Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our series on the early musical theatre works of Jerome Kern, the brilliant composer whose complete scores from 1920 onward have been highlighted here over the past three years. Now we’re going back to the beginning — well, almost the beginning. So far in this series we’ve covered Nobody Home (1915), Very Good Eddie (1915), Have A Heart (1917), and Love O’ Mike (1917). Today, we’re moving on to…
V. Oh, Boy! (02/20/17 – 03/30/18)
The third “Princess Theatre show” to actually play in the Princess Theatre, Oh, Boy! also marked the second full collaboration of Kern with Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, the trio that found themselves hailed as musical comedy deities following the success of this landmark production. As we’ve seen in past weeks, the formula for these smart, but effervescently fun romps known as the “Princess Theatre shows” was increasingly being honed in each ensuing work, and the series enjoyed a huge uptick in quality when Wodehouse finally entered the picture with Have A Heart (opening only a little more than a month before Oh, Boy!). By the time of this masterwork, everything had officially fallen into place, and the critics followed suit — falling all over themselves in their attempts to heap unique praise on what was already being considered a breakthrough in terms of seamless musical comedy storytelling. You see, not only was the singing and dancing enjoyable, but there was a convivial story that both made rational sense and tied neatly into the musicality. Everything, for once, came together with apparent ease — and for perhaps the first time, in a product that was uniquely American.
You can read the libretto here, thanks to the NYPL, but because this is such an important work, let me give you the beats of the plot (and it’s a farce, so do try to keep up)… George Budd (Tom Powers) has just eloped with Lou Ellen Carter (Marie Carroll), without the permission of his Quaker Aunt Penelope, who’s coming to visit. After George decides to escort Lou Ellen back home until he can straighten things out, his swingin’ bachelor friend Jim Marvin (Hal Forde) is left alone in the Budds’ apartment. He’s soon greeted by Jackie Sampson (Anna Wheaton), an actress who crawls through the window after escaping a policeman whom she accidentally punched during a brawl that began by a man named Tootles, who’d previously made a drunken pass at her. When the cop, Simms (Stephen Maley), comes to the house, Jim introduces Jackie as George’s new wife, which George corroborates upon returning home. Jackie stays the night at George’s place, while George and Jim spend the night at Jim’s place. The next morning, as George’s butler Briggs (Carl Lyle) goes to the train station to delay Aunt Penelope, Jim throws a party at George’s place, during which Lou Ellen and her parents arrive.
George introduces Jackie as his Aunt Penelope, while Jackie recognizes Lou Ellen’s dad, Judge Carter (Frank McGinn), as Tootles — the man who started the fight (during which she also lost her handbag). Jackie follows Judge Carter down to the country club where he’s due to make a speech, in the hopes that he will clear her name and help get her back her purse. Until he does, she steals his speech and delays the event. There, Simms recognizes Jackie as George’s wife, while she admits to having feelings for both George and Jim, the latter of whom also really likes her. Also, Lou Ellen’s mom (Augusta Haviland) has taken a dislike to George and wants her daughter not to speak to him anymore. Meanwhile, Briggs is unable to contain the real Aunt Penelope (Edna May Oliver), who arrives at the club and meets George’s new wife: Jackie. In the bathroom, Lou Ellen meets the real Penelope and demands answers. In the end, Jackie regains her purse and secures Jim, while George and Lou Ellen are a-okay. Justine Johnstone and Marion Davies (yes, THE Marion Davies) played two of Jim’s lady friends.
One of the many remarkable things about Oh, Boy! is that while new conventions were being set, old conventions were being abandoned. For instance, while George and Lou Ellen were considered the primary lovers, usually prone to earnestly romantic songs of alternatively joy and longing, their material actually exhibited humor! And the most heartfelt tune from the score, the classic “Till The Clouds Roll By” (performed several paragraphs up by Rebecca Luker and Hugh Panaro), was given to George, the romantic hero, and Jackie, the comedic, secondary couple’s female! Thus, there was a freedom here to try new things — as long as they made sense in the story and the context of the show. And judging by the raves and the lengthy run, Oh, Boy! hit all the right marks, even hopping the pond over to London for a 1919 production, retitled Oh, Joy!, in which Powers recreated his role alongside Beatrice Lillie as Jackie. Hear her above with Billy Leonard’s Jim for “A Pal Like You.”
Another hit from the initial production was “Flubby Dub,” the 11 o’clock comedic speciality spot that would become a tradition of sorts in these “Princess Theatre shows” (enough for Dorothy Parker to remark about them), performed by George, Jackie, and Jim. The rendition above comes from a live audio of a 1985 concert conducted by John McGlinn. (Subscribers who are interested in this recording, please comment below!)
I’ve always believed that when a show boasts excised numbers of the same quality as those which actually made the final product, that’s a good indication of the property’s exceptional merit. This is the case with Oh, Boy!, as one of the deleted numbers, “The Bachelor” [a.k.a. “That’s The Kind Of Man I’d Like To Be”] for George, is a great, catchy character number. The above recording of the song is taken from a 2014 concert at Trinity Wall Street. (Again, subscribers who are interested in this audio, please comment below!)
As always, while Bolton and Wodehouse’s work is literate and charming and immeasurably responsible for the success of these shows, Kern’s efforts continue in their soaring excellence, evidenced above with “Words Are Not Needed,” performed by original cast member Tom Powers and Dot Temple from the 1919 original London production, and below with Jackie and Jim’s “Nesting Time (In Flatbush),” taken below from the 2005 Comic Opera Guild recording.
And we’ll close today’s post, which, by the way, is definitely an addition our our list of Musical Theatre Monday Essentials, with another original cast recording of Anna Wheaton with the delectable “Rolled Into One,” during which she expresses her desire to have all her many suitors rolled into one ideal man.
Come back next Monday for another Kern musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the sixth season of The Cosby Show!