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), Leave It To Me! (1938), and Too Many Girls (1939). We’ve made our way to 1940, another year with several wonderfully solid productions. The best is Pal Joey, which regularly gets revised and revived. So when choosing a musical for today’s post, I decided to ultimately pick the forgotten show with the best score — and this one is truly superb.
1940. Louisiana Purchase (05/28/40 – 06/14/41)
This excitingly rich score was Irving Berlin’s first book musical since 1932’s Face The Music. As is usually the case with A+ Berlin, every single song is a delight — memorable melodies and smart, but simple lyrics. The plot? Well, it was a thinly veiled send-up of Huey Long, the late senator and former governor of Louisiana. In fact, it was so thin a send-up that the producers decided to mock the connection by opening the show with a lawyer writing a letter to B.G. DeSylva, in which he encourages the producer to avoid legal troubles by opening the show with the disclaimer that all characters and scenarios are fictitious. Hence, the opening number is entitled, “Apologia,” in which the ensemble ensures the audience that everything about the upcoming show is “mythical.”
The story proper begins with the corrupt members of the Louisiana Purchasing Company, which include William Gaxton as the dashing Jim Taylor, devising a plan to compromise the visiting senator, Oliver Loganberry (Victor Moore), who has been assigned to investigate the company’s shady dealings. Taylor asks worldly restaurant owner Madame Bordelaise (Irene Bordoni) to help him catch the senator in scandal. But she and songstress Beatrice (Carol Bruce) turn him down. Taylor then turns to Marina van Linden (Vera Zorina), an Austrain refugee who needs cash to get her mother out of Europe. A romance blooms between Jim and Marina, and she agrees to his plan. But she and the senator take a liking to each other, complicating Taylor’s plans of scandal. Eventually one does erupt however — though not over the racy pictures of Linden and Loganberry that come to light at the big Mardi Gras party that closes the first act — rather, over Loganberry’s crossing of the Purchasing Company’s picket line at the end of Act Two. Things end happily, however, as Jim gets Marina and Oliver gets Madame Bordelaise.
The plot is, not surprisingly, silly, filled out with a requisite juvenile secondary couple, but Berlin’s score sparkles with melody, charm, and wit. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading the book, though a moderately faithful 1941 film adaptation substituted Bob Hope for Bill Gaxton, but retained Moore, Bordoni, and Zorina, while unfortunately sacrificing the majority of the songs. However, the full score was recorded in 1996 following a concert production as the Weill Recital Hall. It’s highly recommended. Also of interest is a 1951 TV production that united Gaxton, Moore, and Bordoni. Songs from this version, along with various other original cast cuts, comprise a compilation that’s available for download on Amazon. It is also highly recommended.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves — let’s talk about the songs themselves. While Zorina got Gaxton and Bordoni got Moore, peripheral Carol Bruce (akin to Merman’s role in 1930’s Girl Crazy), backed up by the “vocal stylings” of the (Hugh) Martins, was awarded the swinging title song and the soulful “The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul.” Both excellent numbers, they stand to justify the character’s unnecessary inclusion.
Our hero, the likable and unlikable, William Gaxton, got to lead the Purchasing Company in “Sex Marches On,” in which Taylor insists that compromising Moore will be a cinch. As our leading lover, he also got to duet with Zorina on the clichéd attraction-based-on-repulsion “Outside Of That I Love You,” which, despite its difficult fit in the book, is one of the score’s catchiest numbers. (And there are many catchy tunes here!) They also got a duet for the second act — the haunting “Fools Fall In Love” — which evolved into Zorina’s big solo spot: the dream ballet, “Old Man’s Darling — Young Man’s Slave?”
She also got to team with Moore for the beautiful and noncomplex, “You’re Lonely And I’m Lonely.” This is classic Berlin — a song that says so much without actually having to say much. Moore’s big moment, however, was “What Chance Have I With Love,” a perfect Victor Moore number: self-depricating with lyrics that are simultaneously too simple and too smart for his whiny persona. It works perfectly and is another one of my favorites.
Meanwhile, our favorite chanteuse, Irene Bordoni (whose eyes Gaxton sang about in “You’re The Top”) wasn’t left out of the fun. In addition to the popular, if a trifle banal, “Tomorrow Is A Lovely Day,” Bordoni got extra exotic with the incredibly fun “Latins Know How.”
The juvenile secondary couple, played by April Ames and Nick Long, Jr., only ended up with one number by opening night — the upbeat “You Can’t Brush Me Off.” (A similar number for the duo, “I’d Love To Be Shot From A Cannon With You,” was cut during tryouts.)
Two other fascinating deleted numbers ended up on the 1996 recording. One was apparently written for Zorina and Moore, “Wild About You.”
Another was “It’ll Come To You,” an erotic Porter-esque solo for Bordoni.
Aside from the adaptations and recordings mentioned above, there have been no attempts to mount a major revival of Louisiana Purchase. We can be certain the reason for this is the book. (What else is new?) While the allusion to Long might have been a major draw in 1940, it might be just the opposite for audiences of 2013. And I say this because I think there’s a bit of a Catch-22 here. While there are many people who will not understand the Long connection, there will be some that relish in it. Unfortunately, after the witty and reflexive introduction, the story veers from the political realm and into the trivial — serving as a host to Irving Berlin’s bright songs and the entrances and exits of the stars. So while there’s no HEAVY Huey fodder, understanding the allusion is part of the show’s enjoyment. Removing it will deplete the show’s sense of fun. Enhancing it could also have the same effect — since that would require major changes.
Therefore, while I’d like to see a full scale production of this show mounted, I think Louisiana Purchase would work best in a concert setting, where the emphasis can be rightfully placed on the score. If one chooses to use the book, I think its shortcomings could be used to an advantage. How? Well, normally I find this anathema… but perhaps a bit of self-awareness from the performers would contribute to the fun and allow the important but light-handed Long allusions to play as they are. In short — treat it like a 1940 sketch comedy. Don’t take it seriously.
The Irving Berlin score is an embarrassment of riches; presenting that to new audiences is the main objective. What do audiences of both 1940 and 2013 want? Two things: hummable tunes and likable stars. A solid book isn’t imperative, but a weak book is scorned. If a solid book is impossible (which it very well might not be), at least let audiences hear the score. This work is too great to be stay unknown forever.
Come back next week for a 1941 show that’s “Ripe For Revival!” And stay tuned tomorrow for the best episodes from Season One of The Lucy Show!