Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the first post in our extended series on the best musicals from the 1920s! This infamous decade was a booming time for musical theatre as the emergence of new talent — both onstage and off — led to a culture that more than ever celebrated outstanding individuals and their creative accomplishments. Broadway was the brightest place on Earth. Though the incredibly important Show Boat (1927) appeared three-quarters through the decade, its narrative strength wouldn’t begin appropriation to other musicals until midway through the next decade. This landmark musical aside, the musicals of the 1920s are largely frivolous affairs — trivial books (if there IS a book) with sizzling scores, memorable dances, lavish production values, and the most exciting musical theatre stars of the century. Over these next few months, we’re going to be looking at some of these notable musicals. We’ll be going chronologically, but we won’t be doing one per year like we have in the past; some years will be skipped, others will house multiple shows. In these regards, I really am presenting to you what I think is the best of the best. To kick of the series, we’re beginning in 1920.
I. Sally (12/21/20 – 04/22/22)
How else can we begin our exploration of 1920s musicals than by covering the fourth longest running show (not counting Irene, which officially premiered in 1919, but ran well into the ’20s) of the decade — the Ziegfeld spectacle that skyrocketed showgirl Marilyn Miller to stardom, making her a veritable Broadway legend? With a musical score by Jerome Kern and several lyricists (as a handful of songs from the score were culled from prior shows), Sally told the story of a dishwashing orphan who — after three acts and several dance numbers — rose to notoriety in the Ziegfeld Follies. These tales of young girls making their way from nothing to something are known as “Cinderella stories” and they were incredibly popular in the first part of the 20th century. Sally just happens to be the best. Why? Its star and the way in which she was presented.
Orphan Sally Green (known as “Sally of the Alley” and played by Marilyn Miller, of course) is hired as a dishwasher, along with several other waifs, at the Alley Inn in Greenwich Village. There she befriends a waiter, Connie (Leon Errol), who happens to be an exiled grand duke (of the country of Czechogovinia). Connie has been given the following night off to attend a ball in his honor, hosted by millionaire Richard Farquar. At the Inn, Sally meets and flirts with Farquar’s son, Blair (Irving Fisher), who is there hosting a dinner party of his own. When Sally impresses Connie with her dancing, he arranges for the dishwasher to perform at the Inn. She is spotted by theatrical agent Otis Hooper (Walter Catlett), who has just learned that his famous French ballerina client, Madame Nookerova, is unable to make her forthcoming appearance at the Farquar affair. Hooper decides to pass Sally off as the ballerina, and she goes off with Hooper and his fiancé Rosie (Mary Hay) to prepare. Blair returns to the Inn with his friends and tells them of his new love — whom he intends to take out of the Alley.
As Sally performs at the ball the following evening as Madame Nookerova, Connie flirts with a widowed social worker (Dolores). Meanwhile, Blair begins falling in love with the ballerina, unaware that she is the same girl that he met the previous day. But when Sally tries to halt Blair’s amorous adavances for “Madame Nookerova” by telling him that she’s a wild and wicked woman, Blair angrily denounces her, and a tearful Sally breaks down and admits her deception. But things turn out fine and dandy in the end, after Hooper gets Sally a job in the Ziegfeld Follies and makes her into a star. Blair eventually returns and reunites with Sally. The pair, along with Otis and Rosie, and Connie and his widow, have a triple wedding as the curtain falls. (Check out the libretto courtesy of the NYPL here!)
Sally quickly earned a reputation as the quintessential musical of the decade following its lengthy Broadway run, a smashing West End production starring Dorothy Dickson, and a brief return engagement with Miller on Broadway in 1923. But the show — with a bareboned book that’s apparently more bare than boned — has never received a successful major mounting. An attempt in 1948 (that improved on the score by substituting other Kern songs) folded within a month. It would seem then that Sally, though certainly OF its time, has an appeal that’s also LIMITED to its time. Of course, the other school of thought, which may be applicable to most musicals of this decade, is that the show was only successful under the powerful combo of Ziegfeld and Miller. (Though the 1921 London production ran even longer than the Original Broadway Production and featured the hands of neither.) But when we think of Sally, those are the two names who immediately come to mind.
I think its more correct to say that Sally has never been successfully revisited because it is a sacred musical. It’s the show that kicked the decade into high gear — seeing a triple alliance of talent: Ziegfeld, Miller, Kern — that has rarely been so perfectly aligned. It really was THE show of the ’20s: the benchmark for future productions, the one that audiences looked back on with wistful nostalgia. However, some scholars, among them the notorious Ethan Mordden, argue that Sally is a lesser work and that its exclusive appeal is in the triple alliance, and not in the quality of the material itself. That also may be. But it’d be foolish to reach that conclusion without understanding what audiences of 1920 saw, and that’ll never happen for us. However, Marilyn Miller starred in a 1929 film adaptation that, though fairly faithful to the plot, only featured three (of the best) Kern songs. Still, the film is mesmerizing — the purest example of the magic of Marilyn Miller. It’s the closest that 2014 audiences will ever come to understanding the Sally phenomenon.
Nowhere is Miller’s charm more evident than in the “Wild Rose” number, which contains the only surviving two-strip Technicolor footage from the film. Written especially for Sally, this song features lyrics by Clifford Grey. Here is the number as it appears in the film. 2014 audience, here is Ziegfeld’s own Marilyn Miller.
I want to feature a few other numbers from the score. The next two, which have since become classics, were written and included in the 1919 musical Zip, Goes A Million, which closed during its tryout. Kern resurrected these two glorious tunes, with lyrics by Buddy DeSylva, the following year for Sally. Here is “Look For The Silver Lining” as it is sung (as one of the few Kern numbers) in the 1929 film adaptation by Miller and Alexander Gray.
The other holdover from Zip, Goes A Million is “Whip-Poor-Will”, which was introduced in Sally by Sally and Blair. This rendition comes from McGlinn’s 1992 Jerome Kern Treasury album.
Other numbers came from additional sources. For instance, Otis, Rosie, and their friend Jimmie teamed up for a song written by Kern and Anne Caldwell for the 1920 musical The Night Boat. This is “The Lorelei,” as performed by the Original London Cast — who collectively recorded eight numbers and an excerpt of Victor Herbert’s third act ballet for Miller.
Another one of the few songs written exclusively for Sally is the title song. Though not the greatest number, I think this best gives you a flavor of what typical 1920 scores were like. This rendition comes from a live recording of a 1988 concert.
For access to the Original London Cast recordings headed by Dickson or a “songs only” recording of the 1988 concert production, subscribe and comment below!
Come back next Monday for another 1920s musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Two of Gilligan’s Island!