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. We’ve already covered One Touch Of Venus (1943), Bloomer Girl (1944), and Up In Central Park (1945). Today we’re in 1946!
1946. St. Louis Woman (03/30/46 – 07/06/46)
Even by 1946, most musicals were still struggling to achieve the synthesis of 1943’s Oklahoma! While Annie Get Your Gun succeeded with Ethel Merman as star, Irving Berlin as composer, and Rodgers and Hammerstein as producers, many other 1946 musicals with similar talent did not. It, once again, comes down to the book. That’s nowhere more evident than in St. Louis Woman, which boasts a brilliant score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. But while Annie Get Your Gun is revived regularly, many young Broadway fans have never heard of St. Louis Woman, despite its score of similar quality. Furthermore, as a show with an entirely black cast, the show has a social distinction, because although it certainly wasn’t the first, (I think) it’s one of the best.
Another period piece; this time we’re in 1898 St. Louis. Winning jockey Lil’ Augie (Harold Nicholas) is smitten with the beautiful Della Green (Ruby Hill), the girlfriend of Bigelow Brown (Rex Ingram), the proprietor of a local bar. Meanwhile, barmaid Butterfly (Pearl Bailey) hopes for a wedding ring from her beau, loser jockey Barney (Faynard Nicholas). Della leaves Bigelow after tiring of his rough ways, and falls for Augie after his performance at a cakewalk. They make plans to marry, but Bigelow returns and beats Della. Augie returns to halt the proceedings, and Bigelow’s ex-girlfriend Lila (June Hawkins) enters — shooting Bigelow. But the dying Bigelow, thinking Augie was the shooter, curses the jockey. Though Lila eventually confesses, the curse causes problems for Augie and Della, as the latter feels responsible. Della leaves, but Augie is determined to overcome the curse and win her back.
The book, spread out over three acts, is probably the sparsest of the post-Oklahoma! musicals we’ve covered so far. But the score is perfection, warranting a re-examination. I rarely like tampering with period pieces, but because we’re in the transitional post-Oklahoma! era, the score requires a solider book. For that reason, I would condone some tweaking in preparation for an upcoming revival. Whatever it takes to get this musical put on again. (Yes, the music is THAT good.) And we’re fortunate enough to have not one, but two, recordings of the score. In addition to the glorious Original Cast Recording, a 1998 Encores! production (that featured some book revisions) starring Vanessa Williams yielded a fabulous and complete recording. (New orchestrations though.) I would genuinely like to share every single song from the show with you, but since both albums are easily available, I’m going to encourage that interested parties check them both out here and here. Still, it’s important to give curious readers a taste of this score.
The most well known number is Della and Augie’s only duet, the grand “Come Rain Or Come Shine.” Above is the original cast performing one of my favorite songs of all time.
The legendary Pearl Bailey played the female half of the secondary couple and got two excellent solos. Above is Bailey with the joyous “Legalize My Name.” For the Encores! recording, Butterfly was played by Yvette Carson and the tempos were (thankfully) sped up. Carson is excellent here with Bailey’s second song, “It’s A Woman’s Prerogative.”
Ruby Hill’s Della got a wonderful introduction in “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” and a chance for tenderness with the melodically rich “Lullaby.” Her love interest, Augie, also got two upbeat solos — “I Feel My Luck Comin’ Down” and the jubilant ensemble-backed “Ridin’ On The Moon.”
Lila also had two solo spots to herself. June Hawkins is sublime in both numbers, but “I Had Myself A True Love” is iconic Arlen/Mercer.
Meanwhile, Robert Pope opened the show as horse trainer Badfoot with “Lil’ Augie Is A Natural Man.”
Even the ensemble (which included Juanita Hall as Leah) had several strong numbers: the aching “Leavin’ Time,” the rousing “Come On Lil’ Augie,” and the climactic “Cakewalk Your Lady.”
Those are just some of the thrilling numbers in this unjustly unknown score. It needs to be revised, because if any score called for rediscovery, it’s this one. So much talent — really one of the best scores of the decade, and I mean that without hyperbole. Strengthen the book, and I think this would be one hot property!
Come back next Monday for a 1947 musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best episodes from Season Four of Bewitched!