Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday! Today continues our series of six posts on Broadway musicals of 1940 that will bring us to the end of 2014. While my initial intention was to highlight shows that opened in 1939 (since this is the 75th anniversary of that marvelously entertaining year), I realized that 1940 has been represented less frequently on this site — almost criminally so. The only show we’ve covered before was Louisiana Purchase, and since 1940 premiered a handful of great works that deserve our attention, I thought it only fair that we give the year (and the shows within it) the deserved recognition. So far we’ve featured Higher And Higher, Keep Off The Grass, Hold On To Your Hats and Cabin In The Sky. Today…
V. Panama Hattie (10/30/40 – 01/03/42)
The fourth musical teaming of Ethel Merman and Cole Porter, Panama Hattie marked the first time that Ethel Merman’s name was billed above the title by itself. This seems appropriate, as the score, more than any show in which Merman had appeared prior, seems tailored precisely to the talents of its star. In fact, the tunes Porter composed for “La Merm” are so effortless that they often seem to get overlooked. Of course, as a huge fan of both of these theatrical greats, I’m here to maintain that the score is much stronger than it lets on. With rich melodies, fun character numbers, and a welcome tropical flare, Porter’s score for Panama Hattie, though perhaps not of the calibre of some of his classics, is one of his most consistent — especially for this time in his career. What isn’t so consistent is the book by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva.
The premise has Ethel Merman as Hattie Maloney, a nightclub owner in the Panama Canal Zone. She’s engaged to an officer in the Navy, Nick Bullett (James Dunn), and is preparing to meet his visiting daughter, the eight-year-old Jerry (Joan Carroll). Despite a rocky start, the two girls hit it off and eventually become “buddies.” Complicating matters, however, is the admiral’s daughter, who schemes to win Nick for herself and sabotages Hattie’s meeting with the admiral, who orders Nick not to marry her. Eventually, thanks to a bomb scare that Hattie manages to thwart, the admiral changes his mind and everything ends happily. Also interwoven into the narrative are Betty Hutton as one of Hattie’s singers and Arthur Treacher as Nick’s butler, who make up the obligatory secondary couple.
As you can tell, the story isn’t completely coherent. (A bomb scare? Really? The rejected plot for Anything Goes?) Panama Hattie is much closer to the works of the early ’30s than it is to the works of the late ’30s and early ’40s. That is, unlike last week’s Cabin In The Sky, for instance, the plot is completely irrelevant. It’s all about the star and the the songs she has to sing. And while I find much comfort in shows designed in this manner (especially when the star and the songs are as good as they are here), it unfortunately means they’re harder to revive. Though more dramatically satisfying than the jovially trivial Red, Hot, And Blue! (1936), Panama Hattie is similar to most of Porter’s shows of this time, lacking the meat to appeal to audiences of the 21st century. (Following a tour with Frances Williams and a London production with Bebe Daniels, the only major revival was a production at the Papermill Playhouse in 1976 that starred Ann Miller and tinkered with both the book and score. The film with Ann Sothern, though interesting, is not worth mentioning in discussion of the stage show.)
Again, this is a shame, because the score has a few gems. I’ve shared two of Merman’s numbers before in past Wildcard Wednesday posts. Above is a LIVE (in the theatre) rendition of the lightheartedly melancholy “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please.” Below is the rousing list number, “I’m Throwing A Ball Tonight,” also performed by Merman LIVE (in the theatre).
Merman also got one of my favorite numbers in the score, another bouncy ditty, “I’ve Still Got My Health.” She recorded this (along with three other numbers) with Harry Sosnik’s Orchestra during the run of the original production.
La Merm’s introductory number was the rhythmic Porter speciality, “Visit Panama.” The rendition below is Xavier Cugar’s orchestra.
Merman and Dunn, her love interest, only shared one duet, “My Mother Would Love You.” (In fact, it’s the only number he sings.) Merman recorded it solo with Sosnik.
Hutton and Treacher’s tunes were of a slightly inferior quality, but there’s still some fun to be had — especially with Hutton’s “Fresh As A Daisy,” which is taken below from an hourlong production broadcast on Canadian Radio in 2003. (Not a great recording, but it gives you the idea.)
We’ll wrap up today’s post with another of the show’s best, “Let’s Be Buddies,” the duet for Merman and her daughter-to-be. This is from a 1954 TV production in which Merman also starred. (Not surprisingly, the book and score are completely different from the 1940 original.) Here she is with Karin Wolfe.
Come back next Monday for a new 1940 musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the first season of Sanford And Son!