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), Oh, Kay! (1926), and Good News! (1927). We’re saving Show Boat for a later post, so we’re moving on to 1928!
X. Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds Of 1928 (05/09/28 – 06/15/29)
If 1921’s Shuffle Along was a triumph for the introduction of African American entertainment to mainstream (read: white) Broadway audiences, the Blackbirds of 1928 demonstrated exactly how influential the black style had quickly become — as a powerful Jewish producer (Lew Leslie) presented some of the most talented African American performers (Adelaide Hall, Bill Robinson, Elisabeth Welch) and a revue score by a pair of white songwriters (Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields) that were so perfectly matched, it was impossible to imagine American entertainment as ever having been racially — and stylistically — segregated. Essentially, while Shuffle Along helped usher in an integration for American musicality, Blackbirds helped begin (along with Show Boat) the slow integration of American talent — both on and off the stage. And the talent that went into this show was mind-blowing…
Unlike Shuffle Along with its paper-thin plot that qualifies it today as a “book musical,” Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds made especially certain that the show’s emphasis would be exactly where it should: the stars and the songs. (There were sketches, to be sure, but they were so seemingly insignificant that Leslie provided no credits for them in the program.) So recognizingly exceptional were the forces behind the show that Brunswick, following the (very) abbreviated studio/revival cast recording of Show Boat in 1932, decided to bestow Blackbirds with a similar honor: 12 cuts (almost the complete score) with Duke Ellington, the Mills Brothers, Ethel Waters, and two stars of the original production, Hall and Robinson. Though not an authentic representation of the 1928 arrangements, these 1933 recordings are illuminating in their revelations of the performing talent and come highly recommended. (Indeed, no Broadway buff has lived until he/she’s heard Adelaide Hall belting out McHugh and Fields’ “I Must Have That Man” — one of her 1933 recordings is presented below). So for the rest of the post, I’m presenting to you the stars and songs of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1928 — from the aforementioned 1933 recordings, as well as various other period recordings (including contemporary original cast singles).
“Baby,” another song for Hall, was cut from the original production but recorded several times by her over the next decade. Here’s her 1928 recording with the Blackbirds Orchestra!
Bill Robinson showed off his expertise tapping in the infectious “Doin’ The New Low-Down,” the show’s contribution to the list of hopeful dance crazes. This is his 1933 recording.
Elisabeth Welch recorded both the above song and the naughty “Diga Diga Doo.” Here’s her 1928 recording of the latter.
How better to close this post than with McHugh and Fields’ biggest hit from the score (and possibly ever)? Yes, this is “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” This is the 1933 recording by the Mills Brothers. “Dream while, scheme a while…”
Come back next Monday for another 1920’s musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Two of That Girl!