job yet — there are about five I’d like to present. Unfortunately, as you know, I can only choose one for today’s post. At any rate, rest assured that we’ll be visiting 1938 again soon so that all the deserving musicals of the year can get equal time. Today’s show is…
1938. Leave It To Me! (11/09/38 – 07/15/39)
Cole Porter’s Leave It To Me! is notable for a variety of reasons. In addition to Porter’s expectedly distinguished score, the show boasts a book by the Spewacks, who, in addition to adapting Leave It To Me! from one of their earlier straight plays, would later collaborate with Porter on Kiss Me, Kate (1948), his comeback vehicle and musical comedy masterpiece. But the most fascinating thing about this show was its cast: William Gaxton and Victor Moore (both of Of Thee I Sing and Anything Goes fame), Sophie Tucker, “The Last of the Red Hat Mamas,” in her first book musical, the exotic Tamara (Drasin), best known for introducing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in Roberta (1933), and in her first Broadway show, Peter Pan herself, Mary Martin. (Oh, and Gene Kelly was in the ensemble!)
The plot is one part political satire and two parts situation comedy. Gaxton plays reporter Buck Thomas, who is forced by this boss, newspaper magnate and ambassador hopeful, J.H. Brody, to travel to Moscow and discredit the newly appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union, Kansas nobody Alonzo “Stinky” Goodhue (this is, naturally, Victor Moore). Brody’s “protégé” is Dolly Winslow (Mary Martin), who sneaks away to Moscow with Buck, with whom she’s been secretly canoodling. At the train station, Buck meets Stinky and learns that the new ambassador does not want the job at all — it was his social-climbing wife, Leora (Sophie Tucker), who donated to the Roosevelt campaign and won her husband the position. Buck and Stinky unite to get the latter fired from his position.
In Moscow, while Stinky tries to get himself fired with a speech that heartily advocates capitalism, Buck is reunited with Colette (Tamara), his reporter ex-girlfriend, who is hoping for an interview with the new ambassador, but has no intentions of rekindling her romance with Buck. When Stinky’s speech gets him unanimous praise, he tries another tactic — kicking a Nazi in the stomach. But once again, he’s praised. (Britain simultaneously “congratulates and condemns” him.) Dolly decides to return to J.H. and she and Buck part ways. Desperate, Buck decides that Stinky must do something drastic — like murdering the counterfeiting Russian prince. But things go disastrously and Stinky is hailed as a hero when he accidentally kills a counterrevolutionary instead. The first act ends with a parade in the Red Square for Comrade Alonzo.
The second act opens at the end of the parade. Colette and Buck reunite and the latter has an idea to finally get Stinky recalled — build him up instead of trying to tear him down. Meanwhile, Dolly has wired Buck for money because she’s been stranded in Siberia, and is anxious to return to her “daddy.” Back in Moscow, Buck and Stinky prepare to present “the Goodhue Plan,” which advocates sending French, Russian, and German troops into each other’s countries and mixing the nationalities to create a United States of Europe. Fortunately, that’s enough to finally get Stinky fired. As Colette and Buck plan a future together, J.H. fires Buck after learning of his dalliance with Dolly, who is finally back with her “daddy.” But Buck’s not out of work for long; Stinky has bought a newspaper and hires Buck as executive editor. Things end joyously.
What’s truly remarkable about this Cole Porter score is the way it’s able to adapt to the needs of its stars — Gaxton, Moore, Tucker, et al. — without sacrificing its composer’s own unique style. Now, if there has to be complaint about the score, and it’s a minor one, it’s that the ensemble numbers lack the distinction of those that appear in Jubilee (1935) or Nymph Errant (1933). But if the strength of these songs don’t lie in their musical aestheticism, it’s important to note that all of them are either firmly integrated into the story, like the first act finale, “Comrade Alonzo,” or are essential in introducing important character, plot, or location details. This isn’t unique to Leave It To Me!, but with a solid book by the Spewacks, it’s very noticeable and much appreciated. And, of course, it IS Cole Porter, so the numbers grow on you — both musically and lyrically — upon repeated listenings.
However, one number that immediately caught on was little Mary Martin’s second act show-stopper, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” in which the faux innocent performed a mock striptease in the middle of the Siberian winter. It was reportedly one of Porter’s favorite songs (and it’s easy to see why) — the entire number is innuendo! So it’s a lot of fun, especially when listening to the full uncensored lyrics. (Martin reprised her performance with censored lyrics in the Porter biopic Night And Day (1946). See that here.) Above is Mary Martin’s original recording of the song that made her a star.
But “Daddy” wasn’t Mary’s only number in the show. She also got an unjustly unknown and delightfully glib breakup duet with Gaxton, “When All’s Said And Done.” Typical Porter! Not unusually, Gaxton, the star who literally carries the plot, didn’t get a lot to do in the score. Though he led one of the opening scene’s ensemble numbers, he never had a solo moment. But in addition to his duet with Martin, he got two excellent duets with Tamara, and as a man who is almost certainly identified as a performer rather than a singer, that count is pretty darn good. Gaxton is a fascinating leading man — a comedian, not wholesome, not innocent, who somehow manages to pull off the most romantic of numbers, and ends up winning the girl. (Is there a Gaxton equivalent today? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!)
Take this very romantic duet, the first between Gaxton and Tamara, entitled “From Now On.” It’s a very smooth, very breezy typical ’30s love song — pleasant to the ears. Yet, with what exists of Gaxton on film, TV, and radio, it’s thrilling to imagine his unique energy really turning the number into something special. Here also is their second duet, “Far Away,” more lyrically nuanced and perhaps susceptive to the charms of both performers and composer. Both are very classy, incredibly listenable, and absolutely Porter.
While Martin got “Daddy,” Tamara got a shining solo spot in the brooding “Get Out Of Town,” upon her character’s realization that Buck is in Moscow. Again, it’s easy to attribute this song to the performer of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” “Get Out Of Town” has since become a moderately popular cabaret number. I like Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition.
Soft-spoken Victor Moore, the show’s Comrade Alonzo “Stinky” Goodhue, just like in Anything Goes (1934), is awarded a uniquely amusing second act solo with “I Want To Go Home.” Quaint songs like these are not usually associated with Porter, but he actually EXCELLED at folksy songs like this — which allowed for the exercise of his wonderful wit and perhaps, in some ways, a return to his “Pee-roo” roots. (That’s Peru, Indiana, Porter’s hometown.) Leave It To Me! takes this number one step further — providing a Topeka dream sequence in which Sophie Tucker sits on a gate wearing a bonnet and gingham dress. The humor comes not only from our recognition of the Tucker persona (not someone who’d sit on a gate with a bonnet and gingham dress!), but also our understanding of the characters and their objectives. (Did I really just mention character objectives in reference to a 1930s musical?)
I left Tucker’s numbers for last. She had three of them. All excellent — the perfect blend of Porter and Tucker. The first, “I’m Taking The Steps To Russia,” is perhaps, while silly, the most story-appropriate of the three numbers. Here Mrs. Goodhue tells reporters of her intentions to introduce the Soviets to American dance and “make the Bolshevikies swing!”
Her next two numbers are embarrassingly less integrated. The last one, “Tomorrow,” honestly has no bearing on the events that are transpiring and dramatically doesn’t work. (And I’m lenient when it comes to score and book integration!) As this fine number should be retained if revived, I think it necessary to find a way to make this number fit more organically into the story. Tucker’s middle number, the best that Porter gave her, serves no purpose to the plot, but is at least afforded a dialogue introduction that makes a tiny bit more sense. Furthermore, the song, “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love,” is so embarrassingly excellent that it really doesn’t matter that the plot has been interrupted. Wonderful, wonderful lyrics. (Again, best if you hear all the raunchy refrains!) It’s also the most “Red Hot Mama” number in the score, which must have been sheer magic to see live. Imagine — Cole Porter writing for Sophie Tucker!
So we’ve established a strong Porter score that was written for dynamic personalities and was (bar a few exceptions) well integrated for a 1938 musical. How do we make this one work for 2013 audiences? Aside from finding ways to better use some of the numbers that in the 1938 libretto appear inorganically, I think the key here is the casting. The book isn’t in bad shape — it’s a fascinating historical document. We’ll never know what life was like in 1938 when Europe was on the brink of war and everyone recognized that something sinister was brewing, but musicals Leave It To Me! and last week’s Hooray For What! (1937) give us unique insight into that particular time in human history. I think the historical connections do have an appeal for modern audiences — especially when humor is involved.
Again, the key to unlocking that humor is the casting. They’ve certainly found ways to make Gaxton and Moore’s roles in Anything Goes (1934) playable. (We can argue with how much integrity!) I certainly think Mary Martin and Tamara’s roles are handleable, and Sophie Tucker, the most unique performer in the show, has been spoofed to varying degrees of success in Chicago (1975). Unlike a revue though, it would be wrong for today’s performers to play the 1938 performers. Instead, these are characters, and the Spewacks’ book, though definitely written for specific talents, has enough meat to be interpreted in fresh, new ways. Ultimately the trick may be to attach a few names and then adapt the book based on their own capabilities — retaining as much as possible from the original. In revising Leave It To Me!, all that matters is introducing newbies to more of Porter’s magnificent tune stack through an evening of high entertainment. That was paramount in 1938 and it’s paramount today. But to get audiences in the door, we need people like Gaxton, Tucker, and Martin. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No. Worth it? Absolutely.
*The show has been revived a few times in concert and the 2001 42nd Street Moon production yielded a cast recording. The libretto has also been published in Great Musicals Of The American Theatre — Volume 2. I recommend checking out both.
And for all you Kurt Weill and Rodgers & Hart lovers, don’t worry! Not only will those names be appearing within the upcoming weeks, but I will be back to feature more from 1938 soon! So come again next Monday for a 1939 musical that’s “Ripe For Revival!” And tune in tomorrow for my picks of the best episodes from Dick Van Dyke‘s fourth season!