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), Good News! (1927), Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds Of 1928, and The New Moon (1928). Today, we’ve finally reached 1929…
XII. The Little Show (04/30/29 – 02/01/30)
Noted for being one of the first musical revues (along with 1925’s The Garrick Gaieties) to usher in a trend of intimacy, The Little Show proved, contrary to popular belief, that a revue did not need a Ziegfeldian budget or hundreds of showgirls to be a smash. All it needed was a few stars, a few good songs, and a few memorable sketches. (The Band Wagon  and As Thousands Cheer , two musicals we’ve featured here in the past, extended this stylistic trend.) The stars this time were comedian Fred Allen, torch singer Libby Holman, and dashing Clifton Webb. The score, though Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz are given most credit, was actually from a variety of sources, including Ralph Rainger, and Kay Swift with her husband Paul James. Meanwhile, the sketches were also by a host of assorted authors, with one by George S. Kaufman standing out, “The Still Alarm,” which concerns complacent men in the middle of a raging hotel fire. It was filmed as a Vitaphone short in 1930 (with Allen and Webb), and the eight-page text was published by Samuel French. (Contact me if interested in reading “The Still Alarm.”)
But, as always, we Broadway buffs of 2014 are most concerned with the fun and exuberantly catchy numbers. There were several to emerge from the score; probably the biggest is “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan,” by Schwartz and Dietz, which you may remember from its inclusion in the 1953 film The Band Wagon. Here’s a period recording by the Ambrose Mayfair Orchestra.
Libby Holman’s big moment (well, one of them) was “Moanin’ Low,” in which she and her drunken lover perform a torrid dance in a Harlem tenement until he, in line with his characterization in the song, strangles her. She recorded this number, with music by Ralph Rainger and lyrics by Dietz, at least twice in 1929, and I featured one of those recordings in a July Wildcard Wednesday post. This particular rendition comes from the fall of ’29.
Another song from The Little Show that I featured in that July post was “I’ve Made A Habit Of You,” a really bouncy Schwartz and Dietz tune with smile-inducingly cute lyrics. This rendition is by George Dvorsky and Rebecca Luker.
One more obscure tune from the show, written by Morris Hamilton and Grace Henry, is entitled “Or What Have You?” This is another period recording by the Al Goodman Orchestra.
Last but not least, Kay Swift and her husband Paul James (whom we discussed months ago when we covered 1930’s Fine And Dandy) contributed “Can’t We Be Friends?” for Libby Holman. This is a truly brilliant number — capturing a relatable sentiment that isn’t perhaps covered much in music of the era: “I know the end of our relationship is coming and you’re going to want to remain friends.” Holman, who recorded this song at least once and also performed it on the radio, gives a powerful rendition. But I’m partial to a 2004 rendition by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey that makes the number sound so fresh, you’d believe it was written yesterday. Superb.
With The Little Show influencing the type of musical revues Broadway would see in the 1930s, we’re moving on next week to our last post on this series of important ’20s musicals. I spoiled weeks ago that I would be returning to 1927 and covering Show Boat, the most influential musical of the first third of the 20th century. Though this landmark show would only slowly make its impact on the musical theatre scene, our extensive coverage of ’30s (and ’40s) musicals tells us exactly how revolutionary it was. It’s fitting then that The Little Show and Show Boat are featured next to one another, and after next week’s brief capper to the ’20s, we’ll be spending a month on musical revues of the ’30s — so this isn’t the last you’ll hear of The Little Show!
Come back next Monday for Show Boat! And tune in tomorrow on the best episodes from Season Four of That Girl!