Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the conclusion 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. In this series we’ve covered Walk A Little Faster (1932), Banjo Eyes (1941), The Lady Comes Across (1942), Jackpot (1944), and Sadie Thompson (1944). Today…
VI. Sweet Bye And Bye (CT: 10/10/46 – 11/05/46: PA)
This notorious flop that never made it to Broadway featured a marvelous creative team that included humorist S.J. Perelman and cartoonist Al Hirschfeld as the book writers and Duke with poet Ogden Nash delivering the score. Initially titled Futurosy but changed to the above before opening, the story is set in 2076 and involves the opening of a time capsule from the 1939 World’s Fair. Among the contents of the box is a contract that gives control of the largest candy company in the world, Futurosy, to the eponymous descendant of Solomon Bundy, who turns out to be a meek Brooklyn tree surgeon. With the help of the villainous general manager, Egon Pope, and image consultant Diana January, with whom Solomon develops a romance, the new CEO is transformed into a smug egomaniac, alienating even Diana. Discovering the evils of modern capitalism, he vows to win Diana back — and does so, rejecting his new position in the process.
Aside from the disconnect between the jokey book and the heavier scorer that plagued the show throughout its development and tryout, the two major principles had to be replaced during the run. Leading lady Pat Kirkwood had a nervous breakdown during rehearsals and had to be replaced by the young Dolores Gray (reportedly a much better fit anyway), and the leading man, Gene Sheldon, refused to play the scenes, opting instead to go into his vaudeville shtick during the opening performance in New Haven. He was replaced with comic Erik Rhodes by the time they opened in Philadelphia. In the meantime, the script was lobotomized as the score seemed to change every single night, with each revision considered a dilution of Duke and Nash’s original efforts. After poor reviews, the metaphorical towel was thrown in the metaphorical ring, and the show closed before making it to Broadway.
Tommy Krasker discovered the complete score in the mythical Secaucus warehouse and pushed to see the piece resurrected in some form. In 2011, P.S. Classics finally released a studio album (with new orchestrations) that attempted to present Sweet Bye And Bye in the light in which Duke and Nash seemed to intend. (I won’t be sharing much of it here because I encourage that interested parties seek it out for themselves here.) The album was very highly received, with some scholars (like Krasker) deeming the never-before-heard score one of the decade’s best. Truthfully, I find these sentiments complete hyperbole, inseparable from the rare excitement of uncovering a forgotten piece by artists of this pedigree. Don’t misunderstand me — P.S. Classics issued a fantastic recording, and almost all of the songs included are extraordinary, with ingenious melodies and intelligent lyrics. (In fact, some of this stuff may be among Duke’s best.) But, collectively, the score lacks the charm or cohesion of popular musicals of the mid to late ’40s, suffering from its overly ambitious story and unfortunately disjointed gestation.
But, again, although the album makes apparent some of the show’s major flaws, there are some musical masterpieces here, several of which made their way into later Duke revues like Two’s Company (“Round About” and “Just Like a Man”, the latter of which is performed by Bette Davis above) and The Littlest Revue (“Born Too Late”, taken from the 2011 album, and featured up thread).
However, the studio album’s biggest revelations to me were “Diana” (above), which features Nash’s best work for the show, and the main lovers’ duet, “Too Enchanting” (below), perhaps the score’s most conventional, but nevertheless warmest and most reminiscent of Vernon Duke’s gift of granting us melodic bliss.
Come back next Monday for another rare musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the third season of Taxi!