Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the conclusion of our “Wildcard” series of posts, each one featuring a notable musical comedy from a composer who’s never been featured in a series of his own! The last few weeks have seen coverage of Lou Hirsch’s Going Up (1917), Harold Arlen’s You Said It (1931), Hoagy Carmichael’s Walk With Music (1940), and Fats Waller’s Early To Bed (1942). Today we’re featuring a work (a song from which has been briefly highlighted in a past Wildcard Wednesday post) by Duke Ellington, one of the most important players in American jazz, beginning with his fabulous work at the Cotton Club. In this post, we’re looking at his first full score to play Broadway…
V. Beggar’s Holiday (12/26/46 – 03/29/47)
A contemporary (and racially integrated) retelling of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Beggar’s Holiday, as mentioned above, is the first complete Broadway score by Ellington, who partnered with the very talented lyricist and bookwriter John La Touche to craft an exciting piece of musicianship. Initially directed by John Houseman, the production wasn’t well received out-of-town and many drastic revisions were made before the Broadway opening; George Abbott was brought in as director to fix some of the book problems, while Libby Holman was fired and new songs were continually being added and dropped. When the show finally opened in New York, neither Houseman nor Abbott, who had since left the production after giving it a much needed overhaul, were credited with the direction — that honor was given to Nicholas Ray, who had previously been the assistant director. The cast included Alfred Drake as MacHeath, Zero Mostel as Hamilton Peachum, Bernice Parks as Jenny, Jet MacDonald as Polly Peachum, Marie Bryant as the Cocoa Girl, Mildred Joanne Smith as Lucy Lockit, and Avon Long as Careless Love. The production opened as a much stronger piece than it had been initially, but while there was praise for both the cast and the score, the book remained a sticking point for most critics.
No original cast recording was made (although there were unsuccessful plans to reunite some of the cast in the ’60s for a complete album), but a selection of demos recorded by members of the original company has been compiled and released. There have also been several concert presentations and a 2012 Paris production yielded a full cast recording, which, unfortunately, isn’t so aurally appealing or representative of the original production. But in any form, the score remains an utter surprise — delightfully so — as evidenced above by my favorite song from Beggar’s Holiday, “Take Love Easy,” sung by original cast member Bernice Parks. (I’ve shared this one before, but it’s just so good!)
Also from the demo recordings, above is Alfred Drake with MacHeath’s best number “I’ve Got Me” and below is Marie Bryant and Avon Long with “The Wrong Side Of The Railroad Tracks.”
From that aforementioned 2012 album, here’s “Tomorrow Mountain,” MacHeath’s first act closer.
And we’ll conclude today’s post featuring a recording of the ousted Libby Holman with “Inbetween.”
Come back next Monday for another forgotten musical! And tune in tomorrow for more Night Court!
Good show. Enjoyed your commentary as usual.
Hi, Bob! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Stay tuned next week for the start of another fun series of forgotten musicals!
Very interesting! Sounds like this show had an engaging score and a good cast. I wonder what was so wrong with the book? After all, some other extremely successful shows have used the same plot. . . . Thanks for giving this show some attention. As always, I enjoyed your commentary.
Hi, Scott! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I’ve read that many felt the problems stemmed from a disconnect — tonally and situationally — between the book, which remained truer to its source material than it maybe should have, and Ellington’s more modern-sounding score.