Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of 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. We’ve covered Sally (1920), Shuffle Along (1921), and Rose-Marie (1924). Today’s show finds us still in 1924, but firmly away from last week’s world of operetta. We’re in musical comedy land.
IV. Lady, Be Good! (12/01/24 – 09/12/25)
I’m very excited to introduce this wonderful score to potential new fans. As Mickey and Judy will tell you, “I like a Gershwin tune,” and this show features some real delights. Among the delights separate from the score is the star team of Fred and Adele Astaire. They’ve been featured on this blog before, and though this wasn’t their first show, I think this was the one that cemented them as superstars. But Lady, Be Good! seems to be iconic in its own right — it’s the first really jazzy work composed by BOTH Gershwins, produced by the team of Aarons and Freedley, and is perhaps seminal in establishing the content of 1920s musicals and what they’re best remembered for: silly plots that allow for wacky hijinks, hummable tunes, rowdy dancing, and scintillating stars.
I have a copy of the script that’s dated from about a week into the New York production. In a nutshell, the story concerns two siblings, Dick (Fred Astaire) and Susie Trevor (Adele Astaire), who have been kicked out of their apartment for failure to pay rent. Strapped for cash, the two find themselves living on the sidewalk at the start of the show. Susie meets and flirts with a charming hobo (Alan Edwards) before heading off to Josephine Vanderwater’s ritzy garden party. There, at least, they’ll get a good meal. Jo (Jayne Auburn) has her sights set on Dick, and he considers marrying her to keep Susie from poverty, but Susie knows that he’s really in love with Shirley Vernon (Kathlene Martyn) and much prefers her to Jo.
At the party, lawyer Watty Watkins (Walter Catlett) tries to get Jo to appeal to her landlord uncle to put the Trevors back in their apartment. But Jo reveals that she purposely had them evicted so that Dick would have to marry her. Meanwhile, Jo’s friend Daisy (Patricia Clarke) talks of “reforming” her eccentric British beau Bertie (Gerald Oliver Smith), and ukelele-clad Jeff (Cliff Edwards) entertains the guests. While the Trevors show up and raid the hor d’oeuvre trays, the hobo, named Jack Robinson, arrives looking for Susie. After running in to his old friend Bertie, Jack gives Susie a lucky rabbit’s foot and tells her that he’s leaving town. Watty is confronted by Manuel Estrada (Bryan Lycan), a Mexican man who has hired Watty to collect his sister’s inheritance from her late husband’s estate. But Watty can’t collect the money without the widow, who Estrada claims has been arrested in Mexico and will be unable to attend. Fearing for his life, Watty appeals to Susie to masquerade as the senorita in exchange for some quick cash. She initially turns him down, but when Dick proposes to Jo, an enraged Susie takes Watty up on his offer.
The second act opens outside the Robinson hotel, which belongs to the Jack Robinson estate, and where Daisy’s Uncle Ned serves as the trustee. He appoints Bertie to house detective, and the latter absentmindedly reveals to Daisy that Jack Robinson, the man whose widow is about to come collecting, is actually alive and well. Meanwhile, Dick is fervently searching for Susie, and encounters Shirley, whom he essentially confesses loving, despite his need to marry Jo. Watty arrives at the hotel with Susie as the Spanish-speaking Juanita. Things are going well, and Watty even manages to convince Bertie that his eyes were playing tricks on him with regards to Jack Robinson, who he maintains is deceased. But when Jack Robinson shows up, an exasperated Bertie handcuffs Watty and demands that he abandon the charade. However, Jack decides to have a little fun with Susie and pretends that, while he didn’t die, she really is his wife. That evening at a costume party, Jack and Susie decide to REALLY become husband and wife, Dick proposes to Shirley after having dumped Jo, and Watty finally wins Jo, as the three couples join Daisy and Bertie in preparations for a quadruple wedding.
Reading the script is an interesting experience, as I’m sure you can tell from the above synopsis. Though there’s much more dialogue and story than one might expect, the silliness of the plot excuses potential absences of logic — even when there actually IS logic. To put it simply: the plot is zany, but the book has cohesion. Now, the integration of the songs into said book leaves a whole lot to be desired, and the Cliff “Jiminy Cricket” Edwards character is so trivial and unintegrated that his very inclusion may as well be a joke. Also, the characters lack textual definition, but musicals of 1924 relied on the stars to establish personality, and frankly, that’s not something for which we should chide them. Audiences were in fact coming to see Fred and Adele Astaire, not Dick and Susie Trevor, right?
Given the star power both on and off the stage, Lady, Be Good! has never faded from the collective conscious of educated musical theatre lovers. Following the original Broadway production, the Astaires took the show to London, where they recorded several of the numbers. A film of the same title was released in 1941, but it bares no resemblance to the stage show. Though there have indeed been a few major productions mounted in the ensuing decades (mostly in London), the show apparently was also a popular selection among schools and local theaters in the ’40s. Interestingly, an abbreviated version was performed on NPR in 1978. (Subscribe and comment for access to this recording.) Also, a studio recording of the complete score (a recreation rather than a restoration) comes highly recommended and can be purchased here.
The score is unbelievably good. Trust me when I say that words don’t do it justice. Every song is a classic in my book (save a couple rather ordinary ensemble numbers), and I would like to share the entire thing with you. However, I’m limiting myself to eight songs. That’ll give you curious new fans more than a taste of this great musical comedy! (I won’t be featuring the iconic “The Man I Love,” which was written for this show but cut out of town, and then tried again in the 1927 Strike Up The Band but cut there too.) Let’s start at the beginning with Fred and Adele’s initial duet, “Hang On To Me.” Yes, this show didn’t start with an opening chorus. (They say that this is unique, but I’ve found many, many period shows that open without the ensemble.) Anyway, here is the 1926 recording of the Astaires, featuring the unmistakable fingers of Mr. George Gershwin.
The most famous song from the score is the utterly Gershwin and completely infectious “Fascinating Rhythm,” introduced by the Astaires and Cliff Edwards. Edwards recorded the song himself, but here are the Astaires with Gershwin.
Here’s Jack and Susie’s duet, “So Am I,” the prime love song which is repeated by the pair throughout the show. This comes from the 1992 recording.
Comedian Catlett (who gets lots of shtick in the book) got the bouncy title song, which Watty sings to Susie to convince her to pose as Juanita. Here’s the marvelous Jason Alexander (yes, George Constanza) from the 1992 recording.
Astaire recorded his Act Two duet with Shirley, the bluesy and appropriately titled “The Half Of It, Dearie, Blues.” Love the interplay between Fred and George here!
Cliff Edwards had a whole section to himself in the second act where he sang several of his specialty numbers and one new Gershwin tune, “Little Jazz Bird.” This wonderful ditty is performed here by John Pizzarelli on the 1992 recording.
While the above is completely unintegrated to the book, this next duet for Fred and Adele, the memorable “Swiss Miss” is featured only slightly more logically. (If you count Adele dressing as a Swiss yodeler and deciding to sing about it with Fred as logical.)
The last number I want to feature is “I’d Rather Charleston,” which was written by the Gershwins for Fred and Adele and included in the 1926 Original London Production. Here they are once again.
If the fascinating rhythm hasn’t gotten you by now, I don’t know what will!
***November 2015 UPDATE: There’s a new Lady, Be Good! album on the market, the 2015 Encores! cast recording. It doesn’t offer any material that the previous album doesn’t, but it’s perfectly enjoyable, nonetheless. (And its existence may help get the show produced more often!)***
Come back next week for another ’20s musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the second season of Green Acres!