Welcome to the start of a new week on THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! Today we’re continuing our 15-week series on forgotten musicals that are ripe for reviving! Each Monday, we’ll be 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 I’ll be covering over these next 15 weeks deserve re-examination. They deserve to be seen again. These shows are worth it.
So far we’ve covered Whoopee! (1928), Sweet Adeline (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), and The Band Wagon (1931). Today’s featured musical is from 1932…
1932. Face The Music (02/17/32 – 07/09/32)
This incredibly fast-paced and embarrassingly rich score was the work of Irving Berlin, one of the theatre’s (and the country’s) best composers. Next to Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and maybe Call Me Madam (1950), Face The Music is probably my favorite Berlin score. Not only is every single song exemplary, but the book, written by Moss Hart and in the vein of the then two-month-old Of Thee I Sing (1931), was another biting satire. (Those seem to be popular in the ’30s, don’t they?) But while the latter show lampooned politics in Washington D.C., Face The Music took aim at show business and, in particular, the city of New York and its mayor — Mr. Jimmy Walker. (No, not a character from Good Times!) Rumors of financial corruption led to Walker’s being investigated by the state in a scandalous 1932 hearing. The book’s obvious connections to real headlines certainly contributed to the show’s critical success.
The book opens in a laundromat, where all of the elite have gathered to eat lunch, because ever since the Depression, they can’t afford anywhere else. Among the lunchers are two out-of-work musical comedy performers who soon develop a romance, and Reisman, a producer in desperate need of backers for his new show. The three make plans to put on a show at Woolworth’s. On the street, the kids meet a lady “lousy with money,” Mrs. Martin Van Buren Meshbesher (played in 1932 by the divine Mary Boland), who is married to a rich and powerful police sergeant. As an investigation of the police is imminent, the couple is itching for a place to stash some of their perhaps ill-gotten gains. They invest in Reisman’s show: a Ziegfeldian parody entitled “Rhinestones of 1932,” that, not surprisingly, bombs. But when Reisman decides to load the show with smut, Meshbesher arranges a ticket-boosting raid by the cops, making the show a big hit. That is, until Seabury begins his investigation of Meshbesher and the police. Reisman, along with the entire company, turns the hearing into a musical extravaganza — “Investigations of 1932” — and everything ends happily.
The score is everything a classic musical theatre score should be — memorable. The show’s most notable numbers belonged to the “A couple,” who sang the purposely cliché-ridden “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” the mildly exotic “(Castles In Spain) On A Roof in Manhattan,” and the jaunty “I Say It’s Spinach (And To Hell With It),” which takes its title from a 1928 New York Times cartoon. My favorite, however, would be the soaring “Soft Lights and Sweet Music,” one of Berlin’s most romantic songs (No small feat given this man’s excellent catalogue of material!), which closed the first act.
The show’s “B couple,” a pair of mediocre hoofers, also get two fun numbers — their audition song, “You Must Be Born With It,” and “I Don’t Want To Be Married (I Just Want To Be Friends,) which the unmarried couple sings in a police station. Syncopated and lively, these ditties fit the traditional comedic couple’s mold nicely.
But satire remains on top in the ensemble numbers: the Act One opener that establishes the laundromat setting, the number where news of Reisman’s show spreads throughout town (à la 42nd Street), and the Act Two opener that establishes the audience’s distaste for “Rhinestones of 1932.” Audiences got to see a sample of the lousy revue in “My Beautiful Rhinestone Girl,” a heavy parody of the Ziegfeldesque revues (and even Berlin’s own “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody.”) But Berlin roasts himself even further with “Dear Old Crinoline Days,” (a send-up of his 1922 “Crinoline Days”) which is performed by the faux-nude girls in the revised smutty version of “Rhinestones of 1932.”
Also adding to the satire is a prison-bound prostitute sings the hilarious “Torch Song,” in which she she pours her heart out, “… the same as Helen Morgan.” And in a speakeasy after opening night, the tenor who sang “My Beautiful Rhinestone Girl,” leads the company in “A Toast To Prohibition (Drinking Song).” (Reminiscent of Porter’s “A Toast To Volstead” from Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929).)
The show climaxes with the courtroom spectacle “Investigation,” in which Meshbesher’s defense is an inability to speak English, and though the judge finds him guilty, the sergeant is cleared because Reisman insists that the show deserves a happy ending. A deus ex machina? Perhaps. Or could it be an extension of the parody on musical comedy, which must always end happily?
But I’ve saved my favorite number for last — the hot “Manhattan Madness,” which the romantic hero sings amidst the hustle and bustle of the city leading up to the hearing. I adore this number.
Fortunately, Face the Music has been seen a few times in concert. Musicals Tonight!, 42nd Street Moon, and most notably, Encores! have all presented concert productions within the past 20 years. The latter, which resulted in a thrilling recording of the entire score, added several songs: a rousing number for the crooked cops, “The Police of New York” and the cynical but patriotic-sounding “Two Cheers Instead of Three,” both of which were cut from the original production, along with “How Can I Change My Luck?” which was written in 1931 and possibly intended for Face The Music, and “If You Believe,” which was written for but not used in the 1930 film Reaching For The Moon. The latter was given to Judy Kaye as Mrs. Meshbesher and closed the first act.
As usual, I needn’t make much case for the score — it speaks for itself. By all accounts, the show, though pleasing in its music and focused in its satire, features a book that would need tightening. But I think this would be a much easier sell than most of the other shows I’ve featured on the blog. In addition to the score that will attract the old fuddie-duddies (like myself), the putting-on-a-show story is familiar and accessible to modern audiences. Meanwhile, the emphasis on the comedy as part of the satire will be appealing to theatergoers of all ages. Just a brief piece in the program about the show’s history and its obvious sights on Jimmy Walker would be necessary to help the unfamiliar. Because with an informed audience, I think the satire would remain almost as sharp as it was in 1932. As usual, get some names (which might be easier given the success of the 2007 production) and mount the show honestly and lovingly, and I’m certain many young people will take notice. Great songs and great fun. That’s what we want in musical comedy, right?
Come back next Monday for a 1933 show that’s Ripe For Revival! And tune in tomorrow for the best Our Miss Brooks episodes from Season One!