Ripe For Revival – 1939 Edition

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), Hooray For What! (1937), and Leave It To Me! (1938). Next up is 1939, a bad year for European politics, but a great year for American entertainment! There were a couple of solid shows to choose from for this post, but I’ve chosen one that really has too good of a score to never be seen again. Ready?

 

1939. Too Many Girls (10/18/39 – 05/18/40)

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This collegiate Rodgers and Hart musical comedy (the 1939 answer to 1927’s Good News! and 1917’s Leave It To Jane) is best known today for its 1940 film adaptation that sparked the legendary romance between Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the latter of whom made his Broadway debut in the original production. Though the score isn’t as standard-packed as Babes In Arms (1937) or even The Boys From Syracuse (1938), each number in Too Many Girls is superb at evoking the essences of joy and romance associated with American youth. Removing the wild and, by now, perhaps perfunctory, uninhibitedness attributed to the collegiate musicals of the 1920s — Good News! is the epitome of this phenomenon, and today is saved primarily by a first-rate score — Too Many Girls finds its fun in a more sophisticated and timeless manner: personality. While a modern day revisal would need to strengthen the characterizations in a more multi-dimensional way, the ingredients for success are all there in its personality. Surely Too Many Girls already has one of the most important elements needed for an evening of enjoyable musical comedy — plenty of swinging dance numbers. But first, the plot…

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Flighty heiress Consuelo Casey (played originally by Marcy Wescott) returns from Europe and decides she wants to attend college. But not Vassar, like her father suggested; Connie wants to go to Pottawatomie University in Stop Gap, New Mexico to be near snobbish playwright, Beverly Waverly. So Connie’s father secretly hires four Ivy League football players to accompany his daughter and be her bodyguards. As Princeton’s Clint Kelley (Richard Kollmar) begins to fall for Connie, he and the three other chaperones — Argentina’s conga-beating Manuelito (Desi Arnaz), Harvard’s wisecracking Jojo (Eddie Bracken), and Yale’s dancing Al (Hal LeRoy) — join the sagging football team and lead it to victory in a glorious first act finale.

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Meanwhile, ladies’ man Manuelito enjoys courting many girls, but the sexy Spanish cheerleader, Pepe (Diosa Costello), hopes to snare him for herself, and Al’s sweetie, loudmouthed student body president Eileen Ellers (Mary Jane Walsh) hopes to raise enough money to keep Pottawatomie afloat. But on the night before the big game, Connie finds out that Clint and the gang were hired to chaperone her. Hurt by Clint’s deception, she angrily demands that her bodyguards accompany her as she returns back East. Will Connie change her mind and let the boys play? Will the school raise enough money to stay open? Will Clint and Connie end up in each other’s arms? The answers, of course, are yes, yes, and yes.

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As you can see, the story is nothing incredibly new — it takes the tropes common to collegiate shows of the past few decades and adds a bit of the Western Girl Crazy (1930) flair. But there are touches of, as I mentioned earlier, personality. To be more specific, there are nuances, distinctions. Most of these occur in the rich score, which include the riotous Latin stylings of Costello and Arnaz, but there are some very funny and very original bits in the book as well. One thing that immediately comes to mind is the Pottawatomie tradition of having all the female virgins wear yellow beanies. This naturally sets up some comedy, because as the woman “falls,” so does her beanie. (This gag was actually kept in the 1940 film adaptation.) In fact, it is reported that one of the most memorable moments of the original production occurred when Bracken’s character found the yellow beanie belonging to Tallulah Lou (Leila Ernest), his southern belle girlfriend, hanging from the muzzle of a cannon (along with various other undergarments)!

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It’s this kind of fun that, not surprisingly, prevails throughout the majority of the score. We have the requisite Alma Mater, introduced by Clyde Fillmore as Connie’s dad and Hans Robert as the former’s employee, later taken up by the students of Pottawatomie. Fortunately, Hart’s lyrics serve up a delicious parody, making the choral number much more enjoyable than it would be otherwise. The joviality continues in more of the typical “college show” numbers. Pottawatomie’s football players (which included young Van Johnson) open with, “Heroes In The Fall,” a surprisingly catchy ditty that sets the tone for the proceedings and establishes the school’s not uncommon obsession with football. Still yet, there’s the anticipated cheerleader number, called “Sweethearts of the Team,” led by Walsh and the girls. Let’s note that the functions these numbers serve are obligatory and nothing unordinary, yet with the mastery of Rodgers, and more specifically, Hart, these numbers truly become something special.

Walsh was afforded the opportunity to lead most of the other ensemble numbers — all of which, invariably, turned into boisterous dancing spectacles. This is where the personality of the show really begins to shine through, because although the character is given no more than shadings, the numbers themselves are incredibly unique — memorable and, most important in a 1939 musical comedy, danceable! Walsh’s first number was “Cause We Got Cake,” a really swinging ditty, that if it has no bearing on the plot, is entirely forgiven for its sheer energy! Besides, even today — not every number must rise from action if it’s setting character or atmosphere. That’s how we must regard delicious numbers like these — which are simply pure entertainment.

Walsh also closed the show with “Give It Back To The Indians,” a very funny number that urged Manhattanites to give their rotten island back to the Native Americans. Recently the number has been deemed potentially offensive, but I’ll tell you straight: while I certainly can’t speak for anyone but myself, I think the number is more offensive to New Yorkers than to Native Americans. However, there’s a larger issue with the number — it very literally arises from no where. There’s a single line lead-in, but nothing more! (The film excised the song, instead opting for a pulsating dance number.) It’s always been one of the more memorable moments of the show, so finding a more natural way to include it is a problem that I am not even going to attempt to solve!

I think if anything were to be potentially cringeworthy to modern ears, it would be the very flavor that delighted 1939 audiences and made the entire show unique — the Latin characters — played by Arnaz and Costello. Their duet, “She Could Shake The Maracas,” poses no problem. It’s Costello’s solo, “Spic And Spanish,” that would, naturally, raise objections. The song, which was included in the film, is very funny and was a show-stopping moment for Costello. The problem is the slur upon which the song is built. The only way I could potentially defuse its objectionability, is eliminating the full cast reprise and limiting the song’s usage to Pepe’s initial spot, thereby making a Spanish character the only one to use the word. If a performer (think Sofia Vergara) can really sell it — perhaps the theatricality can trump its outmodedness.

Arnaz really became the breakout star of the original production, even though all of the others received similar attention at the time. In addition to the number mentioned above, he and lead heartthrob Kollmar teamed up with the co-eds for “Tempt Me Not,” and Arnaz’s drum stylings dominated in Walsh’s first act finale, “Look Out,” which saw the football team victorious, turning the stage into a giant conga line that apparently had the audience on their feet with excitement. Perhaps more structurally surprising, Arnaz, and not Kollmar, got the title song. Of course, since Manuelito was the playboy of the posse, it makes most sense coming from his character.

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I’ve saved the standards for last. Kollmar and Wescott got two excellent duets that achieved longevity. The first was the more character-inspired “Love Never Went To College.” The second, which is one of my favorite Rodgers and Hart numbers of all time, is the unforgettable “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Some of my favorite lyrics ever, “Grand to be alive, to be young, to be mad, to be yours alone…,” that perfectly describe the unabashed joy of young love.

One of the show’s other standards, “I Like To Recognize The Tune,” was given to Kollmar, Wescott, Bracken, Walsh, and Le Roy. In this incredible show-stopper, the students sing of their displeasure at the big swing bands penchant for melody mudding. (In Arnaz’s autobiography, he writes of Hart hastily writing a couple of additional refrains after it was a smash at the opening.)

Remarkably, the show was rather faithfully adapted for the big screen in 1940 — retaining Arnaz, Bracken, and Le Roy. This time the lovers were Richard Carlson and Lucille Ball. Ann Miller and Frances Langford took over Costello and Walsh, respectively. Rodgers and Hart replaced the superb and unjustly unknown “My Prince,” which Wescott introduced in the Broadway production.

The number they replaced the above with served an entirely different function, but it’s beautiful simplicity almost made it destined for longevity. It even replaced “My Prince” in the post-Broadway national tour. Here’s Trudy Erwin, dubbing for Ball, with “You’re Nearer” from the 1940 film.

The show was recorded by Ben Bagley in the 1970s, but despite its completeness, the casting was misguided, and the orchestrations were very unlike the originals. Fortunately, in April and May of this year, the Lyric Stage in Dallas performed the show live for the first time since 1940 — with original orchestrations and vocal arrangements! They posted two clips from their sitzprobe on YouTube. It’s glorious. Here’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “I Like To Recognize The Tune.” Much superior to the Bagley arrangements!

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So, as you can see, while there were some of the recognizable tropes of previous collegiate musicals, with Rodgers and Hart providing the score, there was such freshness and originality. Free of the stereotypes of the roaring ’20s attached to Good News! (1927), Too Many Girls allows for more substance. Note that I said, “allows.” There definitely needs to be some book revising, primarily in the fleshing out of the eight principle students. Each character needs such definition that there’s no mistaking one for the other — and that needs to be done BEFORE the actors come in. I think, because young people are all the rage on the boards right now, this show could be incredibly invigorating with unknown college students. As it stands, Manuelito and Pepe would be the hardest roles to cast, as the script already requires more uniqueness in their performances than it does of the other students. Most people only know Too Many Girls from its film, so the expectation of a Desi-like performer would also be the most prevalent. Could you find one? Well, I have no doubt you could find someone like him.

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I think the hijinks and the humor are the show’s biggest attraction. And with a good score and a thrillingly unknown cast, why wouldn’t audiences leave the theater with a smile? I think that’s a guarantee. Fix the book and you should have an entertaining night of musical comedy.

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Come again next Monday for a 1940 musical that’s “Ripe For Revival!” And tune in tomorrow for my picks of the best episodes from Dick Van Dyke‘s fifth and final season!

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