Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our first series on the works of composer Vincent Youmans, best known today for No, No, Nanette (1925), which we covered here in our string of posts on seminal ’20s musicals. Once a prolific musician highly regarded for his melodies (a “gifted human” according to Cole Porter), Youmans hasn’t been afforded by time the same recognition as some of his contemporaries. Hopefully these posts will illustrate why this obscurity is undeserved. We’re covering every stage score for which Youmans is credited as the main composer, save Nanette and Great Day!, both of which have already been featured. So far we’ve covered Lollipop (1924), A Night Out (1925), Oh, Please! (1926), and Hit The Deck (1927). Today…
V. Rainbow (11/21/28 – 12/15/28)
Largely seen as an attempt to replicate the great success of the dramatically sound Show Boat (1927), Vincent Youmans’ Rainbow, with a book by Laurence Stallings and Oscar Hammerstein II (who also wrote the majority of the lyrics), is another American period piece. The premise concerned a Missouri Captain at Fort Independence who becomes an outlaw after killing an old adversary. He later falls for the colonel’s daughter and disguises himself as a parson as they head on their wagon train for California during the gold rush. The lovebirds marry, but when he opens a gambling house, their relationship sours and they split. Fortunately, love prevails in the end and the duo reunites before the final curtain. (Sound familiar?) The original cast included Allan Prior, Louise Brown, Harland Dixon, Brian Donlevy, Helen Lynd, and Charles Ruggles, who played a comic muleteer named “Nasty” Howell. Libby Holman replaced Francetta Malloy out of town as the prostitute Lotta. Meanwhile, Busby Berkeley choreographed and Max Steiner did the musical direction and orchestrations.
Unfortunately, comparisons to Show Boat were inevitable, and because Rainbow lacked the former’s tight book and consistent score, reviews for Youmans’ new musical were mixed. Poor ticket sales led the show, which had faced numerous disasters during its inception, tryout, and run (including a urinating mule on opening night), to close in under a month with a total loss on its investment. Legends have since arisen about the show and its “ahead of its time” storytelling, which like Hammerstein’s prior work, sought narrative integration of all performative elements. But the show was so lavishly mounted with extravagant expenses that revivals of the show have been scarce. As a result, some of the fine work which Youmans turned out for Rainbow, like so much of his output, has been overlooked. The most popular song at the time was “The One Girl,” which was included in the (since lost) 1930 film Song Of The West, which adapted Rainbow‘s book but used little of the score. Above is a recording of the song by the film’s star, John Boles.
The torchy “I Want A Man,” written when Holman joined the cast has been recorded several times over the past few decades. Above is Debbie Shapiro Gravitte’s rendition.
Two lighter numbers that have been well received by historians include “Diamond In The Rough,” which was melodically based on a song from Lollipop, and the main couple’s bouncy “I Like You As You Are.” The rendition of the former, above, comes from a live recording of a 1986 Off-Broadway production, which uses more interpolations than necessary. (Subscribe and comment below for access to this audio.) The rendition of the latter, below, comes from the Broadway By The Year Series, and is performed by Eddie Korbich & Joyce Chittick.
We’ll close this post with a number cut from the score, one that music critics have since come to call among Youmans’ finest, the rarely recorded “Who Am I (That You Should Care For Me),” with lyrics by Gus Kahn, performed below by Dorothy Louden.
Come back next Monday for another Youmans musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the seventh season of Three’s Company!
An amusing song from this score is “The Bride Was Dressed in White,” a parody of a Victorian tearjerker. It seems a shame that this score isn’t better remembered. Would you send me the audio of the off-Broadway version? I’d love to hear it.
Hi, Scott! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I knew you’d be the first to respond! I have emailed you at your earthlink address.
I’ve always been curious about this show since it was written by Hammerstein and meant to match Show Boat. I would love to hear the audio of the Off-Broadway version. Can’t wait to hear it.
Hi, Roland! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I knew you’d be quick to respond! I have emailed you at your yahoo address.
It’s been interesting reading and listening to these Youmans posts, as I’m currently reading Alec Wilder’s fantastic book “American Popular Song” and just finished the section on Youmans. Wilder essentially concludes that Youmans was a very gifted pop song writer… I don’t entirely disagree with this, but I do think it’s a little unfair. As your posts (like this one) show, he was certainly capable of writing longer form, more “theatrical” songs, but I have a feeling that his lack of consistent collaborators (and in some cases his lack of quality collaborators) made it difficult for him to truly develop this ability.
Youmans is often compared to Gershwin… Gershwin also started essentially as a pop song writer — few of his theatre scores from the early to mid 20s are little more than a collection of barely related song plugs. But for a few reasons, namely his classical aspirations and his consistent work with Ira, his compositional ability was able to truly flower in the 30s with much richer and ambitious scores, in effect giving his entire body of work much stronger staying power. Youmans never quite got to that point. When it comes down to it, he just wasn’t very prolific. His fixation on the production side of things seems to have gotten in the way of gaining the requisite compositional experience for mastering the art of writing theatrical scores (whether for comedy or drama).
I don’t think Youmans had enough experience under his belt to fully deliver the score that Rainbow required, even if he did have the raw talent. Kern had written or contributed to around 25 scores by the time he wrote Show Boat, and Gershwin had written about 20 scores by the time he wrote Of Thee I Sing — neither of them could have done as good of a job with these challenging scores had they attempted to write them earlier in their careers. Youmans had written only 7 scores by the time he wrote the ambitious Rainbow… seems like he just wasn’t properly equipped yet, in the same way that Gershwin wasn’t adequately prepared to tackle something as experimental as Strike Up the Band in 1927 (although the experience was certainly crucial in the development of his abilities). I guess practice makes perfect, even for “gifted humans.” Reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule.
I don’t know much about Youmans the man, but I wonder how difficult he was to work with — that would certainly explain the revolving door of collaborators and the inconsistency of his work (although I’m sure his poor health was probably a major factor as well).
Sorry for the rambling! It’d be fascinating to hear the Off-Broadway audio for Rainbow if you have a chance to send it to me. Thanks!
Hi, Michael! Thanks for reading and commenting. I have emailed you at your gmail address.
I got the Wilder book at a street fair when I was working in New York last summer; it’s become one of my favorites! Youmans’ output is much thinner than the other notable composers you mentioned, and I think his refusal to “earn his stripes” (if you will) hindered the possibility of his concocting a score with both weight and longevity. RAINBOW is a fascinating listen and certainly some of Youmans’ finest, but it’s far from a SHOW BOAT (1927). To Wilder’s point, the composer’s most notable work has ended up being NO, NO, NANETTE (1925), and that’s often discredited for its seemingly less ambitious (and more “pop”) sound, (but, as I’m sure we could agree, NANETTE is an almost unanimously brilliant musical offering). If Youmans were content with continuing in this vein until other opportunities presented itself, maybe we would be more often speaking his name in the same breath as Gershwin’s.
Stay tuned next week for the last post in our Youmans series!
Having also just read Alec Wilder’s AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, I was delighted to find your blog and learn a bit more about Youmans, who has not been as high on *my list* as perhaps he deserves. What a gift you’ve given us! I look forward to learning more from you and other readers.
Hi, Caliope! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I appreciate your kind words — hope you enjoy all the Youmans delights here!
Great post. I never had never heard of this show until reading this post. I’d love to heard the recording, even with its interpolations.
Hi, Fin! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have emailed you at your hotmail address.
i would love to hear more of Rainbow. Discovering your blog has been a real treat. Not being born in the composer’s era, or living near New York, your blog has given me a chance to experience the musical creativity of the period. I know not everything was great but one can see the composer’s developmrnt.
Hi, Donna! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have emailed you at your cs address.
I have particularly enjoyed the Youmans posts and would love here this score in its entirety.
Hi, Craig! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have emailed you at your gmail address.
I would love to hear the score of “Rainbow”, please send the 1986 Off-Broadway production.
Hi, F.R.! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have emailed you at your sascholar address.