Welcome to Musical Theatre Monday and the start of another week on That’s Entertainment! We’re continuing our three week series on some of Porter’s early ’40s work — a period of his that is often overlooked in favor of the more standard-packed ’30s. These three shows all have strong scores, books of middling quality, and unique charms that are distinctly Porter. Last week we covered Let’s Face It.
1943. Something For The Boys (01/07/43 – 01/08/44)
This patriotic outing was the fifth and final pairing of Ethel Merman with a bouncing Cole Porter score. It’s also the only Merman/Porter show to get a (near) complete recording. (In actuality, the release was a combination of two separate radio performances that featured the majority of the original cast.) The show was produced by the infamous Mike Todd, and the book was written by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Following runs on Broadway and the West End, Something For The Boys was loosely adapted for the screen with Phil Silvers, Vivian Blaine, and Carmen Miranda. Only the title song was retained. Productions of this show have been scarce since the ’40s, but it does turn up every now and again in concert productions. In fact, a 1997 42nd Street Moon production yielded a cast recording. It is more complete than the radio broadcasts, though not nearly as fun.
But before we discuss the score, let me tell you about the plot. Merman plays Blossom Hart, a former chorus girl and now defense worker from Newark, who, along with her two estranged cousins — burlesque queen Chiquita Hart (Paula Laurence) and pitchman Harry Hart (Allen Jenkins) — inherits a ranch near a Texas Air Force base. As Blossom romances bandleader Sgt. Rocky Fulton (Bill Johnson) to the chagrin of his fiance, the cousins convert the ranch into a working residence for wives of servicemen. However, the resentful Lt. Col. Grubbs thinks they’re running a brothel and attempts to shut the place down! When Blossom discovers that she can pick up radio signals on her tooth fillings, she clears her family’s name, saves the day, and gets the guy.
That last part reminded you of a Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967, CBS) episode, didn’t it? Yes, it’s a silly deus ex machina, but it’s hilariously fitting for this pre-Oklahoma! farce that many critics found particularly raunchy. Also, in addition to the cast members listed above, the show also featured both Betty Bruce and Betty Garrett, the latter of whom was Merman’s understudy. So, we have all the makings for a pre-Oklahoma! success. Big stars, big production, big composer, and as this is wartime, big patriotism. Indeed, it was an unquestionable smash, even if most critics, as they had been doing since Porter’s first musical after Anything Goes (1934), deemed the score second-rate. I would have to respectfully disagree — I think this is one of Porter’s most fun scores. His lyrics are, not surprisingly, as brilliant as ever. Take for example, Blossom and Rocky’s first duet, the gleeful “Hey, Good Lookin'” (which I posted back in July in my Merman post), in which Merman’s character is described as “the missing link between Lily Pons and Mae West.”
Of course, the title song, as led by Miss Merman is extraordinarily catchy too. She even recorded this song decades later for her infamous disco album!
Merman had two other stellar solo spots. The first was the surprisingly wistful (and beguine-like) “He’s A Right Guy.”
The other was one of the few numbers that Merman never recorded or performed on radio: “The Leader Of A Big-Time Band.” As Porter’s requisite list song, “Leader” boasts some of the funniest and naughtiest lyrics of the show. Here’s Kim Criswell’s recording.
Meanwhile, Merm’s love interest got two exceptional spots of his own. Here’s his introductory number, “When My Baby Goes To Town.”
His other number was the delightfully simple, “Could It Be You?” which was reprised as a waltz in the second act, and possibly intended to be one of the show’s hits.
Betty Garrett had “I’m In Love With A Soldier Boy.” Here’s Ms. Garrett’s 1977 recording. (Click here to hear Merman’s own period recording of the number.)
However the biggest showstopper — by FAR — was Merman and Laurence’s campy “By The Mississinewah,” which was performed by the pair in Native American attire as they voiced the joys of polygamy. Here’s Merman with Betty Bruce, who replaced Laurence — most likely at Merman’s behest. Incidentally, Laurence later recorded the number with Merman’s understudy, Betty Garrett.
Fun score, right? I’m not holding my breath for any major revival though. I think there are other Porter shows that, in addition to their scores, would make better candidates because of their books. Still, it’s Porter and Merman. It deserves a little reverence. Here’s one more for the road:
Come back next Monday for another early ’40s Porter show! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the (unfortunate) final season of Bewitched!