Welcome to a new week on THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! Today we’re finishing our 15-week series on forgotten musicals that are ripe for reviving! Each Monday, we’ve been covering a different show from the years in between two landmarks: Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943). This period, the years immediately preceding the “Golden Age”, encompasses the entirety of the Great Depression, and represents an oft maligned period of the American musical’s history. Many of the shows from this era are considered unworthy of reviving because, despite electrifying scores by some of the best composers Broadway has ever known, their comparatively trivial books could only be carried by the unique and dynamic stars of the era. But such thinking only deprives theatre goers of the musical thrills that once helped make Broadway the landmark that it is today. The musicals that we’ve covered over these past 14 weeks deserve re-examination. They deserve to be seen again. These shows are worth it.
So far we have covered Whoopee! (1928), Sweet Adeline (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), The Band Wagon (1931), Face The Music (1932), As Thousands Cheer (1933), Revenge With Music (1934), Jubilee (1935), Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (1936), Hooray For What! (1937), Leave It To Me! (1938), Too Many Girls (1939), Louisiana Purchase (1940), and Lady In The Dark (1941). We’ve finally reached the end of our run with 1942, the year before Oklahoma! As the country’s first wartime year in over two decades, the quantity of excellent musical comedies took a slight and temporary dip. However, there were two strong shows of the year that were up for consideration in today’s post. I was almost going to write about This Is The Army, but I wondered how 2013 audiences would cotton to a current revival. So I decided to go with a musical with an equally strong score, but featuring more of an emphasis on fantasy.
1942. By Jupiter (06/03/42 – 06/12/43)
Initially titled All’s Fair, this Rodgers and Hart musical adaptation of the play The Warrior’s Husband (1932) (which starred a pre-Hollywood Katharine Hepburn) starred Ray Bolger, Benay Venuta, Constance Moore, Ronald Graham, Bertha Belmore, and Vera-Ellen. Though you’re probably unfamiliar with everyone but Bolger — MGM’s Scarecrow — this was an A+ cast singing the songs of an A+ songwriting duo. But what of the book? Well, it was adapted by the songsmiths themselves! The story is a satirical look at an old Greek myth…
The story opens after Zeus has ordered that, as one of his twelve labors, Hercules must steal the girdle from Hippolyta (Venuta), Queen of the Amazons. The Greeks have stationed near the Amazon camp — ready for battle. At the Amazon palace, Pomposia (Belmore) presents her son, Sapiens (Bolger), in the hopes of marrying him off. After some initial flirting between Sapiens and Hippolyta, Hippolyta is alerted of two approaching Greeks. Upon her return, she introduces Sapiens to her sister Antiope (Moore), before escorting him off for private business. The foreigners are announced: Theseus (Graham) and Homer. They demand Hippolyta’s girdle and she throws them out. But, Theseus steals back to flirt with Antiope. Soon word approaches that a Greek army is less than a week away. Hippolyta realizes that she must marry Sapiens to gain access to his mother’s weaponry. A quick ceremony occurs, and the Amazons rush off to battle — leaving Sapiens at home to knit.
In the Greek camp, we meet the buff but wimpy Hercules. In the Amazon camp, Sapiens arrives to claim his honeymoon, but Hippolyta is too busy for romance. A Greek delegation enters and announces a personal challenge from Hercules to Hippolyta. They drink to the upcoming battle, and Hippolyta exchanges girdles with Antiope. Sapiens shows Antiope how to REALLY get a man defenseless — kiss him. Theseus and Hercules arrive, and while the latter hides, the former battles Antiope. But she uses her newfound technique and kisses him senseless. He happily carries her off, unaware that she’s wearing the girdle. When Hippolyta realizes what has happened, Sapiens insists that he help retrieve the girdle. In the camp, however, Antiope has removed it during a love scene with Theseus, and it is picked up and tried on by four Greek courtesans. After some horsing around between the girls and Sapiens, it is announced that Theseus and Antiope have eloped. As the Greeks and Amazons fraternize, Sapiens realizes that the courtesans have placed the girdle on him. So, as King of the Amazons, he finally presents the girdle to Hercules. “You may have to let it out a little!”
One of the most interesting things about the show is the representation of men and women. Bolger’s effeminacy is used comedically and in contrast to the brutish strength of Hippolyta. Though some were troubled by this representation, the general public adored Bolger and the campy romp. Then again the message is made clear: you can challenge social norms as long as you can do it with music and comedy. (And a couple of stars don’t hurt either!)
As the final full score written by Rodgers and Hart (though they’d write six new songs in 1943 for a revival of A Connecticut Yankee), it bristles with fun. Note too that the ensemble numbers have been growing more and more story-oriented. Or rather, more SPECIFIC to the story and the characters. Of course, while there were strong opening numbers for both the Greeks and the Amazons — “For Jupiter And Greece” and “Jupiter Forbid” respectively, there’s a peripherally old-fashioned drinking song, “Bottom’s Up.” But this isn’t a normal drinking song, this is a swinging drinking song.
Not surprisingly, our dancing comic headliner, Mr. Bolger, didn’t get the best numbers. But it’s interesting to imagine exactly what he did with them — he was an entertainer, after all. He led the Act One Finale, “No, Mother, No” in which he fussed about his wardrobe during his wedding day, and “Now That I’ve Got My Strength,” in which the camp-followers (read: hookers) help restore his masculinity.
Perhaps the most memorable of Bolger’s solo spots was his opening, “Life With Father,” which turned into a dance routine between mother and son.
He and Venuta only got one duet, but it is one of the show’s most unique. Entitled “Everything I’ve Got,” it’s one of the strangest attraction-based-on-repulsion duets you’ve ever heard. Listen to a rare recording of Bolger performing it on the radio:
The “lovers” got the best tunes. Graham led two numbers all by himself — “The Gateway Of The Temple Of Minerva,” a ballad which turns into a boogie-woogie scat tune near the end, and “Wait Till You See Her,” a future standard that was actually cut early in the Broadway run.
Constance Moore as Antiope (eventually replaced by Nanette Fabray) had the show’s biggest hit, “Nobody’s Heart.” I’d venture to say that this is maybe my favorite Rodgers and Hart song of the ’40s. “I admire the moon as a moon, just a moon.”
Theseus and Antiope joined together for Act One’s “Here’s A Hand” and Act Two’s “Carless Rhapsody.” The latter is another gem — so beautifully and syncopatingly rendered with honest, genuine lyrics. Not a simple honesty like Berlin’s, but a wise honesty much like Porter’s and Arlen’s. This is another one of my favorites.
A peripheral character, the Amazonian Jane Manners (as Buria), led the first number of Act Two, “The Boy I Left Behind,” one of the show’s catchiest numbers with some of the cleverest lyrics.
By Jupiter was one of the few musicals of the time to play over a year. A smash success in 1942, it never seemed to generate the same renewed interest as Pal Joey (1940) or Babes In Arms (1937). A film adaptation was proposed in 1943 but never materialized. A revival in 1967 used a small arrangement with supplemental material by Fred Ebb. It is the only full recording we have of this score. In the past 25 years, a few small productions have been mounted, but with little fanfare. What’s the deal? This isn’t Rodgers and Hart’s best show, but it is an excellent one — with several known and unknown treasures. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading the book, but I’d imagine it (like most pre-Oklahoma! musicals) might need some tweaking. Though with Rodgers and Hart writing both the libretto and score, I can’t imagine that it’s as thin as most musicals of the time. Could it be the the gender-reversed characters? Perhaps without Ray Bolger and Benay Venuta, it doesn’t come across as funny.
But I think audiences of 2013, more than ever, would be open to a show like this today. The trick is rooting the comedy in something a little more truthful. By fleshing out the characters with moments of pathos, I could envision the antics of the dainty Sapiens and the muscular Hippolyta delighting audiences through song, dance, and laughter. Sounds to me like it’d make for an entertaining night of musical theatre.
Come back next week as we begin something new on Musical Theatre Mondays! And remember to tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Three of The Lucy Show!