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), Dearest Enemy (1925), “The Cocoanuts” (1925), and Oh, Kay! (1926). Today, we’re in 1927…
IX. Good News! (09/06/27 – 01/05/29)
The collegiate musical to end all collegiate musicals, Good News! (also sometimes cited merely as Good News) boasts a quintessential DeSylva, Brown, & Henderson score — filled with femmes, fun, and foxtrots. If you’ve heard of this show before, it’s no surprise. In addition to original runs on Broadway and in the West End, Good News! has been adapted for the screen twice: once in 1930, for a moderately faithful adaptation with several good performers, but little of the score, and once in 1947, with a heavily revised book and interpolated songs. Following the ’30 film, the show was licensed for amateur performances and was the most popularly produced show of the ’30s. The only major Broadway revival came in 1974 when producer Harry Rigby tried to create another No, No, Nanette (1925), and tinkered with the book and score, turning it into a star vehicle for John Payne and Alice Faye. It was not successful. However, the Music Theatre Of Wichita produced a successful revised adaptation in 1993 that yielded a 1995 studio recording. This version is also available for licensing.
Today’s post, however, is on the original production — the epitome of a no-holds-barred rollicking ’20s musical. Setting the scene, all the ushers wore college football uniforms, and the orchestra (the George Olsen band) kicked off the Overture with a cheer for the fictional Tait College. The plot is simple: The students of Tait college are worried when Professor Kenyon alerts star footballer Tom Marlowe that unless he passes the next astronomy exam, he will be unable to play in the upcoming big game. Since Tom’s fiance, Patricia, is too busy with her sorority to tutor him, she suggests that he study with her shy cousin, Connie. Not surprisingly, Tom and Connie fall in love. Filling out the rest of the act is the secondary couple, vivacious flapper, Babe, and Tom’s roommate, Bobby Randall. Tom takes the exam and fails it, but Kenyon, eager to see the school victorious, lies and gives him a passing grade. The students overjoyed, Patricia agrees to marry Tom if he wins the game.
The second act begins as Bobby, the substitute player on the team, agrees to commit to Babe if he is finally allowed off the bench and ends up winning the game. Connie, angered about the “proposal,” learns that Tom didn’t betray her; Patricia is holding on to a proposal letter that Tom wrote following a drunken fraternity party. Later, through a hole in the fence where Connie watches the game, we see that Tait is behind at half time. Bobby is finally put in, and as Tom goes for the big touchdown, he is tackled. The ball improbably flies through the air to Bobby, who scores the winning touchdown. Tom tells Connie that he fumbled on purpose, and the two agree to marry — if he doesn’t have to marry Patricia, that is. Babe alerts Bobby that, even though he won the game, he doesn’t have to marry her. She is shocked when he tells her that he will! Patricia gives Tom away to Connie, and everyone rejoices when Tom is accepted on the All-American team. It’s good news after all!
The plot is entirely frivolous, and with an especially thin story, the book is filled out with extraneous gags and scenes that, while uproarious to 1927 audience members, may not quite hit the mark today. Revisals try to remedy this by adding in more songs and more romance. We can arguably say that this isn’t a bad idea, but perhaps the execution leaves some to be desired. Rigby’s misguided ’74 revisal only used the “best” songs from the original score, adding in other Desylva, Brown, & Henderson numbers — like “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” and “Button Up Your Overcoat” — to make the evening more standard-packed. Unfortunately, he (FOOLISHLY) changed the setting from the ’20s to the ’30s, and in an attempt to refocus the musical as a starring vehicle for Payne and Faye, he shifted the central romance from Tom and Connie to Kenyon (now a female) and the coach. This was remedied for the ’93 revival, bringing the show back to 1927 — where it belongs — and retaining the faculty romance as only a minor subplot. Of course, the interpolations remained.
However, the reason for Good News!‘s initial success — which must be maintained for any revival/revisal — is its sense of pure unbridled fun. These are joyous characters whose biggest worries are passing the astronomy test, winning the big football game, and hiding flappers from jealous exes. That kind of happiness is infectious — whether we’re in 1927 or 2014. Of course, audiences of today look back at the carefree joviality of Good News! as a clear exemplification of the ’20s as a decade. That’s most likely why this piece has been revived several times: Good News! fits exactly what we think the ’20s looked like — a wild, riotous party. And perhaps audiences of the late ’20s also thought of their decade as one big party, keeping the show running for over 500 performances, and granting it one of the longest runs of the decade.
Aside from its purely ’20s feel, Good News! also has a strong DeSylva, Brown, & Henderson score — even before all those pesky interpolations. I think the most famous song is the BIG dance number, the “Varsity Drag,” which was led by Zelma O’Neal (listen here) as Flo, a fun character who has no function in the plot and is merely designed to sing and dance. This role was played by Penny Singleton (credited as Dorothy McNulty) in the 1930 film. I adore the song — an iconic ’20s dance number with uncontrolled knee slapping and violent foot stomping. In the above clip from the 1930 film, smile as the students go wild with rhythm. (Look at the way McNulty goes Xena on us with that wild succession of backflips. Such fun!)
The central love duet for Tom and Connie is “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” in which the songwriters demonstrate their sublime ability to write for Broadway with tunes and lyrics that simultaneously maintain a widespread appeal — essentially, it’s ’20s pop. Revel (above) in this wonderfully romance-y foxtrot (played by George Olsen’s orchestra)!
One of the few other numbers to have some widespread appeal is Connie’s wishful “Just Imagine.” The above rendition is by Abe Lyman’s orchestra.
Following the Alma Mater that opens the show, the girls (led by Flo, of course) introduce us to Tom Marlowe with “He’s A Ladies Man.” The above track comes from the 1995 recording, which is an absolute joy from start to finish (interpolations aside) and comes highly recommended.
Two more songs from this wonderful recording — above is “Lucky In Love,” which comes near the end of the first act and is briefly reprised before the curtain comes down, and below is “Girl Of The Pi Beta Phi,” which opens Act Two and is sung by Patricia and the sorority girls.
Unfortunately, with both films and all the post-’70s revisals determining for us which songs from the original score are inferior and in need of supplanting with standards, several numbers from the 1927 Good News! have never been recorded — most notably, the numbers for secondary couple Babe and Bobby. However, they were published in the original vocal score, licensed for amateur productions in 1930. For curious parties, here’s the sheet music for Babe’s “Flaming Youth.” (Subscribe and comment below if interested in the full vocal score.)
As you hopefully have seen, this undeniably fun show (with an unsurprisingly thin book) has long been a representation of ’20s musicals — and perhaps for good reason. The score is lively, the situations humorous, and the joy is breathtakingly feel good. Maybe it IS — for all its flaws — the perfect ’20s musical comedy. Here’s one more for the road… the bouncy title song…
Come back next week for another ’20s musical! (Even though we’ve been going chronologically, we’ll be skipping Show Boat (1927) for now, and coming back to it at the end of the series.) And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season One of That Girl!