Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our six week series on the yet-to-be covered scores of George Gershwin. Although we’ve highlighted a lot of the master composer’s work in the past, the entries in this series are either really early in his career or those I initially deemed too popular and well known to be considered “forgotten.” But the time has come to give all of his brilliant work fair play, and so far we’ve highlighted La-La-Lucille! (1919) and A Dangerous Maid (1921). Today…
III. Girl Crazy (10/14/30 – 06/06/31)
As one of the shows initially deemed too well known to be included on Musical Theatre Mondays, Aarons and Freedley’s Girl Crazy has earned its place in the history books for giving a Broadway debut to Ethel Merman, one of the theatre’s most legendary performers. On opening night, a star was born: she had three numbers and brought the house down with each one. But although the show has become more a part of Merman’s narrative than any other’s, she was not the lead. The book, by Guy Bolton and John McGowan, concerned Danny Churchill (Allen Kearns), a New York playboy who is shipped out to Custerville, Arizona by his father in an attempt to straighten him out. But Danny, who falls in love with local postmistress Molly Gray (Ginger Rogers), brings the bright lights of the city out west and converts the family’s farm into a gambling, boozy, babe-filled dude ranch. Complicating matters is a love triangle involving Molly and Danny’s New York rival Sam Mason (Donald Foster), who sweeps the former off her feet after a big win at the casino and rides off which Danny’s girl (until she comes to her senses and avoids his drunken advances). Meanwhile, Danny becomes friends with Gieber Goldfarb (Willie Howard), a cabbie who becomes sheriff. Merman plays a saloon singer from San Francisco, Kate Fothergill, whose no-account gambling husband, Slick (William Kent) gives her some heartache. Naturally, things work out in the need: Boy gets Girl and the villains are punished. (Oh, and Lew Parker, That Girl‘s Daddy, had a small part too!)
The show was an unqualified hit. In addition to the breakout performance of Ethel Merman, the show featured a marvelous cast of performers, including Ginger Rogers — yes, THE Ginger Rogers — who got to dance with Fred Astaire for the first time in her career when the producers brought him in to help with some of the choreography. But beyond the players, both the book and score were praised by 1930 theatergoers. Critics today take a less kinder view of the book than they did back then; as always, there are cries of “dated” and “thin”, but compared to other works of the time, Girl Crazy features more cohesion between song and story than you’d expect. (It’s a Gershwin show, remember?) This is probably why it was turned into a film three times — in 1932 (featuring a brand new Gershwin song), 1943 (with Garland and Rooney), and in 1965 as When The Boys Meet The Girls. All three used a handful of the tunes, but made alterations to the book. 1932 is most faithful to the story, while 1943 uses more of the score. In 1992, a Gershwin jukebox, Crazy For You, musical supposedly adapted from Girl Crazy opened on Broadway. The premise is dramatically different and only five songs from the original score are used.
There have been a handful of small scale Girl Crazy revivals over the years, along with limited concert productions. The score is always extolled as superb, and it’s not difficult to see why. In fact, of all the Gershwin shows we’ve covered here in the past two-and-a-quarter years, Girl Crazy may be the most consistent — and my favorite. Yes, every single song is a winner. Of course, the big hit, thanks to Merman, is “I Got Rhythm.” I featured that number in my first post on Ethel Merman, way back in July 2013. The rendition, heard above, is from a live performance of Merman (with George at the piano) in an unreleased April 1931 (when the show was still running) newsreel. It’s the earliest surviving record of her singing the number.
Although “I Got Rhythm” became La Merm’s first anthem, the first song Kate had in the show was the jazzy “Sam And Delilah.” She recorded it in 1961; hear it above. Her final number, the bluesy “Boy! What Love Has Done To Me!,” went unrecorded by its originator. Nancy Walker’s rendition several decades later is well known, but I’m sharing this version, performed by Ana Gasteyer and taken from an audio of the 2009 Encores! production, which uses a faster tempo.
Next to “I Got Rhythm,” the standard with the most longevity is Danny and Molly’s “Embraceable You.” Here’s an unreleased rendition by Ginger Rogers herself, recorded in the mid ’60s.
Rogers also recorded her Act Two solo, “But Not For Me,” my favorite non-Merman number from the score. I think this is truly some of both Gershwin brothers’ finest work and emblematic of the high quality material that they produced for Girl Crazy.
An example of the Western sound in which the Gershwins imbued a lot of score can be found in “Bronco Busters,” heard below by Judy Garland and company in an outtake from the soundtrack of the 1943 MGM film.
There are so many marvelous numbers that I’d love to share with you here, but we’ll close today’s entry with one of my favorite Gershwin duets, Danny and Molly’s “meet not-so-cute”, “Could You Use Me?” Here’s the rendition from the highly recommendable 1990 studio cast album, which you can purchase here. (For access to that aforementioned Encores! recording and/or a 1987 concert conducted by John Mauceri, subscribe and comment below!)
Come back next Monday for another George Gershwin musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the first season of WKRP In Cincinnati!