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), A Dangerous Maid (1921), and Girl Crazy (1930). Today…
IV. Of Thee I Sing (12/26/31 – 01/14/33)
This legendary work has gone down in history as being the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, setting the template for a host of politically pointed works, including Irving Berlin’s Face The Music (1932), which we covered way back in August of 2013, and Rodgers’ and Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right (1937), coming soon to Musical Theatre Monday. The genesis of Of Thee I Sing began in 1930, with the opening of the Gershwins’ Strike Up The Band, which had a notoriously tortured history (we covered it in July 2013) and a book crafted by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Disappointed by the changes made to the satirical piece as it was forced to become more farcical, the men set out to write a show that could be as socially conscious as they had intended. Their idea was about a presidential election that’s hinged upon which candidate can come up with the best national anthem.
The pair eventually revamped the story into the final version that we know today: a spoof of a presidential race, in which a wily candidate, John P. Wintergreen (William Gaxton), decides that his platform will be love, and with the help of his Campaign Committee, he goes around the country looking for the right girl to marry. During a beauty pageant in Atlantic City, Wintergreen falls for young Mary Turner (Lois Moran), a sweet staffer known for her delicious corn muffins. Unfortunately, the committee selects that his bride to be is the beautiful Diana Devereaux (Grace Brinkley). Although they eventually deem Mary the better choice, Diana does not take kindly to the rebuff and after Wintergreen wins in a landslide (and his inauguration doubles as wedding ceremony), the jilted southern belle vows to seek justice. Her story gains traction when a French Ambassador reveals that Diana is the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon. With diplomatic relations in jeopardy and a promise to Diana broken, Wintergreen’s impeachment proceedings begin, but Mary saves the day by announcing her pregnancy, and he is found innocent. France demands that the baby be given to them, but Wintergreen has a better idea: let his wimpy Vice President, Alexander Throttlebottom (Victor Moore), take on a duty that the President cannot fulfill — marrying Diana. All’s well that ends well.
The 1931 production, which also included George Murphy in a small role, was the first pairing of Gaxton and Moore, who would go on to star in several well known shows together, among them Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) and Berlin’s Louisiana Purchase (1940). The show, which drew parallels between love and politics, was a huge smash, winning a Pulitzer Prize and high accolades for all involved, especially the Gershwins, whose well integrated score was considered a watershed work. Its 13 month run was a huge success, spawning a national tour, and a brief return engagement in the summer of ’33, with Gaxton and Moore in their original roles and Harriette Lake (soon to be known as Ann Sothern) having left the tour to be their Mary. The original trio reunited later that year for a sequel show, Let ‘Em Eat Cake, which we’ll be covering here next week. Several Of Thee I Sing productions followed in the ensuing decades, but the first major revival occurred in 1952 and starred Jack Carson as Wintegreen and Paul Hartman as Throttlebottom. It was lukewarmly received. There was an off-Broadway revival in 1969 and a 90-minute CBS special in 1972, starring Carroll O’Connor, Cloris Leachman, Jack Gilford, and Michele Lee. It was also lukewarmly received.
Many of the original orchestrations, by Robert Russell Bennett, were rediscovered in the early ’80s, and a staged reading in 1987 led to a studio recording. The availability of these new materials has enabled many productions since, including ones by Opera North, Paper Mill Playhouse, and Encores! The piece, though usually chided for being dated, is now appreciated regarded as among the Gershwin brothers’ finest works. It is not difficult to see why; unlike so many pieces of the era, you get so much of the story from the music/lyrics alone, which makes the studio album a very entertaining listening experience. Furthermore, the music is so deftly written, with complex motifs and memorable melodies, anything that may feel creaky and stodgy about the book (which itself has been published many times) is forgiven. Truthfully, I don’t really find the text dated; it’s reflective of its era, and as a piece of political satire, it lays metaphorical groundwork for a lot of works that we see today. Thus, I think it’s a musical that should frequently be revived — especially by schools, for its humor, its significance, and its exquisite craftsmanship.
The score is phenomenal, so I would like to share it all today. But instead, I’ll tell you to seek out the studio recording, and just give you a taste of some of the best numbers, which include the rousing title song. You can find the 1972 TV cast’s rendition of the number above the preceding paragraph. (It’s notable for its camp value.) Two other big hits came from the otherwise too-interconnected-to-pick-out-individual-songs score. The first is “Love Is Sweeping The Country,” which was introduced by George Murphy and June O’Dea as the campaign assistants. The rendition above comes from the studio cast recording. The other is John and Mary’s “Who Cares?”, which is heard below and taken from the 1952 revival.
My favorite lesser known tune from Of Thee I Sing is John’s “A Kiss For Cinderella.” The rendition below is from a live audio of the 2006 Encores! production. (For access to that recording, subscribe and comment below!)
And while there are so many other tracks that I wish to share, I’ll close today’s post with “Posterity Is Just Around The Corner,” which is an obvious play on the quote so often attributed to then President Herbert Hoover. Here’s the great studio cast recording.
Come back next Monday for another George Gershwin musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the second season of WKRP In Cincinnati!