Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our six week series on the yet-to-be covered ’30s scores of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, whose work from both the ’20s and ’40s has been well represented here. The only featured shows of theirs from the ’30s — my favorite musical decade — have been Ever Green (1930), Jumbo (1935), On Your Toes (1936), and Too Many Girls (1939). So we still have some rich area to cover! So far in this series, we’ve highlighted Simple Simon (1930), America’s Sweetheart (1931), and Babes In Arms (1937). Today . . .
IV. I’d Rather Be Right (11/02/37 – 07/09/38)
With a book by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and a tap-dancing FDR portrayed by Mr. Broadway himself, George M. Cohan, I’d Rather Be Right was one of the most anticipated musicals of the decade. Intended to be a biting political satire, the show garnered a reputation for possible controversy from appreciative audiences during the Boston and Baltimore tryouts. Of course, when the production opened in New York, it couldn’t quite live up to its hype. Yes, the show was novel for lampooning a sitting president, but the mocking was more loving than scathing (to the chagrin of Cohan, who quarreled with everyone during the production). Nevertheless, it was a hit and became the 11th longest running musical of the decade. The premise, which was structured as a dream, involved a pair of lovers running into FDR in the park. They’re depressed because they can’t get married, due to the Depression. FDR vows to come to their aid — he’ll balance the budget, the economy will improve, the hero will get a raise, and they’ll be able to wed. The rest of the book, which was nevertheless subtitled a “musical revue”, involved FDR’s attempts to balance the budget. (There was even a spoof of the Federal Theatre Project!) Sounds fun, right?
Critics of then and now have decried Rodgers and Hart’s score for not being up to their usual standard of the time. Indeed, the only real hit was the main love song, “Have You Met Miss Jones?” The rendition above is by Sam Browne and the Jack Hylton Orchestra.
But there’s no shortage of memorable songs. When James Cagney played Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), he performed Cohan’s 11 o’clock number from I’d Rather Be Right, “Off The Record.” Although not all of the written lyrics were included, above is Cagney’s rendition.
The title song, for the lovers, existed in two incarnations, with the first having been scrapped during tryouts. While the initial version was repurposed in the ’40s, the second “I’d Rather Be Right” is one of the show’s most catchy. Above is a performance from BBC Radio 2 in the ’80s. (Thanks to a regular reader for this recording!)
One number that has gained traction among singers and fans is “Ev’rybody Loves You,” intended for the female ingenue at the start of the second act, but cut during the tryout. Above is Joan Morris’ rendition.
Fortunately, although only half of the score has been recorded in the studio, there exists an audio of a concert production from the ’80s. It is the only opportunity to hear several of the numbers. Above is “Sweet Sixty-Five,” which has been recorded, and “A Baby Bond (For Baby),” which hasn’t. The latter is the score’s unsung gem. (For access to this audio, which unfortunately isn’t of great sound quality, please subscribe and comment below!)
Come back next Monday for another Rodgers and Hart musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the fourth season of The Jeffersons!
Hi, Jackson! Thanks for shining some light on this somewhat neglected show. Maybe it’s just too dated for revival — but I enjoy the topicality because the FDR years hold so much interest. Please send me the recording of the concert performance. Whatever the quality, I’d love to hear it.
Hi, Scott! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have emailed you at your earthlink address.
Hi Jackson. Thanks for shedding light on this show. I’m so fascinated by the political musicals of the 30s, but this one always seems to be left out of the discussion. Perhaps it’s because, in using real, living political figures, the show was (understandably) constrained to the extent that it could do little more than show some “derisive affection” (as HG Wells said when he reviewed the show) for FDR. Or perhaps the star simply overwhelmed and overshadowed the material.
I love how among all of the political musicals of that decade, no two are alike in tone. Unfortunately, I think American culture is far too cynical now to ever have room for this sort of gentle satire.
Would love to hear the concert audio if you could send it to me. Thanks!
Hi, Michael! Thanks for reading and commenting. I have emailed you at your gmail address.
I think the show’s political overtones were muted by the farcical premise, which because of its silliness, was structured as a dream. If the material wanted to be anything more than fun, it would have been based in reality. But ultimately, Wells was right: they could have been much tougher on FDR. If they hadn’t been as timid, I think we’d be talking about I’D RATHER BE RIGHT much more often today. (Of course, a few more standards wouldn’t have hurt either . . .)
I’ve read all your Rodgers and Hart articles and this score along with Peggy Ann are the two I haven’t heard of those that have been recorded. I would be delighted to have this.
Hi, Craig! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have emailed you at your gmail address.