1940: A Year In Review (I)

Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday! Today begins a series of six posts that will bring us to the end of 2014 on Broadway musicals of 1940. While my initial intention was to highlight shows that opened in 1939 (since this is the 75th anniversary of that marvelously entertaining year), I realized that 1940 has been represented less frequently on this site — almost criminally so. The only show we’ve covered has been Louisiana Purchase, and since 1940 premiered a handful of great works that deserve our attention, I thought it only fair that we give the year (and the shows within it) their due recognition. We begin with… 

 

I. Higher And Higher (04/04/40 – 06/15/40)

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Rodgers and Hart crafted a melodious score for this genuine flop that featured direction by the renowned Joshua Logan and choreography by the prolific Robert Alton. The cast included Jack Haley, Marta Eggert (a.k.a. Marta Eggerth or Martha Eggerth), Shirley Ross, Leif Erickson, Lee Dixon and Eve Condon. (June Allyson and Vera Ellen were among the ensemble.) The story is set in the mansion of an elite New York family, the Drakes, who have just gone broke — to the chagrin of their staff, who fear unemployment. When the family goes out-of-town, the staff bands together to pass off one of their own as a Drake debutante in the hopes of securing a marriage between the maid and a Stork Club playboy. The returning Drakes, romantic entanglements, and a trained seal named Sharkey abound to “complicate” the “plot.” (I’m not kidding about the trained seal; he reportedly stole the show.)

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Higher And Higher opened with modest reviews — although Jack Haley’s performance was lauded — despite the apprehension of the creatives who had a difficult time with the show both out-of-town (where cutting and pasting, as you know, was a regular phenomenon) and during its creation (when the leading lady was originally written for dancer Vera Zorina, and her material had to be scrapped to accommodate the stylings of Eggert, a Hungarian opera singer). Eggert decided to leave in June and the show closed — for a “hiatus.” Sure enough, they were back up in August, during which bit player Marie Nash stepped up to play the ingenue. And while her reviews were better than Eggert’s, the show folded again in three weeks. There haven’t been any major productions since, although a 1943 film adaptation used Haley and one Rodgers and Hart song to shoehorn newcomer Frank Sinatra into the otherwise intact plot. Entertaining in its own right (with great non-R&H songs and a role for Mary Wickes), it is recommended — but not as a reference point for the stage show.

Higher And Higher is one of the few later works (or post-Hollywood works) of Rodgers and Hart to not get rediscovered. Blame it on the book? I’m sure we could. Blame it on Sharkey? Gimmick though his inclusion appears to be, the audience adored it. Blame it on the score? Absolutely not. As is the case with these brilliant songsters, every song from Higher And Higher is a gem. In fact, though this show is forgotten by most, the score yielded several classics, like Shirley Ross’ “It Never Entered My Mind,” which she recorded (heard above).

Ross recorded three other songs from the score, among them “From Another World,” a group piece for the servants (which included Haley, Eggert, and Ross).

Another moderate hit was “Nothing But You,” sung by Eggert and Erickson, as the millionaire. The recording above is by the always delightful Judy Garland.

Eggert and Erickson also got to duet on perhaps my favorite number from the show, “Ev’ry Sunday Afternoon.” This rendition above is by Dawn Upshaw.

Haley and Ross were also afforded a pair of excellent comedic duets, both of which I’d classify as undeservedly neglected. Above is their opening “A Barking Baby Never Bites,” and below — another one of my personal favorites — is “I’m Afraid.” Both of these renditions come from Ben Bagley’s series of Rodgers and Hart albums.

And we’ll end today’s post with another one of the score’s hidden delights. Also taken from a Bagley, here’s the ensemble’s “Disgustingly Rich.”

 

 

Come back next Monday for a new 1940 musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the final season of All In The Family!

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