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 was for Du Barry Was A Lady (1939). E was for Ever Green (1930). F was for Funny Face (1927). G was for Great Day! (1929). H was for Hot-Cha! (1932). I is for…
I. Irene (11/18/19 – 06/18/21)
The earliest musical comedy we’ve yet to feature in its own post, Irene has the distinction of being the longest running musical from the first third of the 20th century and is responsible for establishing (in full force) the “Cinderella story” template of which many shows (including 1920’s Sally, which we’ve covered) would take advantage. The story tells of a young working Irish girl, the eponymous Irene O’Dare, who meets and falls in love with a tycoon. She becomes a famous model under an elegant alias and endures romantic drama until things end happily by the final curtain. The score by Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy is, much like Kern’s Sally, not exceptional; the show’s treasure is its naive charm, and what Miller was to Ziegfeld, Edith Day was to Irene. In fact, she found such success in the Original Broadway Production that she headlined the show’s 1920 Original London Production.
Irene‘s production history remains its most fascinating characteristic. After the aforementioned productions on each side of the Atlantic in the early ’20s, the show was briefly seen on Broadway again in 1923 and on the West End in 1945. Two film adaptations were made — a silent in 1926 and a talkie in 1940 (with Anna Neagle). Decades went by and the once record-breaking Irene was all but a memory. That is, to all but Harry Rigby, the man who gave us one of the biggest and brightest revivals in Broadway history. Yes, I’m talking about his 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette (1925), which took a great show from a similar era, retooled it (while keeping most of the entire original score), and triumphantly showed it to be the rediscovered gem that we all now know it to be. Hoping to strike gold again by capitalizing on this early ’70s nostalgia craze, Rigby set his sights on Irene…
His star was Debbie Reynolds, in her Broadway debut, and he hired several men to retool the book and contribute to the score — which was already being supplanted by other Joseph McCarthy numbers (like “You Made Me Love You” and “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me”). And while Irene‘s original score is nowhere near the caliber of Nanette‘s, the resulting mish-mash of tunes was, as the young folks might say, “a hot mess.” Nevertheless, after a troubled rehearsal period (in which Billy De Wolfe was replaced by George S. Irving in the role of Madame Lucy, the flamboyant couturier for whom Irene models) and brutal out-of-town-tryouts, the show opened on Broadway to immense success. This can be attributed to advance ticket sales following the seal of approval of President Nixon, as well as the headlining cast of Reynolds, Irving, Patsy Kelly, and Ruth Warrick. Reynolds took the show on tour and was later replaced on Broadway by Jane Powell. The acclaim of this production led to productions in Australia and London, where Julie Anthony played the title role. However, since the mid-70’s, Irene has faded back into a memory. (Except for an occasional mounting that seems to go by with little fanfare.)
Why? Well, as indicated above, neither the original score nor the revival score is stellar. However, we can trivialize neither the success nor the importance of the original 1919 production, which seemed to capture, with all its whimsical charm, the romantic ideals of a post-WWI world. Irene is a simple show, and the songs reflects that. In fact, when expectations are adjusted properly, one is likely to find A LOT to enjoy in the score. So, let us take the rest of today’s post to enjoy the musical delights of the original 1919 Irene. (No revival songs will be included; sorry!)
Edith Day recorded Irene’s first number, and the show’s most lasting tune, “Alice Blue Gown,” shortly after the opening. Hear that above. (Note that is also one of a few of the original numbers to be included in Rigby’s revival.) Below, is Day’s recording of “Castle Of Dreams,” included among the cast recordings of the Original London Production. (Although Day’s titular character did not sing this song in the show.) The song enjoyed a slight vogue after inclusion in the 1940 film adaptation.
Here’s “The Talk Of The Town,” an utterly delightful number sung by Robert Hale, Winnie Collins, and Margaret Campbell, as Madame Lucy and two of his models, which has only been recorded by the Original London cast.
Another one of the numbers to make the ’70s revival, here’s the Broadway Revival Cast with “The Last Part Of Every Party.”
Admittedly, however, I prefer the ’76 London Cast Recording to the ’73 Broadway Cast Recording. So, here’s “We’re Getting Away With It,” sung by the cast of the 1976 London Revival.
Also from the ’76 revival recording, here’s the infectious title tune.
Let us conclude this post with a treat; another number only recorded by the London Cast, here’s Edith Day with the best of the forgotten Irene tunes, the brilliantly exciting “Sky Rocket.” (Also referred to as “Skyrocket.”)
Come back next Monday for J! And tune in tomorrow for more MTM!
Saw Irene in 1973. It was very good. There was a song titled What do you wanna make those eyes at me for , when they don’t mean what they say. that was not from the original show. I enjoyed this song very much. Debbie Reynolds was really good in the show. I have a video copy of the show using the old script and song arrangements . Thanks again and keep those old shows rolling out. Bob K.
Hi, Bob! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Although I do enjoy the ’73 recording, I think one of primary reasons that the revisal of IRENE did not replicate the critical success of the ’71 revisal of NO, NO, NANETTE is that the latter didn’t feature any tunes not utilized within the original production. This fidelity to the source material made for a much more fluid and cohesive production. The new IRENE was all over the place.