Welcome to Musical Theatre Monday and the start of another week on That’s Entertainment! Before jumping back and examining shows of the 1920s, I want to spend the last three Mondays in January featuring some of Porter’s early ’40s work — a period of his that is often overlooked in favor of the more standard-packed ’30s. These three shows all have strong scores, books of middling quality, and unique charms that are distinctly Porter.
1941. Let’s Face It (10/29/41 – 03/20/43)
This incredibly successful farce was adapted from a 1920s play entitled The Cradle Snatchers. Among the company of extraordinarily talented performers were — and just imagine this line-up: Danny Kaye, Eve Arden, Mary Jane Walsh, Nanette Fabray, Edith Meiser, Benny Baker, and Vivian Vance. WOW! (Oh, and Arden’s understudy: Carol Channing!) Unfortunately, recordings of the original cast are few (this is before Oklahoma!, remember), and both the film and TV adaptations are poor examples of the exuberant fun of this little known Porter score. Now what of the book?
The plot concerns three neglected wives (Eve Arden, Edith Meiser, and Vivian Vance) who decide to make their husbands jealous by hiring three Army selectees (Danny Kaye, Benny Baker, and Jack Williams) to escort them around and make their husbands (Joseph Macaulay, Fred Irving Lewis, and James Todd) jealous. But when the selectees’ girlfriends (Mary Jane Walsh, Sunnie O’Dea, and Nanette Fabray) find out about the scheme, they decide to crash the party. When the wives’ husbands return from fishing, the girlfriends decide to turn the tables. (I’ve listed wives, husbands, boyfriends, and girlfriends respective to their counterparts.)
As you can see — the plot is classic farce with a healthy dose of patriotism thrown in. (Note that this show opened only a month-and-a-half before the US entered WWII.) To my knowledge, the script has never been published, but I have a copy of the version used for the Musicals Tonight! concert production. I have to say, I know we’re back in the era of unintegrated musicals, but this is actually a very funny and smartly plotted show. Is it predictable? Yes, but that’s part of its charm. Are the characters thinly drawn? A tad — but the personality of the songs helps to give its characters distinction. Of course, a revival would need to address more of this IN the book, but all that’s to be expected from a 1941 musical comedy.
Naturally, most of the nuances probably came from the cast, whom we can just imagine tearing up the show with their individual charms. I’m thinking most of Danny Kaye — the hot comedian fresh out of Lady In The Dark (1941) who interpolated two of his wife’s songs into the score — and Eve Arden — our favorite sardonic comedienne, and the future Miss Brooks. While the book gives the impression that the roles could be played by anybody, it’s clear to see how the performers’ individual talents would lend themselves most favorably to the roles that were designed FOR them. Contemporary casting agents would need to find performers with similar skills. But none of these details should be major revelations — all of this could apply to most pre-1943 musicals.
What could perhaps be a major revelation is the Porter score. You know he’s my favorite, but believe me when I say — without bias — that every song in the score is a winner. (And that includes the songs written but deleted during rehearsals or before opening.) Now, none of the numbers are on par with the greats from Anything Goes (1934) or Kiss Me, Kate (1948), but as far as forgotten Porter goes, this is the tops! Speaking of tops, what would a Porter score be without its list song? Anything Goes has “You’re The Top,” Jubilee (1935) has “A Picture Of Me Without You,” and Let’s Face It has “Farming.” This was introduced by the three selectees — Kaye, Baker, and Williams — with the latter two’s girlfriends: O’Dea and Fabray. Just revel in these expert lyrics.
Kaye was undoubtedly the star of the show. And while Arden, as the head wife who hires Kaye and his buddies, was his comedic counterpart, Mary Jane Walsh was his love interest (and the show’s big vocalist). She not only closed the first act with the erotic and exotic “Rub You Lamp,” but she got the wonderfully patriotic “Jerry, My Soldier Boy.” I’m pleased to share a rare (never before released) radio recording of Walsh singing this tune.
The big love duet for Walsh and Kaye was the simple — almost bland — but appropriately sweet (which is refreshing amidst the hijinks of the rest of the show and score), “Ev’rything I Love.”
Contrast that duet with the one given to Arden and Kaye. As the comedic leads, they got “Let’s Not Talk About Love.” Well, I should clarify. There exists two lyrics with the same tune: “Let’s Not Talk About Love” and “Let’s Talk About Love.” There is uncertainty regarding whether the latter was performed in the original production, as only “Let’s Not Talk About Love” is listed. However, I think modern day revivals would incorporate both. Here’s Kaye with his “Let’s Not” part.
Arden also led the other two wives (Meiser and Vance) in the comedic “A Lady Needs A Rest.” What I wouldn’t give for a recording of the original three! But alas… This comes from the appendix of 42nd Street Moon’s recording of Leave It To Me! (1938).
Symmetrically, Walsh got to lead her two gal friends (O’Dea and Fabray) in the delicious “Ace In The Hole,” which certainly has more meaning than one. Classic Porter. Here’s Walsh.
Don’t worry, though, Fabray was given another moment to shine. She got a duet with her man — Jack Williams — entitled “You Irritate Me So.” It’s just like it sounds: another “attraction-based-on-repulsion” number. If I may be so bold, these lyrics are kind of LCD Porter, but a catchy tune is a catchy tune, and it’s not difficult to see this number being a standout.
Vance, Todd, Kaye, and Walsh had one of the show’s most memorable moments in “I Hate You Darling,” a simple number that could be played both earnestly and for laughs.
One other number I wanted to highlight was actually cut during rehearsals: “Pets,” featuring some of my favorite Porter lyrics. (Not sure who it was intended for, but I’m assuming Eve Arden.) Take a listen.
Such a fun score, don’t you think? If that taste didn’t quite hit the spot, subscribe and comment for access to full recordings of both the Musicals Tonight and Lost Musicals productions.
Now, for a little treat. (Yes, this is all the footage I have.)
Come back next Monday for another early ’40s Porter show! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Seven of Bewitched!