Welcome to the start of another week on That’s Entertainment! Following our fifteen week series on musicals ripe for reviving from the period in between Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943), we’re finishing up our three week series examining three little known musicals from the ’30s that maybe aren’t great candidates for reviving, but not surprisingly, have extraordinary scores. (Next week, we’ll be picking up with musicals produced after Oklahoma!)
1939. Stars In Your Eyes (02/09/39 – 05/27/39)
This was the only stage musical to interrupt Ethel Merman’s string of Cole Porter hits. With an undervalued and largely forgotten score by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields , Stars In Your Eyes also re-teamed Merman with her good pal, Jimmy Durante. But despite good — though not great — reviews, the show closed much sooner than anticipated. (Merman speculated this was due to competition from the 1939 World’s Fair.) Actually, this probably has something to do with the book, which was initially titled Swing To The Left and concerned a Hollywood studio’s attempts to add culture to their filmmaking by importing a left-wing playwright from New York. However, director Joshua Logan decided that the social slant wasn’t fit for the rollicking good time for which he was aiming. The book was scrapped and the title was changed to Stars In Your Eyes.
The show opens on Sound Stage 7 of the Monotone Picture Corporation where production has begun on a lavish Southern epic, Old Kentucky. But after concerns are raised about the plot, the studio hires a new writer, John Blake (Richard Carlson), who is best known for a socially conscious documentary entitled Plain People From The Plains. The title of the film is changed to New Kentucky, and Jeanette Adair, the diva star, played by, of course, Ethel Merman, is not pleased with the revisions. But she meets and falls for Blake, temporarily changing her tune. However, when John writes a big juicy part for his ballerina sweetie, Tata (Tamara Toumanova), Jeanette is once again pissed.
As Bill (Jimmy Durante), a studio pitchman, provides comic relief and flirts with screenwriter Bess (Mildred Natwick), the picture’s producer tires of the social relevance and, to no avail, urges Blake to return to Nebraska. As everyone involved with the film begins to back out, Bess tries to get the team back together. Tata quits and Jeanette tries to seduce Blake. He has a boozy dream where the two are married, and once awake, decides to leave Hollywood.
So, as you can see, not all of the “social significance” is removed from the story, but it was certainly downplayed in favor of both music and comedy. Normally those two things are my preference, but perhaps the lack of focus and cohesiveness in the story was a drawback. (This is 1939, and though we’re four years away from Oklahoma!, narratively tight musicals are catching on.) I haven’t read the script — the show hasn’t even been performed since 1939 — but it seems like it might have been quite funny. In addition to the score, which we’ll talk about later, Old Kentucky is obviously a lampoon of another Hollywood epic that was then in production, Gone With The Wind. Furthermore, the title of Blake’s documentary is a parody of a 1936 film, The Plow That Broke The Plains. In terms of comedy, audiences seemed particularly fond of the sequence in which Merman tries to seduce Richard Carlson by getting him drunk and reading him Alice In Wonderland. (“DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE”) It’s also interesting to note that Jerome Robbins, Dan Dailey, Jr., and Mary Wickes all had small roles in the ensemble, the latter playing Merman’s vocal coach.
As was the case with last week’s musical, Say When (1934), the entire score has never been recorded. Fortunately, however, we are blessed to have cuts of a majority of the score — including all five of Merman’s numbers. Her opening was the glorious “This Is It,” my personal favorite song from the show, and only one that Merman would occasionally include in her concert repertoire.
She got a mid-act comedic song in “A Lady Needs A Change,” a bouncy ditty that some writers have termed an “‘I am not an ingenue’ number.”
Merman’s two other solos were the melancholy “Just A Little Bit More” and the torchy “I’ll Pay The Check.”
Toumanova, in addition to appearing in the two extended ballet sequences, duetted with Carlson, in his only number, “All The Time.” This was recorded by Richard Smart and Ted Straeter’s Monte Carlo Orchestra.
Durante got two solos — “Self Made Man” in Act One and “He’s Goin’ Home” in Act Two. I, unfortunately, don’t have recordings of either. But his duet with Natwick, “Terribly Attractive” was also recorded by Richard Smart. This one is so catchy!
By far the most crowd-pleasing moment occurred at the end of the show when the two stars — Merman and Durante — joined together for “It’s All Yours,” a joyous duet that had audiences howling with laughter, as the number was periodically interrupted with vaudeville-like jokes. This was never recorded by the pair, but they performed it on the radio. (I also shared this in my Merman post from July.) Here it is again:
Based on what we have access to, Stars In Your Eyes seems like an excellent score. It’s time to dust off the book and see how that plays. If it doesn’t, well, that wont be a surprise. But is it fair to let this excellent score suffer too? Methinks not!
Come back next Monday when we pick up with musicals in the post-Oklahoma! era. And tune in tomorrow for the best from the final season of The Lucy Show!