Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our first series on the works of Vernon Duke, a marvelous composer whose contributions to musical theatre and the classic American songbook are not praised as much as their merit warrants. On Musical Theatre Mondays, we’ve covered Duke’s work for Cabin In The Sky (1940) and both the 1934 and 1936 editions of The Ziegfeld Follies. Now, we’re delving a little deeper, featuring some of the composer’s lesser known scores, which are filled with an embarrassment of riches. So far we’ve covered Walk A Little Faster (1932), Banjo Eyes (1941), The Lady Comes Across (1942), and Jackpot (1944). Today…
V. Sadie Thompson (11/16/44 – 01/06/45)
A musical version of Rain, a Maugham story that was adapted several times for the stage and screen (including in 1932 with Joan Crawford), Sadie Thompson concerns a prostitute whose boat from San Francisco to Sydney is temporarily docked in Pago Pago, where a pious reverend attempts to reform her — but then gives into his baser instincts and rapes her. Great fodder for a musical, right? While Duke and Howard Dietz were brought on to provide the musical score, Dietz and the legendary Rouben Mamoulian handled the book. Ethel Merman was initially engaged as Sadie, but walked out during rehearsals when she reportedly challenged Dietz over a lyric that included a reference to a lipstick brand of which she’d never heard and then sought to have her husband come aboard as lyricist. At least, that’s how the myth goes… More than likely, however, she recognized that her first attempt at a big ACTING role was best to not occur in a piece that didn’t lend itself to musicalization. (Duke came to this realization and seemed to parody his misstep with Bette Davis in the 1952 revue Two’s Company.) June Havoc replaced Merman and took the show to Broadway following a tortuous out-of-town tryout, where many songs came and went.
Upon opening, the reviews were generally kind to Havoc, with most considering her a worthy successor to Jeanne Eagels (who originated the role on stage), but the show did not get raves. Was this a legitimate drama, in the vein of Oklahoma! (1943), or a musical comedy with little concern other than making time for South Sea Island jungle dancing? As for the score, it got mixed reviews as well. However, due to a 2002 Studio Cast recording, Broadway aficionados now have the opportunity to judge Duke and Dietz’s material for themselves. (Well, most of it… the recording is a hodgepodge of Broadway songs, out-of-town songs, and rehearsal songs… with the Broadway score not entirely represented. The result is a bit disjointed.) But the album reveals a handful of tunes that I would say, without hesitation, to be among Duke’s finest work for the stage (second only to The Cabin In The Sky). Furthermore, Dietz’s lyrics, while not noticeably extraordinary, are perfectly enjoyable — fitting the tunes upon which they hang. Out of all the shows in this Duke series, Sadie Thompson has the richest offerings. However, in terms of the storytelling, the score does not contribute to nor enhance the drama. It merely extends it. And if one wants to see the story of Sadie Thompson, the impression given is that it would be better to seek out the much less diluted Rain.
However, as noted above, many of the numbers are marvelous when taken individually, especially “The Love I Long For,” Sadie’s big spot and the show’s closest thing to a hit. It is performed above by Judy Kaye.
In fact, Sadie did get the best numbers, including “Poor As A Church Mouse” and “If You Can’t Get The Love You Want,” the latter of which was added during the Broadway run. Both renditions, above and below, come from Ben Bagley albums — the first is performed by Dolores Gray, and the second is performed by Tammy Grimes.
The studio album, which isn’t great due to its lack of completeness and occasionally synthesized tracks, offers unique samplings that you won’t find elsewhere, including the Reverend’s “Garden In The Sky.” Here it is below.
For an example of Dietz’s best work, check out the delightful “Life’s A Funny Present,” taken below from an album of the same name.
And we’ll close today’s post with my pick for Vernon Duke’s best non-Cabin song of the 1940s: Sadie and her love interest Tim’s “Sailing at Midnight,” taken below from the studio album.
Come back next Monday for another Duke musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the second season of Taxi!