Welcome to the start of our fifth week on That’s Entertainment! We’re continuing with “The Three Best Gershwin Shows That You’ve Never Heard Of.” Last week’s choice, at #3 on our list, was the gem-laden Treasure Girl. Today’s post features an entirely different selection.
In determining which three shows were worthy of this title, I had to make a few natural exclusions. Porgy And Bess, the Gershwins’ oft-revived masterpiece that had a stint on Broadway last year was definitely not eligible. Neither was the Pulitzer Prize winning Of Thee I Sing, which gets performed often enough. (An Orlando high school did a production of it last year.) And to make things more interesting, the shows that inspired My One And Only, Crazy For You, and Nice Work If You Can Get It – Funny Face, Girl Crazy, and Oh, Kay! respectively — are excluded. If I had chosen to include them, those would actually be my top three choices. So those are the only five musicals that you will not see in these next three weeks. Any other Gershwin Brothers musical is a possibility!
With all that covered, let’s continue with my second choice…
2. Pardon My English (01/20/33 – 02/25/33)
This beautifully melodic score is once again coupled with a problematic book. In the effort of sparing you all a headache, I’ll try to capsule the plot — as it played in the Philadelphia tryout of December 1932. In a spoof of prohibition, Golo, a German bootlegger of soda (prohibited in this fictionalized Germany) develops amnesia after a car accident and assumes the role of a British aristocrat, Michael Bramleigh. As Michael, he romances the police commissioner’s beautiful daughter, Ilse, and they soon announce their engagement. Upon hitting his head again, Golo reverts back to his former self and returns to his moll and gang at the bar. There they hatch a plan to kidnap Ilse in retaliation against her father (played by comic Jack Pearl) for raiding their speakeasy. But then Golo finds himself really falling for Ilse, who still believes him to be Michael. Hijinks ensue. Did you follow me? It’s okay if you didn’t. The Philadelphia critics found the book perplexing and humorless. By the time the show came to New York, the plot had been rewritten: the satire of prohibition had been discarded. And instead of split personalities, Golo/Michael turns to and from kleptomania with each hit on the head. Was this an improvement? Cast changes for both Golo and Ilse didn’t help. The New York critics found the show complicated, silly, and boring. The only highlight it seemed, besides the score, was the ravishing Lyda Roberti as Gita, Golo’s moll.
Blonde Lyda Roberti was a Polish comedienne who became an overnight sensation after appearing in the Arlen/Yellen musical, You Said It (1931). She made numerous films in the mid ’30s before her untimely death in 1938. Aside from Roberta later that year, Pardon My English was her only other Broadway appearance. With her distinct accent and overwhelming beauty, Roberti was an asset to any production. To that end, it’s no surprise that some of the most enduring numbers from Pardon My English were introduced by her. Those include “The Lorelei”, a delightful comic number, and “My Cousin In Milwaukee”, a jazzy vamp that became the show’s biggest hit. The former was eventually given to a pair of dancers who were added to the revised book before it’s Broadway opening.
In Philadelphia, Roberti also duetted on “The Luckiest Man In The World”, which is one of my favorite Gershwin songs of all time. It’s engaging melody and humorously laid lyrics make it an unfortunately neglected classic. By the time the show had reached New York,”Luckiest Man” was rewritten as a solo for Michael alone. Roberti, however, was given two new duets: “Where You Go, I Go” and the title song, which was also cut before opening. In fact, Ira Gershwin would later say that the lyric for “Pardon My English” was the worst he ever wrote. I think that’s an unfair assessment; both the music and lyrics are charming.
Other notable numbers in this Gershwin score that, in terms of sheer beauty, is rivaled only by Porgy And Bess, include Ilse’s bouncy “So What?”, a Friml parody, “The Dresden Northwest Mounted”, the bold and exciting “I’ve Got To Be There”, and Golo and Ilse’s achingly beautiful “Tonight”, which closed the first act during it’s Philadelphia tryouts, but was relocated to early act two by the time it reached New York.
But I’ve saved the show’s best number for last. “Isn’t It A Pity?”, given to Michael and Ilse upon their first meeting, is hands down one of the best Gershwin duets ever written. That music. Those lyrics. ‘S wonderful. Fortunately “Isn’t It A Pity?” has gotten more attention over the years than some of the other songs in the score. One of my favorite renditions is by Sarah Vaughan. Please take a listen.
Because both the script and score for Pardon My English were recovered in 1982, there have been a few productions of this fascinating show! In addition to a concert presentation by John McGlinn in 1987, Encores! did a production in 2004 that was based largely on the Philadelphia script, but used some of the music and placement from the New York overhaul. Additionally, this score HAS been recorded. Not a fabulous representation of the show, but absolutely essential. It’s the best place, and perhaps the ONLY place, to start with this show. http://www.amazon.com/Pardon-English-1993-Studio-Cast/dp/B000005J2N
Come back next Monday for #1 on our list of “The Three Best Gershwin Shows That You’ve Never Heard Of.” And tune in tomorrow for the best episodes from Season Five of I Love Lucy!