The Best Of Broadway’s Roaring Twenties (V)

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), Rose-Marie (1924), and Lady, Be Good! (1924). Today we’re covering a show that premiered on Broadway in 1925.

 

V. No, No, Nanette (09/16/25 – 06/19/26)

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Based on a 1919 comedy, No, No, Nanette, with a score Vincent Youmans, Irving Caesar, and Otto Harbach, is (even today) the most performed musical of the 1920s. Despite the great success of the original productions and its reasonable regularity in stock, most of the show’s extant popularity can be attributed to a wonderfully mounted 1971 revival that retained a large majority of the score, adhered to the original 1925 plot, and featured an array of dynamite performers — among them Bobby Van, Helen Gallagher, Jack Gilford, Patsy Kelly, Susan Watson, and Ruby Keeler in a triumphant comeback. But Nanette has a fascinating history, unlike any other musical we’ve covered here on That’s Entertainment! The show began tryouts in April 1924, playing Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago. In Chicago, producer H.H. Frazee took over the direction, revised the book, ordered a few new songs, and gradually replaced five of the six leads. The alterations boosted the show’s box office, and the Chicago run was repeatedly extended.

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By the time the show closed in May of 1925, No, No, Nanette had played Chicago for 49 weeks. Meanwhile, two national tours has sprung up in Philadelphia (playing Eastern cities) and Los Angeles (playing Western cities), and hugely successful productions were mounted in Sydney and London. So, when the Chicago company officially arrived in New York in September of 1925, following a four month stay in Boston, songs from No, No, Nanette were being hummed all over the world. Successful runs in Berlin and Paris began in November. Now, you may be wondering, why was this show so successful? Obviously, the score. But, also — the plot!

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The story involves millionaire Bible publisher Jimmy Smith (Charles Winninger), who, unbeknownst to his frugal wife, Sue (Eleanor Dawn),  has become the platonic benefactor to three beautiful women — Flora (Edna Whistler), Winnie (Mary Lawlor), and Betty (Beatrice Lee). The Smiths’ best friends are lawyer Billy Early (Wellington Cross) and his spendthrift wife, Lucille (Josephine Whittell). Meanwhile, Jimmy and Sue also care for their young ward, Nanette (Louise Groody), who, despite her mutual affection for Billy’s nephew and assistant, Tom (Jack Barker), has a hankering to experience some frivolity before she’s tied down in marriage. When Jimmy’s three lady friends attempt to blackmail him for more money, he enlists the help of Billy. As Jimmy prepares to hide out for a brief time in Philadelphia, Billy secretly arranges for the women to meet him and Tom at the Smiths’ Atlantic City cottage. Complications mount when Lucille and Sue decide to vacation at the cottage while their husbands are out of town, and when Nanette, in spite of Sue’s forbidding, decides to go to Atlantic City for some fun, accompanied by Jimmy and the Smith’s spunky maid, Pauline (Georgia O’Ramey). The first act ends as an angry Tom ends things with Nanette, who prepares for her holiday.

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The second act takes place in Atlantic City, where Nanette is the hit of the beach, Jimmy runs into his three blackmailers, Tom reconciles with Nanette, Lucille encounters her flirtatious husband Billy, and Sue discovers that Nanette has disobeyed her. She demands that Pauline and Nanette return home immediately. Meanwhile, Sue has overheard Billy talking to the three women and assumes the worst. She tells Lucille, who confronts Billy. To keep Jimmy from Sue’s wrath, Billy doesn’t deny the allegations, and the second act ends with a double breakup — Lucille and Billy, and Tom and Nanette. The third act finds Billy and Lucille realizing that they can’t live without each other, as Lucille uncovers the truth about the three girls — after all, how could Billy afford to keep those broads when Lucille spends all of his money herself? Meanwhile, Pauline and Nanette return to the cottage after their inability to catch a train back to New York. She and Tom reunite and decide, once and for all, to get married. With everything out in the open regarding Jimmy’s platonic relationship with the benefactors, Sue decides that the only way to keep this from happening again is to be as spendthrift as Lucille.

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The above synopsis should indicate the light-hearted frivolity on which the show is predicated. However, the reason that Nanette truly may be the best of its form — the iconically trivial 1920s romp — are nuances in the plotting and the characters. That’s not to say that there is character complexity or anything resembling the post-Oklahoma! construction in its treatment of story and song; rather, the show has a uniqueness among the uniformity of its proceedings. There are misunderstandings, there are secrets, there are maids — all comfortable and predictable. But, yet, there is something almost indescribably memorable about the Smiths and the Earlys — a distinction about them that nearly eradicates any need for any other soundalike shows. They’re such fun, and a clear cut above shows covering similar territory. That’s probably why Nanette, of all pieces, was selected for reviving in 1971.

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As I mentioned in my introduction, the reason this musical has remained so popular is the mounting of a successful — and largely faithful — revival, 45 years after the original production closed. What Anything Goes is to the ’30s, No, No, Nanette is to the ’20s: they’re both distinctly of their times, but charmingly. The datedness is often played up and the shows are presented today as knowing period pieces. (Unfortunately, this often kills the authenticity of Anything Goes, but I’ve been rather outspoken about that elsewhere, and I’ll not bore my readers with my thoughts here.) When it comes to Nanette, the 1971 revival did what few revivals have done before or since: embracing the original without resorting to stodgy duplication. (You can read about the backstage machinations here. Highly recommended.) The production demonstrated exactly WHY this show was popular in 1925. There was both genuine hilarity and a campier sort of hilarity — but it never infringed on the fun… or the glorious Youmans score. Like the original, the success of the ’71 production likewise spawned numerous national tours, and foreign productions in London and Australia.

Most of the songs from today’s post will come from the glorious 1971 Revival recording, but let’s also note that several (pre-1971) studio recordings exist, as well as the 1973 London Revival cast recording, and eight cuts from the 1925 London production with Binnie Hale, which opened while the main company was still playing in Chicago. The two biggest hits from the score (written during the Chicago run) were “Tea For Two” and “I Want To Be Happy.” Above is the latter, with Gilford, Watson, and Keeler from the ’71 revival, and below is the former, with Rebecca Luker and George Dvorsky, who both starred in a 1986 concert revival of the original score and recorded this number for a John McGlinn album.

My favorite songs, however, almost exclusively belong to Lucille, the lawyer’s spendthrift wife. Here’s Helen Gallagher with her opening number, “Too Many Rings Around Rosie.”

Here’s Gallagher again with the bluesy and sincerely tongue-in-cheek “Where-Has-My Hubby-Gone-Blues?”

Billy and Lucille unite for my favorite song from the score, the snappy “You Can Dance With Any Girl At All.” This clip comes from the Tony Awards (courtesy of BlueGobo).

For something more in the period, here are Binnie Hale and the boys from the original 1925 London production with the title song.

Nanette and Tom, in addition to “Tea For Two,” had a charming duet with “Waiting For You,” which was substituted in London with “I’ve Confessed To The Breeze.” All three were included in the ’71 revival. Meanwhile, Keeler’s Sue, though not originally a singing role, was given one short number to sing (and dance, of course). This was “Take A Little One-Step,” which was written for the 1925 London Production (but not included in the Broadway Production six months later) and introduced by Nanette and Billy. Here’s Keeler from the ’71 revival.

Pauline had two comedy numbers in the original production, both of which were excluded in the revival. Another number excluded from the revival was a song for Jimmy and some of the girls entitled “Fight Over Me.” This is a live recording from the ’86 McGlinn concert.

Finally, here are Susan Watson and the company of the ’71 revival with the lavish Act Two opening, “Peach On The Beach” (a.k.a. “Deep Blue Sea”). Such excitement — musical comedy at its best!

With a great score and a fun book, Nanette should be at the top of the list for high schools looking to do a ’20s musical. Chicago is not a 1920s musical. The Drowsy Chaperone is not a 1920s musical. No, No, Nanette IS a 1920s musical, and because it was given the royal treatment in 1971, it won’t be unappealing to folks who are unaccustomed with or uninterested in what ’20s shows are REALLY like. Nanette is the best of both worlds — a distinctly 1925 musical with a renewed time-transcending appeal that should keep it fresh forever.

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Come back next Monday for another 1920s musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Three of Green Acres!

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