Before The Golden Age Was Consciously Golden (1944 Edition)

Welcome to the start of a new week on That’s Entertainment! Today’s Musical Theatre Monday post continues a new series on musicals that came after Oklahoma! (1943), which is often, in hindsight, credited with ushering in the “Golden Age” of the American Musical (which, depending on whom you believe, lasted at least two decades). But interestingly enough, many of the shows from the first few post-Oklahoma! years are largely forgotten. Indeed, the period from about 1943-1948 IS “Golden,” but the shows are not yet conscious of that fact, many of them still struggling to adapt to innovations regarding book and score cohesion. Still, these shows feature excellent tunes introduced by excellent stars. After last week’s post on One Touch Of Venus (1943), today we’re continuing with a show from 1944.

 

1944. Bloomer Girl (10/05/44 – 04/27/46)

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The effects of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! really began to make an impression in the ’44-’45 season, and nowhere is that more evident than in Bloomer Girl, which in addition to being an Americana period piece with a tightly integrated score, also features the musical stylings of Celeste Holm (this time as the lead) and the choreography of the infamous Agnes de Mille. But the wonderful music and lyrics are by Arlen and Harburg, and though clearly influenced by Oklahoma!, the score stands on its own as a wonderful and refreshing example of early “Golden Age” Broadway. However, despite an excellent two-year run that yielded a brief return engagement the following year, and a nearly complete cast recording (we have just entered the first generation of Official Cast Recordings), Bloomer Girl has rarely gotten the exposure afforded to other shows of the era that enjoyed similar success. Save a ’56 TV adaption with Barbara Cook and several regional productions in the middle part of the last century, Bloomer Girl has never been seen since outside the likes of Encores! As an excellent example of 1944 musical comedy with substance, this obscurity seems like an incredible shame.

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The show is set in 1861 Cicero Falls; Holm (later replaced mid-run by Nanette Fabray) plays Evelina, the only unwed daughter of hoop skirt manufacturer, Horatio Applegate (Matt Briggs). But rebellious Evelina has fallen under the tutelage of her Aunt Dolly (Margaret Douglass), an ardent suffragette and originator of the bloomers. To straighten his daughter out, Applegate decides to arrange a marriage between Evelina and Kentucky hoop skirt salesman, Jefferson Calhoun (David Brooks). But Evelina is wary of the Southerner and tests Calhoun by tricking him into releasing his slave, Pompey (Dooley Wilson), whom he helps escape to the North. But this causes friction between Jeff and his brother Hamilton, who objects to the freeing of family property. As Jeff wavers about his decision, Evelina shocks the town by dropping her hoop skirt at a garden party to reveal a pair of Aunt Dolly’s bloomers. She and the rest of the Bloomer Girls are arrested at the end of the first act.

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Things seem to reach resolution in the second act when Jeff wins Evelina by buying Pompey’s freedom, and the Governor, one of Aunt Dolly’s old suitors, pardons the girls. However, as the girls present a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they are upstaged by the outbreak of the Civil War. Calhoun enlists with the Confederates while Evelina’s brothers-in-law join a section of the Union Army that wears trousers fashioned like bloomers. Dolly and Horatio now jointly run operations at the factory, which now produces bloomers instead of hoop skirts. Calhoun soon changes his allegiance after hearing Lincoln speak and reunites with Evelina as the curtain falls.

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Like Oklahoma!, the above plot could stand alone as a viable dramatic piece, but the book is supplemented by a beautiful score that is so organically bound to its characters, that few numbers could function in a context outside of the production. This was the new trend in American Musical Theatre, and it was much appreciated by 1944 theatergoers. Additionally, the show boasted glorious de Mille dances — including a dazzling “Civil War Ballet” in the Second Act. So why hasn’t the show been produced more often? (Especially since, as you’ll see below, the score is superb.) Well, some speculate that Bloomer Girl is too lavish of a show to produce — with elaborate dances and extraordinarily complex costumes. Additionally, some cite the show as exceedingly preachy. Now, I too have an aversion to entertainment that tries too hard to “school” its audience, but if we accept that musicals, while PRINCIPALLY vehicles of entertainment, are also works of art, then we must permit and embrace the fact the artists have points-of-view. 

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This is all moot, as far as I’m concerned, because I DON’T think Bloomer Girl is preachy — especially since its themes — suffrage and civil rights — are issues that impact every American, regardless of current political views. Additionally, this is a period piece both literally and figuratively: it’s a 1944 musical about life in 1861. It’s GOING to have a point-of-view. That’s something that should be celebrated, not avoided. Furthermore, the show’s ideas never infringe upon its entertainment value — it enhances them. With that, I happily debunk any objections to the show’s content, which I think would still play as engaging. So, as far as I can discern, the reason for the show’s relative obscurity is, per usual, a matter of finance. And again, it’s a shame, because the score is glorious.

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In past posts, I’ve presented the score in an organization that typically relies on the performers. Well, we’re in book musical territory, and the songs are less about singer and more about character. So it makes less sense to organize them in the manner that I had previously. However, we’re also, as I’ve noted above, in the era of cast albums, so there’s really one quick and easy way to access the (almost) complete score as performed by the original cast. (Here is a link to Amazon.) For new fans curious about the show, it’s a must buy, especially since composer Harold Arlen pops up in place of a chorus member. (Or contact me and I will gladly assist you in obtaining a copy!) Still, I do want to feature some of the show’s best songs, so you can get a flavor of the truly excellent work by Arlen and Harburg. My personal favorite number is Evelina and Calhoun’s first duet, titled “Evelina.” Such a unique and jazzily 1861 melody! This is the original cast.

The other duet for Evelina and Calhoun, “Right As The Rain,” is more ordinary, but still a strong example of a mid ‘1940s love duet, and it seemed to enjoy more popularity than most of the score.

I think Holm’s Evelina shines brightest when leading the Bloomer Girls in “It Was Good Enough For Grandma,” the strongest pro-feminist number in the score, but still firmly rooted in the character. (One of the most fun too!)

One of the swinging numbers whose function is more thematic than story-progessing or character-revealing is “I Got A Song,” which was led by Richard Huey as Alexander, a jailed slave. It’s one of the most musically satisfying songs in the score — and a strong indicator of Arlen’s future knack in capturing the melodious style of black characters and performers (in works like St. Louis Woman and Jamaica). So even if it halts the action a bit, the song is directly in touch with the plot’s undertones and thereby negates any potential for futility. Besides, it’s classic Arlen/Harburg.

Perhaps the most quaint device (later adapted for Rodgers and Hart’s The King And I) is the show-within-a-show presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which in addition to suiting the story, gives dancing comedienne Joan McCracken (as the Applegate’s maid, Daisy) the second of her two solo spots. Here’s “I Never Was Born,” which is one of the numbers included in the show-within-a-show portion of the second act.

But the most evocative song from Bloomer Girl is Pompey’s “The Eagle And Me,” which as an earnest ode to freedom and democracy — the very things America was currently defending — also functions as a SUPREME provocation for civil rights. Beyond that, it’s a brilliantly constructed tune with ingenious lyrics that give an easy metaphor substance and truth. Young musical theatre fans, you should know this song.

In addition to the cast album from which the songs above come, you can also purchase a copy of the shortened but faithful TV production with Barbara Cook and Keith Andes here. Below are Cook and Andes duetting on “Evelina” from the live 1956 production. (Here also is another YouTuber’s upload of de Mille’s “Civil War Ballet,” which was recreated for the production.)

The music leaves little else to say. Bloomer Girl is a clear descendant of Oklahoma!, with interesting content and a bewitching score. It would be nice to see it again one day, don’t you think?

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Come back next Monday for a 1945 musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Two of Bewitched!

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