Welcome to the start of another week on That’s Entertainment! Following our fifteen week series on musicals ripe for reviving from the period in between Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943), we’re continuing with our three week series examining three little known musicals from the ’30s that maybe aren’t great candidates for reviving, but not surprisingly, have extraordinary scores. (Following that, we’ll be picking up with musicals produced after Oklahoma!)
1934. Say When (11/08/34 – 01/12/35)
Few words have been written about this boisterous musical comedy (backed by gangster Lucky Luciano) that opened in late 1934 with a score by Ray Henderson and Ted Koehler, and starring vaudevillians Harry Richman (the man who introduced Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz”) and an up-and-coming Bob Hope. Others in the cast included Lillian Emerson, Linda Watkins, Taylor Holmes, Dennie Moore, Charles Collins, Nick Long, Jr., Cora Witherspoon, and Prince Michael Romanoff. An unqualified critical smash, the show quickly lost steam and disappeared quickly and quietly. As a result, not many of the songs have been recorded. The most detailed plot summary I’ve found comes from a Brooklyn newspaper. (If you know any more about this really forgotten show’s story, please comment below!)
The comical plot was well-received, as was the score. In fact, the entire show was a rave. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called Say When, “a lively show, made to order for the itinerant trade of the Great White Way.” Burns Mantle opined that Say When, “crackles with wisecracks and rumbles with melodies that are the lifeblood of Broadway.” And Walter Winchell called it the, “merriest laugh, song and girl show in town.” So why did it fold so quickly? Well, probably for two main reasons.
The first, of course, was Richman’s dissatisfaction with both the book and his songs in the score. Newcomer Bob Hope seemed to be getting all the laughs, and Richman couldn’t compete — especially since, in his opinion, he didn’t have any outstanding numbers. (Even the good reviews weren’t enough to change Richman’s mind.) The second reason has to do with competition. Within a month of Say When‘s opening, Broadway audiences were blessed with one of the finest shows of the decade, Anything Goes, which eventually eclipsed the former in popularity and buzz. So competition coupled with dissatisfaction seemed to be more powerful than those initial raves, and Richman decided to call it quits in late December. Say When has been relatively unknown ever since.
It’s a shame too, because the few songs that HAVE been recorded seem to be surprisingly strong, making Richman’s complaints about the score appear entirely unfounded. As for his numbers, not only did Richman get the title song, but he also got the exceptional “When Love Comes Swinging Along” — one of Henderson’s catchiest tunes.
Richman also got three other numbers. Two have never been recorded, but “Song Of The Evening,” which isn’t listed in the program and was apparently added in later at Richman’s request, was recorded along with the two numbers above.
Richman’s two unrecorded numbers have actually been published along with “Swinging Along” and the title tune. (Special thanks to David Cleaver and Michael Lavine for tracking them down for me!) The first is a pleasant but non-distinguished ditty, “Put Your Heart In A Song.” The second is much more interesting — a torch number that sounds like something more appropriate for Helen Morgan than Harry Richman. It’s called “Torch Parade.”
Compared to Richman’s five songs, Bob Hope only had one number, “Don’t Tell Me It’s Bad,” a duet with Linda Watkins that was singled out by critics, but has also never been blessed with a recording. Fortunately, with the sheet music provided by Mr. Cleaver and Mr. Lavine, I was able to make a MIDI file. Here it is.
Watkins’ other number was a duet with dancer Nick Long, Jr., “Let’s Take Advantage Of Now.”
Several additional numbers were given to Charles Collins as Carter Holmes (both of which have been published), and even Prince Michael Romanoff (playing Prince Michael) had a solo moment with “Sunday Morning.” The only other song from the score available for listening was Lillian Emerson’s romantic “Isn’t It June?”
So while the recordings we have are few, each one is bright and notable. How bad could the score have been, Mr. Richman? Certainly it pleased the critics. Say When will forever be remembered, if it’s remembered at all, as a 1934 musical flop, when perhaps that reputation is undeserved. The reviews indicate an evening of fun, while the score indicates distinction. It’s unfortunate to think that Say When could very well have been a piece akin to Anything Goes — now synonymous with the farcical musical comedies of the ’30s. Henderson and Koehler are no Porter, but I’m sure they could provide a few hours of musical comedy heaven, and that’s always a welcome treat! It is my hope that one day, musical lovers like you us will be given the chance to make up our minds about this fascinatingly little-known delight!
Come back next week as we examine another forgotten ’30s piece. And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Five of The Lucy Show!