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 was for Irene (1919). J is for …
J. Jumbo (11/16/35 – 04/18/36)
More circus than musical comedy, this large spectacle was one of the most expensive theatrical events of the first half of the 20th century. Produced by Billy Rose and presented at the legendary Hippodrome, Jumbo featured a score by Rodgers & Hart (fresh from Hollywood and at the top of their form), direction by George Abbott and John Murray Anderson, and a cast that included Jimmy Durante, Donald Novis, Gloria Grafton (who replaced Ella Logan in rehearsals), and an assortment of speciality performers. The production was largely an excuse for Mr. Rose to present a circus, but the skimpy premise concerned star-crossed lovers whose fathers owned rival circuses.
Though the score yielded a trio of hit songs and the cast appeared for nineteen weeks on a radio program (known as The Jumbo Fire-Chief Program) singing the songs in character, the production’s enormous budget was simply not maintainable, and the show closed in five months. However, after nearly thirty years of sitting on the rights, M-G-M produced a screen adaptation that starred Durante, Doris Day, Martha Raye, and Stephen Boyd, and included several of the show’s original numbers. Entitled Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962), the film was about as a faithful as it could be to the non-distinguished original book by the otherwise esteemed Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
I think the circus makes for an excellent setting, and if given a stronger premise and book, I think Jumbo would be interesting fodder for revival. Of course, the big question remains: is there anyone foolish enough as Billy Rose to produce something this expensive (and with a score by Rodgers & Hart as opposed to Bono & the Edge)? Should some creative entrepreneur find a way to create a meaningful and captivating theatrical experience (not dependent on either circus acts and pleasant tunes), a re-imagined Jumbo could potentially make an exciting and totally original night of entertainment. (Just have to shell out the big bucks first!)
However, a revival is likely to never happen, and that’s unfortunate for the score, which though saddled with a generic book, manages to be extremely tuneful and memorable. If Rodgers & Hart are ever given the big jukebox treatment (a la Gershwin), they could find several tunes from Jumbo to include. The first would be one of the score’s three hits, “My Romance,” given to Novis and Grafton as the lovers. Above is a recording of the number, culled from several performances on the aforementioned radio program (blending and cleaning thanks to John Ellis).
The other two are Novis’ appropriately circus-sounding “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” which is also from the radio program and can be heard above, and Grafton’s wistful “Little Girl Blue,” which she recorded in 1935.
To get a sense of these next two numbers, I recommend checking out the motion picture — which succeeds in presenting the audience with exciting visuals. The below rendition of “Over And Over Again,” a trapeze number, comes from the radio program.
Another grand song is the entire company’s, “The Circus Is On Parade.” This is also from the radio program.
There’s no better way to end this post than with Jimmy Durante singing the obviously comic (in case you can’t tell by the title) “Laugh.”
Oh, and as a special bonus… rehearsal footage from the original 1935 production:
Come back next Monday for K! And tune in tomorrow for more MTM!