The Best Of Broadway’s Roaring Twenties (VII)

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), Lady, Be Good! (1924), No, No, Nanette (1925), and Dearest Enemy (1925). We’re still in 1925 for today’s selection…

 

VII. “The Cocoanuts” (12/08/25 – 08/07/26)

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Classic movie fans may remember the 1929 film adaptation of “The Cocoanuts”, which, although jettisoning most of the delightfully infectious Irving Berlin score, retained much of the plot and presented the Marx Brothers (minus Gummo, who left showbiz early in the boys’ career) in their first feature length film. They were joined by their perfect foil, the huffy Margaret Dumont, who was also in the 1925 stage production. As with most Marx Brothers affairs, the plot of “The Cocoanuts” has been notoriously labeled as insignificant. But, as we’ve seen in past weeks, book triviality is a trait common to musicals of the ’20s — Marx brothers or no Marx brothers. What perhaps may be uncommon (at least, in regard to the superior musicals that I’ve been presenting to you) is that the score is also rendered less important than usual.

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That is, because the entire show is solely a vehicle for these four famous clowns, the Irving Berlin score is relegated to second fiddle — even in the stage play. Indeed, we can evidence how separated the stars are from the music by noting that only two Berlin songs are given to the Marx Brothers – one for Groucho and one for straight-man Zeppo. The rest of the numbers — and there are quite a few — are given to the other characters: Polly, Bob, Penelope, Frances Williams (who’s there to play herself and lead the company in a dance number), bellboys, cocoanut grove girls, etc. It’s almost as if Irving Berlin’s work is merely part of the backdrop in this four-man-showcase. And that’s not a bad thing — most audiences were coming specifically to see the Marx brothers. The problem with this truism, as I see it, is that it has led historians and scholars to long believe that the musical score is inferior, when, in actuality, it’s excellent. But more on that later. First the plot…

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The setting is The Cocoanuts Hotel in Cocoanut Beach, Florida, specifically at the time of the great Florida land boom. Groucho owns the hotel, Zeppo is the desk clerk, and Chico and Harpo are a pair of shiftless thieves — one is Italian and the other is mute. The story revolves around the wealthy Mrs. Potter (Dumont), who wants to marry her daughter, Polly, off to Harvey, an old friend of the family’s, even though Polly is in love with Bob Adams, a young architect. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Potter and her daughter, Harvey is really a conman, hoping to marry Polly and steal her mother’s goods. His parter in crime is Penelope, who steals Mrs. Potter’s jeweled necklace and hides it in Lot 26, one of the plots of land that is coming up for auction. But silent crook Sam overhears their plans and retrieves the map. Meanwhile, Groucho’s character hopes to romance Mrs. Potter so she’ll buy the hotel. At the auction, Harvey and Bob get into a bidding war over Lot 26, where the latter hopes to build his dream home for Polly in Cocoanut Manor. After Bob is awarded the land, Mrs. Potter realizes her necklace has been stolen, and Sam retrieves it from its hiding place. Assuming that because Bob was so adamant about purchasing the land, he is arrested for the theft. Mrs. Potter announces Polly’s wedding to Harvey as the first act ends.

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In act two, the Marx brothers get Bob out of jail and realize who the real thieves are. Willie and Sam cause distractions so Bob and Polly can get the evidence they need. Polly tells Harvey that they should elope together at midnight in Cocoanut Manor. She convinces Harvey to draw a map of the location for her. Polly presents her new evidence to the detective, incriminating Harvey and Penelope, while a millionaire agrees to purchase Bob’s new land from him at a hefty price. Mrs. Potter finally consents to her daughter’s marrying Bob and everyone rejoices.

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It’s your typical 1920s plot — with a fair amount of book and many characters all introduced in the first act, and a tangential second act that’s filled out with speciality groups, and leads to a silly but joyful conclusion. What makes this show fare better than the ordinary is exactly what we could guess it would be: the expert clowning of the Marx brothers. Fortunately, we are blessed with the opportunity to see them in all their glory through the 1929 film. So, while the picture may not present the musical part of “The Cocoanuts” accurately, we are most certainly getting access to the comedy part. And, as I said above, that’s the main draw. They’re hilarious — plain and simple.  Meanwhile, though no major standards evolved from the score, (and despite what you may have read, “Always” was NOT written for this show), the songs are fun, catchy, and perfectly in tune with the atmosphere and setting. In short: they do everything they’re supposed to do. Would it be nice to have the Marx Brothers themselves connect more directly with the music? Of course, but that’s why Bob and Polly and all the other characters are around. So I want to share a few of the bouncy and underrated tunes from this neglected musical comedy.

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A perfect example of the toe-tappingly catchy tunes that Berlin constructed for this score is “Lucky Boy,” which was introduced by Jack Barker, who played Bob, with the ensemble.

The show’s expected hit was “A Little Bungalow,” which was given to Barker and Mabel Withee’s Polly. How do we know it was supposed to be the hit? It’s reprised constantly throughout the show. Interestingly, the song was filmed but cut from the 1929 screen adaptation. (The main duet was a new song entitled “When My Dreams Come True,” and took its verse from the refrain of a number that didn’t survive the transition from stage to screen, “We Should Care.”) Here’s “A Little Bungalow,” maybe my favorite song from the score. “Cute” isn’t a word I’d normally use to compliment a song, but this one is just… cute.

The big dance number, led by Frances Williams at the start of the auction sequence, is entitled “The Monkey Doodle-Doo” and evokes the heat of the classic ’20s dancing craze — to which every musical comedy hoped to contribute something meaningful. “The Monkey Doodle Doo” is saddled with the silliest of lyrics, but, darn it, this is a silly show. Enjoy the 1920s-ness of it all: tropical, carefree, and sizzling. Here’s Mary Eaton and company from the screen adaptation. (Audio only — can’t post video here. You’ll have to check this one out for yourself!)

During the original run, several songs were dropped and several new ones were added. This modified version of the show was labeled the “Summer Edition” and launched in June of 1926 with The Bronx Sisters now on hand to take over Penelope’s numbers. Among the new numbers was another one for the lovers, which, aside from Barker, now included Phyllis Cleveland as Polly, who got a new sweet duet with “Why Do You Want To Know Why?”

The “Summer Edition” also provided — wonderfully — another number for Groucho, a peppy tune that takes its title from the popular 1925 book of the same name, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Given how precisely the book is intertwined with the Marx brothers personas, one might think this show is unrevivable. Well, not only has it been revived, but it has been revived to many glowing reviews. In addition to productions at the Arena Stage in 1988 and the American Jewish Theatre in 1996, the show is currently playing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and will be running until November. If you’re in the area, go see it, and report back in the comments section! Apparently, and I haven’t seen the show on stage, only the film adaptation, it’s quite hysterical. And with great comedy and an underrated Irving Berlin score, why wouldn’t this show be sublimely entertaining?

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

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