Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our two month series on the 1920s book musicals of Rodgers and Hart, a team whose ’30s and ’40s work has been fairly well represented here in the past. But the only ’20s work of theirs covered has been Dearest Enemy (1925). We’re rectifying that now, and so far we’ve covered The Girl Friend (1926), Lido Lady (1926) Peggy-Ann (1926), Betsy (1926), A Connecticut Yankee (1927), She’s My Baby (1928), and Present Arms (1928). Today…
VIII. Chee-Chee (09/25/28 – 10/20/28)
Lorenz Hart and book writer Herbert Fields found inspiration for a new musical comedy in a novel called The Son Of The Grand Eunuch, about Tchou, who is exiled with his wife, Chti, for refusing to comply with his father’s wishes that he be castrated and succeed him as the Grand Eunuch. Out on the road, Tchou finds himself in all kinds of hardships, and each time he is rescued by his resourceful wife, who uses her feminine wiles (a.k.a. sex) to secure her husband’s safety. Finally Tchou relents and agrees to be his father’s successor, while Chti is beheaded for her wrongdoings. Herbert’s father, Lew, agreed to produce, with trepidation, and Richard Rodgers, though throughly baffled by his partner’s choice in source material, set to work on the score, which would end up being one of the most integrated musical theatre works of the decade. (In fact, all of the numbers arose from the action, and some of them were so short that no song list was provided in the program.)
For the stage adaptation, Tchou’s wife became the softer and more likable Chee-Chee, played by Helen Ford, and a happy ending was devised, in which she escapes her punishment and convinces the Prince of Medicine (with her feminine wiles again) to only pretend to castrate her husband, culminating in a joyful resolve for Tchou and Chee-Chee. But no happy ending could turn a story of potential castration into a bouncy musical comedy along the lines of No, No, Nanette (1925) or Good News! (1927) and the show folded within a month. It has since been said that the show was also universally loathed by the critics, but this was actually not the case; there were some raves, and some outright pans, the most famous of which was titled, “NASTY! NASTY!” At any rate, the show failed to draw large enough crowds, and Chee-Chee became a legendary footnote — of a show doomed to fail. (The only production I’ve heard about since its 1928 closing is a 2002 Musicals Tonight! concert.)
As usual, the score is remarkable. Of course, there are only about five or six numbers long enough to be considered “traditional” Rodgers and Hart songs, but they are each divine, and if not for their too-integrated presence within a story of castration, would have likely become standards. Two of the most beautiful are “Moon Of My Delight” (above) and “I Must Love You” (below), which are both performed by Frederica von Stade.
Betty Comden released an album featuring several songs from Chee-Chee and several songs from another forgotten 1928 show, the Gershwins’ Treasure Girl. Some of these numbers have never been recorded elsewhere, like “Dear, Oh Dear.”
These few songs illustrate a score with a remarkable sound — fresh, unique, alive — and it’s a shame that because of the strange subject matter, these songs haven’t received their deserved attention. I’ll close today’s post with a marvelous song, totally unlike anything I’ve ever heard called “Better Be Good To Me,” also from Comden’s album.
Come back next Monday for another Rodgers and Hart musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the final season of Maude!
Hi Jackson, I’ve enjoyed reading your articles and hearing the great music. I recently got the Frederica von Stade sings Rodgers/Hart disc conducted by John McGlinn and was really taken with some of the songs on there, particularly I must love you, ship without a sail, and I didn’t know what time it was. Everyone is familiar with some Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein songs of course, but these tracks were a revelation to me at least. I wondered if you might have some recommendations for other commercial releases of lesser known Rodgers material?
Hi, Blaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I don’t think there are as many seminal Rodgers & Hart compilations as there are for other composers/teams. If you’re interested in hearing more of Rodgers’ work with Hart, I’d start with cast recordings (you’ll find plenty for shows like THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE and PAL JOEY). If you merely want to sample their oeuvre, I’d recommend Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook series, where you’ll hear all the standards, such as “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “A Ship Without A Sail.” Meanwhile, there are always the Bagley discs, which are full of rarities — despite not being as lush and enjoyable as the Von Stade album — should you want to go deeper into their output.
Also, Betty Comden recorded “I Must Love You” and several others from CHEE-CHEE (1928), along with a few numbers from the Gershwin brothers’ TREASURE GIRL (1928) on an album that I enjoy tremendously.
Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll check them out!