Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday! Today’s entry continues a month-long series on forgotten and seldom revived shows of the mid-1940s (’44-’46, to be exact). Coming directly in the wake of the new era brought about, in large part, by Oklahoma! (1943), these shows existed during that liminal time where musical entertainment was now expected by some to be more than just entertainment, while others fought back against the recent shift — championing a return to the feel-good fun that typified the earlier era. As a result, each of these four shows is exceedingly interesting; so far we’ve highlighted Follow The Girls (1944) and The Day Before Spring (1945). Today…
III. Billion Dollar Baby (12/21/45 – 06/29/46)
Fresh off the success of On The Town (1944), lyricists and book writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green joined director George Abbott and choreographer Jerome Robbins for another show — this one more ambitious than their prior effort. The story, set in the 1920s, seems a bit influenced by the anti-heroic shadings of the titular character in Pal Joey (1940), as the heroine of Billion Dollar Baby, played by the talented Joan McCracken, schemes to rise from the gutter to the penthouse; she dates a gangster (David Burns), cheats on him with his bodyguard (William Tabbert), leads to the bodyguard’s murder, and then marries a billionaire just before the stock market crash of 1929. It was a difficult story for audiences of 1945, and although critics praised many aspects of the production (especially Robbins’ choreography — which included a dream ballet, a Charleston, and several other inventive sequences), the coldness of the premise and the unlikable depiction of its leading lady severely hindered the show’s favorability. Of course, there were also complaints about the music, composed by the ill-suited-for-Broadway Morton Gould; many believed that the score sounded about as ’20s as the ’40s and was a definite comedown for Comden and Green after their stellar work for On The Town.
My assessment, largely based on a 1998 cast recording of the York Theatre Mufti concert (the only other major revival was in Dallas in 1961), concurs with those who find the score both not in the style of the ’20s and most unmelodic in comparison to On The Town. However, there is still much to enjoy, especially because the piece is delightfully unconventional. For instance, both of the numbers given to Mitzi Green, who played a thinly veiled version of Texas Guinan, while not very in keeping with the ’20s, are both musically fascinating, and worth hearing. Above is Adolph Green singing Mitzi Green’s “Broadway Blossom” and below is the belter “Havin’ A Time,” taken from the 1998 recording.
Also from the 1998 cast album, here’s “One Track Mind,” originally performed by Shirley Van and Danny Daniels.
And we’ll close today’s post featuring a score that’s ardently unique and far from brilliant with my favorite number from the show, “Bad Timing,” a duet for McCracken and Tabbert which is performed below by Betty Comden herself.
Come back next Monday for another forgotten musical from the mid-forties! And tune in tomorrow for more Night Court!