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 was for Jumbo (1935). K was for Knickerbocker Holiday (1938). L was for Leave It To Jane (1917). M was for Me And My Girl (1937). N was for The Night Boat (1920). O was for On Your Toes (1936). P was for Park Avenue (1946). Q was for Queen High (1926). R is for…
R. Red, Hot, And Blue! (10/29/36 – 04/10/37)
It’s been three months since we’ve had any Cole Porter on Musical Theatre Mondays, and we’re long past due! The second vehicle that Cole Porter composed for the legendary Ethel Merman (a teaming that, if you’ll remember, helped to almost singlehandedly inspire my interest in this era of musical theatre history), Red, Hot, And Blue! also starred Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante, the latter of whom, as is often noted, alternated top billing with Merman during the duration of the show. (Oh, and Vivian Vance had a bit part and a number with another chorine.) Of the five Porter-Merman teamings, this is probably the show that we should least anticipate seeing revived. And the reason for this is two-fold: the book and (though I love Porter, we must be truthful) the score.
With one of the thinnest books of any Cole Porter ’30s musical, Red, Hot, And Blue! concerns an ex-manicurist (Merman, of course) who has inherited a fortune from her late husband, and joins together with her ex-convict friend (Durante), whom she’s helped to rehabilitate, to help a lawyer (Bob Hope) find his childhood sweetheart. The trio launches a campaign to find the young lady, whose only recognizable feature is a stain on her backside from when she sat on a hot waffle iron as a child. The quest goes national and they wind up in D.C., where the government insists that the lottery end in marriage. But Hope is disappointed when the branded woman is revealed to be a floozy named Peaches. Fortunately for Merman and Hope, who have fallen in love during all of the hullabaloo, the Supreme Court rules the lottery as unconstitutional, allowing them to be together after all. (Color home movies below!)
It’s a delightfully silly premise, and one that could honestly provide a lot of laughs, but its satire allows little room for any depth of character (and I know we must be careful to talk about characterization in regard to ’30s musicals, but the term is used here to compare the piece with other shows of its era), meaning there’s less investment from the audience. Surely, the book can be rescued, but as is often the case with revisals of musicals from this time period, the authenticity would likely be jettisoned, as the revisers try to spoof the show instead of simply presenting it. The book for Red, Hot, And Blue! (which has been published in a revised form) can best be described as an extended sketch. And while I personally am able to overlook thinness of story and character — especially when a score is unbearably brilliant — I know that many others cannot.
And this brings us to the second reason that this show, which I must preface by insisting is utterly fun and certainly charming, will likely not ever be revived (at least, not without major overhauls) is that the score, though composed by Porter in his heyday, is not up to par with his other ’30s works. While the songs for the principals (and even the secondary couple) are truly superb — several have even become standards of the highest caliber and can be called the absolute BEST of Cole Porter — the score has an abundance of ensemble numbers. And unlike other Porter shows we’ve highlighted, those songs are particularly forgettable. (A revival would supplant the score with standards from other works. But I am firmly against that, for that weakens the chances of THOSE shows ever being revived.) This may be the most dichotomous Porter work we’ve ever featured here, and unfortunately, the unevenness of the score (brilliant or blah) contributes to the show’s hindered reputation.
As a Porter junkie, I’ve grown accustomed to the entire score and can admit to liking it all, but even I must confess that the only songs worth your attention, dear readers, belong to the principals — particularly Merman — so those will be the ones that I’ll share with you today. The most well-known number, and in this case, the best from the score, is the duet for Hope and Merman, “It’s De-Lovely,” which they sing as two friends who have fallen for each other, but are casually mocking love. Above is a clip from a 1962 television appearance where the two recreated the number. Below is probably the second best known song from the score, “Ridin’ High,” Merman’s big solo for the end of Act One. (Though the act didn’t end on the number — remember, musicals of this era often ended their acts with dialogue and a brief reprise of a hit tune, in this case “It’s De-Lovely”). Here’s her recording from 1936.
Merman’s opening number was the miraculous “Down In The Depths (On The 90th Floor),” which though certainly not forgotten, should be considered among Porter’s greats. Here’s La Merm again.
Merman and Hope had another duet that I’m surprised never caught on, for it seems like it was also intended to become a hit. Entitled “You’ve Got Something,” this rendition comes from a 2012 Musicals Tonight! production, which, of all the live audios I have of this show, features the best casting. Here’s Christopher Ryan and Lauren Elaine Taylor.
The last Merman number from the score worth mentioning is “You’re A Bad Influence On Me,” which was replaced a few weeks into the run with the more fun, but less musically interesting “The Ozarks Are Calling Me Home.” Here’s the former sung by Allyson Turner, from a live audio of a 2009 production in Sherman Oaks.
Of course Durante got a comedic spot all to himself in “A Little Skipper From Heaven Above,” which was played by Roger Rifkin in the aforementioned Musicals Tonight! production surprisingly well. Here’s his live rendition.
Also of note is the first duet given to the secondary couple, played by Dorothy Vernon and Thurston Crane, entitled “Ours.” (The Hartmans danced while Vernon and Crane crooned.) This is also from the Musicals Tonight! production.
Several numbers were written for or deleted from the score including “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” which has since been slotted into Anything Goes (1934), unfortunately, and a jaunty duet entitled “Who, But You?” Also, there’s a cute little unused number called “Bertie And Gertie” that was recorded on a Ben Bagley album and is featured below.
Most shows would be happy to have this many excellent tunes. (Just stay away from those dreary ensemble numbers.) I suppose I just hold Porter to a higher standard, and with an admittedly trivial book (even in my jurisdiction, and THAT is saying something), his stuff has to overcompensate. As a ’30s musicals, Red, Hot, And Blue! is a cut above the rest. As a Porter musical, Red, Hot, And Blue! is merely a vessel that contains the aforementioned standards. And while not a great candidate for revival, we can at least enjoy it for that — because a Porter melody that’s “red, hot, and blue” is always worth revisiting. Cue the title song!
Come back next Monday for S! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the first season of All In The Family!