D Is For… DU BARRY WAS A LADY (1939)

Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday! Today, we’re continuing our series of alphabetically ordered posts on forgotten musicals from the ’10s – ’40s. Over the next 25 weeks (note that I will not be doing a post for the letter X), I’ll be covering a different forgotten musical. The only criteria, it has to begin with that specific letter of the alphabet. A was for Are You With It? (1945). B was for Best Foot Forward (1941). C was for The Cat And The Fiddle (1931). D is for…

 

D. Du Barry Was A Lady (12/06/39 – 12/12/40)

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This bawdy musical comedy holds a special place in my heart. I credit it for being the show that really launched my fervent collecting of classic Broadway recordings and audios. Before that, coming from the theatre, I listened to cast albums almost exclusively, but my tastes were more mainstream and not so varied — essentially, whatever I could get my hands on. But Du Barry Was A Lady captured my imagination for several reasons. First and foremost, I knew it was a Cole Porter musical, and after having the time of my life in a production of Anything Goes (1934) when I was just ten, I was intrigued by the wit and suaveness of Porter’s music. Secondly, the show starred Ethel Merman, who, in addition to Anything Goes, had headlined several of my favorite works — like Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Gypsy (1959) —  and Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in the most important film of my childhood. And thirdly, I was fascinated by the musical’s connection to Lucille Ball, who, besides starring in MGM’s 1943 film adaptation, sang a peppy rendition of “Friendship” with Vivian Vance in a classic 1953 episode of I Love Lucy (1951-1957, CBS), which had already become the most cherished sitcom in my collection. All of these factors led 15-year-old me to finally seek out a full recording of the score, and I found one in a 2001 BBC audio of the Lost Musicals Production. And my Porter collecting began, eventually expanding into a collection of all things classic (and pre-classic) musical.

Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly

But enough of my narrative, let’s discuss Du Barry Was A Lady. With a score by Porter, a book by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva, and a cast that, in addition to Merman and Lahr, included Ronald Graham, Benny Baker, Charles Walters, and a young Betty Grable, this show had all the markings for success. And success it was, running over a year, and becoming one of the few shows for which Ethel Merman did not stay the entire run. (She went off to do another Porter musical, Panama Hattie (1940), so Gypsy Rose Lee took over her role in Du Barry.) However, though a commercial success, spawning the aforementioned MGM screen adaptation with Ball, Red Skelton, and Gene Kelly (a watered-down and Porter-lite affair), and a 1942 London Production, the show has not gone down in the history books as a paradigm of excellent musical comedy. Much of this relative obscurity (not complete obscuirty — Encores! tried resurrecting it in 1996 with Faith Prince) induced by those who figuratively turn their noses down on this musical comedy, can be attributed to the book — a requisitely trivial story that has always (even upon opening) been seen as a lewd string of obscene gags. Of course, obscene in 1939 is now innocent to 2014. As someone who has had the pleasure of reading the original script, I can set the record straight: the show is deliciously low-brow, but it’s non-offensive and completely fun: a joke-a-minute.

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The plot concerns washroom attendant Louis Blore (Lahr), who quits his job after winning a fortune in the sweepstakes. Louis hopes his newfound wealth will help win the affections of nightclub singer May Daly (Merman), but she’s too smitten with her friend Alice’s (Grable), married brother, Alex Barton (Graham), to give Louis the time of day. In a scheme concocted with his washroom replacement (Baker), Louis intends to slip Alex a Mickey Finn so that he can get to May. Unfortunately, Louis accidentally drinks the potion himself and dreams that he’s back at Versailles as King Louie XV, with May as his mistress, Madame Du Barry. All of the people from the nightclub are characters, with Alex as a rebel who writes a blasphemous song about Louie and Du Barry and earns the latter’s heart. When Louie finally awakes, he realizes that May belongs with Alex, and uses part of his new riches to pay for Barton’s divorce. With the rest of his money going to the government in taxes, Louie goes back to his job as a washroom attendant. Add in some snappy tunes, a few dances, a love interest for Gable, and a comic love interest for Lahr, and you’ve got the general idea.

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Like the book, the score was also accused of being obscene, and like every work following Anything Goes, deemed to be lesser Porter. I respectfully disagree; the score has everything associated with classic Cole — list songs, ballads, double entendre numbers, bouncy duets — and should deserve to be recognized as one of the composer’s most fun scores. But, my own words do inadequate justice when it comes to music and lyrics. It’s time for the best part of our weekly posts: the song and dance portion! Below is the show’s chief romantic ballad, sung by May and Alex (as their 17th century counterparts), “Do I Love You?”, which can probably be considered the show’s biggest hit upon its 1939 opening. This particular rendition is by Frances Day, the May of the 1942 London cast.

Following its inclusion in a 1956 musical film remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940), entitled High Society (1956), “Well, Did You Evah!” has become one of a few songs (NOT included in a mega work like Goes or Kate) to become closely associated with Porter and his unique style. This rendition of the full number with its complete original lyrics comes from a live recording of the July 1990 McGlinn concert production that starred Kim Criswell and David “Steve Rhoades” Garrison. Here’s Rebecca Luker (as Alice) and Guy Stroman (as her love interest, Harry).

Perhaps the tawdriest number from the score, and one that has been particularly cited as low-class is “But In The Morning, No,” a duet for Louie and Du Barry, that, well… you better take a listen. This is Louise Gold and Desmond Barrit from the BBC recording. (Note that they don’t perform all ten written refrains!)

Meanwhile, Merman got several outstanding Porter numbers all to herself. Sadly, none of them entered into her regular concert repertoire. Two of them are especially fun: “Give Him The Oo-La-La,” which was reportedly taken from Grable during tryouts, and “Katie Went To Haiti.” Both are worth seeking out; my favorite renditions are the fully orchestrated McGlinn tracks with Kim Criswell on her album entitled The Lorelei. (Contact me if interested.) I’ve personally always had an affinity for May’s first number, the more earnest and lyrically simplistic “When Love Beckoned (On 52nd Street),” which has an appealing swinging-ness that bodes well for the uncomplicated lyrics. Here’s Criswell from that live 1990 concert.

Lahr’s first comic song occurs early in Act One, “It Ain’t Etiquette.” A great example of Porter expertly retaining his style while molding it for one of his performers, this rendition is by Barrit of the BBC recording.

I’ve saved the best for last. Though the two stars don’t wind up together in the end, they do get the final words with one of Porter’s best remembered duets, “Friendship.” I shared this last year in a Merman post, but I’m just as excited to present it again; here’s a LIVE audio of Merman and Lahr singing “Friendship” from the original production.

There are many more songs I’d like to share, but in the interest of concision, you’ll have to seek out the rest of the score for yourself. (For access to the 2001 BBC recording [aired in ’02], the 1990 Chicago concert, or a poor quality 1996 Encores audio, subscribe and comment below!) Maybe I over-sing the praises of this show due to my personal connection, but I think the joy of the score speaks for itself. And with performers like these… now THAT is entertainment.

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Come back next Monday for E! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Five of Here’s Lucy!

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2 thoughts on “D Is For… DU BARRY WAS A LADY (1939)

  1. Jackson, like you, I’m on a quest to semi-completely compile Porter show recordings. You have sent Jubilee and The New Yorkers to me, and I would appreciate the three renditions of this show. Also, do you have any other show recordings? I enjoy your articles and I’m very glad I found your blog.

    Thanks again,
    Ethan Jones

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