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), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931). Today…
V. Let ‘Em Eat Cake (10/21/33 – 01/06/34)
History hasn’t been so kind to this flop sequel to last week’s Pulitzer Prize winning Of Thee I Sing. Although it features the same book writers, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, along with the same three leads (Gaxton, Moore, and Moran) and another mature musical score by the Brothers Gershwin, Let ‘Em Eat Cake has long since been considered the darker, more caustic, and ultimately unnecessary continuation of the satire employed in the team’s previous effort. The decision to do a sequel came after Ryskind’s publication of his novel The Diary Of An Ex-President (1932), which was written in the voice of Of Thee I Sing‘s John P. Wintergreen. For the musical, he and Kaufman concocted a story that concerned Wintergreen’s successful attempt to overthrow the American government (with the help of an agitator played by Philip Loeb) after his failure to win the reelection. But the Fascist regime soon turns on the former president, his wife, and his VP, forcing the trio into a quandary. The play ends happily, but the narrative itself was considered dramatic and unpleasant. Let me tell you why: although Wintergreen was mocked in Of Thee I Sing, Let ‘Em Eat Cake uses him as an anti-hero, necessitating that he be somewhat unlikable. (And in a musical comedy of 1933, this was not a welcome development!) Also, the piece’s raison d’être was unclear: do they want audiences to reject Wintergreen (and Fascism), or root for his corrupt return to power? Well, I suppose the ending tells us that the American system is much better than the alternative, but then why go through all the trouble in the first place, right?
Furthermore, the show’s satire was harsher, but less focused, criticizing (as opposed to the former show’s lampooning) everything about the system, and then taking its story away from reality and onto a more heightened “this could happen to us” tract. But this shift keeps the show from being relatable and, in the meantime, alienates an audience unprepared for its seemingly uninvited bitterness. Interestingly, while Boston audiences considered Let ‘Em Eat Cake a worthy successor to the team’s first offering, New York critics were mostly turned off by its failure to measure up to the former, and the word of mouth killed the show. Unfortunately, I must agree with the Manhattanites, for I find the show unfunny (except for the gag about his turning the Supreme Court into a baseball team that competes against the League of Nations) and try-hard. While I don’t discredit a musical comedy from trying to reach themes of a more dramatic weight, I never want a show to subvert its function as a piece of entertainment in favor of something loftier. Let ‘Em Eat Cake, while not preaching, does aim for importance. But it aims too hard, for unlike Of Thee I Sing, which exists as a comedic satire of American politics, this sequel wants to show the festering discontent, seemingly believing that merely the presentation of this unhappy anarchist thinking is a way to earn relevance. But of course, relevance can only exist when there’s something worthwhile being said. There’s no need for Let ‘Em Eat Cake, so I can’t forgive an unfunny script; it doesn’t work for me.
As for the score, it was deemed inferior at the time. Recent scholars, who judge by all the material that survives (there are still a few numbers missing), tend to credit George as having crafted some of his most sophisticated work. Truthfully, while I can recognize a more classical, and perhaps operatic, approach to the score, the lack of fun hampers its memorability. In fact, the only tune with longevity has been John and Mary’s “Mine,” which has often been incorporated into revivals of Of Thee I Sing. It’s a classic. The rendition above coves from the 1952 revival of Of Thee I Sing.
Two other numbers of which I am particularly fond include “Comes The Revolution,” introduced by Moore’s Throttlebottom, and the ensemble’s “Blue, Blue Blue,” which they sing as the White House is painted blue — the color of their revolution. The former is sung above by Bobby Short, and the latter, below, comes from the 1987 studio cast (recorded in tandem and with the same cast as the Of Thee I Sing album).
After the album, productions of Let ‘Em Eat Cake have been regular, although with less frequency than its predecessor. Sometimes the two shows are even done in repertory (like at Opera North in 2009 — subscribe and comment below if interested in an audio of this production). Unfortunately, what is usually performed is more reconstruction than reproduction, and generally less authentic than what’s presented of Of Thee I Sing. One number, “Let ‘Em Eat Caviar” is missing entirely. In the recording and subsequent productions, it’s been replaced by “First Lady And First Gent,” a breezier number likely cut before Boston due to its anachronistic tone. Not surprisingly, I like it — for it’s got that classic Gershwin bounce (lacking in much of the actual score). We’ll close today’s post with the studio recording below.
Come back next Monday for another George Gershwin musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the third season of WKRP In Cincinnati!