Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our series on Gershwin in the ’20s! Much of this year will be spent finishing off our coverage on the works of some of my favorite composers from the ’20s-’40s. Of George’s output this decade, we’ve already covered Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Treasure Girl (1928), and Show Girl (1929). Last week we featured Sweet Little Devil (1924). Today…
II. Primrose (09/11/24 – April 1925)
In July 1924, George Grossman summoned George Gershwin across the pond to compose the music for a new show that would open in London’s famous Winter Garden Theatre. Gershwin came prepared with a bevy of pre-composed songs (most with lyrics by his brother, Ira, who ended up with a credit), and worked with lyricist Desmond Carter to create a snappy score that’s very British, but distinctly Gershwin. The first book musical (he did the 1924 Ziegfeld Follies in between) that George Gershwin composed following the premiere of “Rhapsody In Blue,” Primrose is the earliest Gershwin score that, in this writer’s estimation, maintains excellence from start to finish. Every song is a winner — memorable melodies, joyful orchestrations, and lyrics that really fit the characters and the situations. The book was written by Guy Bolton, and the plot involves an arranged marriage between Sir Barnaby Falls’ nephew, Freddie (Claude Hulbert), and his young ward, Joan (Margery Hicklin). But Freddie is in love with amateur golfer May Rooker (Vera Lennox), and Joan falls for dashing novelist Hilary Vane (Percy Heming), whose latest work includes a character named Miss Primrose. Complicating matters — and adding to the fun — are Hilary’s aristocratic friend Toby Mopham (Leslie Henson) and his social-climbing fiancé, Pinkie Peach (Heather Thatcher) from whom he’s hoping to extricate himself. Romantic entanglements and songs in 6/8 time abound, making for a fun evening that captured the attention of British theatergoers for a healthy eight month run.
Wonderfully, this is the only Gershwin show for which we have an original cast recording. Because the British had caught on quicker than the Americans about the necessity of preserving (and making some dough on) early theatrical successes of the 20th century, the cast of Primrose recorded about 75% of the score way back in 1924. These renditions are fascinating, because very few of the performers have powerhouse voices. Instead, they talk-sing a good majority of their lyrics and seem to be more interested in creating a character than belting out a gorgeous tune. For example, above is Hicklin’s Joan with “Naughty Baby,” one of the tunes for which Ira received a co-credit.
Also from the 1924 cast are Percy Heming with Hilary’s “Wait A Bit Susie” (above) and Heming and Hicklin with “Some Far-Away Someone” (below), both of which earned Ira more co-credits (the latter also with B.G. DeSylva).
But Primrose never really got a lot of attention after 1925. In the 1950’s, Ella Fitzgerald gave new life to Pinkie’s “Boy Wanted,” which George and Ira initially wrote for A Dangerous Maid (1921), which toured, but never made it to Broadway.
John McGlinn resurrected the piece for a concert at the Library of Congress in 1987. Never before released, the audio of that concert is an absolute treasure. (Subscribe and comment if interested in obtaining the recording.) From that production, here’s Kim Criswell’s Pinkie with “I Make Hay When The Moon Shines.”
Again, every song is a winner and there’s a dozen more I wish I could share in today’s post (like “Isn’t It Wonderful?” “When Toby Is Out Of Town,” and “The Mophams”). But we’ll close with my absolute favorite song from the score. Here’s Jeanne Lehman and Brian Gow with Joan and Freddie’s “Berkeley Square And Kew,” as they prepare for marriage — but with separate living arrangements. (These orchestrations are by Gershwin himself!)
Come back next Monday for another Gershwin musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the fourth season of Sanford And Son!
Thank you for highlighting what I think is a much overlooked gem of British Musical Theatre, made all the more wonderful by an excellent and lively George Gershwin score. Whilst the only recording to have ever been formally released of the score is the original 1924 cast recording (which gives a fascinating insight into the feel and sound of a 1920s British musical comedy), two of its songs were dusted down and inserted into the 1960 revival of Oh Kay! which was released commercially. Unfortunately, the original lyrics in both cases were jettisoned and new ones written by PG Wodehouse – and though the results are technically fine, they lack the quality of the original ones by Ira Gershwin. The songs in question were “When Toby is out of Town” which became “The Twenties Are Here To Stay” (which totally reworks the song so no trace of the original idea behind it is left) and “The Mophams” which becomes (pointlessly) “The Pophams” (where Wodehouse sticks with the original song concept, which was to detail the history of the family of that name, but cheapens the original with unexpectedly coarser lyrics). In doing so, the charm of both songs is made undetectable so it would be wonderful to hear a clearer, more modern recording of Primrose, which, as you so rightly say, is a fully fledged, highly successful Gershwin show with a strong British sensibility – making it a fascinating beast. One hopes that it is a priority on the list of Gershwin shows still to be recorded for commercial release.
Hi, Thos! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Be sure to check out our other Gershwin posts, if you haven’t already!
Excellent article. I would love to hear the recording you mentioned. The more I hear of Gershwin’s music the more I think that he may be the greatest composer of the american musical.
Hi, Finn! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have emailed you at your hotmail address.