Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the start of a series that has been a long time coming — the scores of Arthur Schwartz. An underrated figure from a time when Broadway was overpopulated with genius composers, Schwartz is an odd contributor to the American Popular songbook, for while many of his songs often eclipsed the shows in which they were housed in popularity, his efforts generally existed with more of a theatrically-minded sophistication than those of the other “pop” Broadway composers with whom he is often compared (McHugh, for instance). He’s less classically inclined than Duke or even Youmans, but there’s a seriousness of approach that we don’t find in the works of other masters like Berlin or Henderson. Then of course, comparing Schwartz to super talents like Gershwin or Porter does Schwartz a disservice (because no one fares well when compared to those legends), yet in my mind, the way I feel about their musical works is similar — his melodies are smart, rapturous, and unique to their creator. We’ve covered a lot of his work over the past few years, including The Little Show (1929), Three’s A Crowd (1930), The Band Wagon (1931), Revenge With Music (1934), At Home Abroad (1935), Stars In Your Eyes (1939), and Park Avenue (1946). Now, as promised years ago, we’re filling in some of the most important missing links, starting with…
I. Flying Colors (09/15/32 – 01/25/33)
With a score by Schwartz and frequent collaborator Howard Dietz, this lively Max Gordon production was seen as the latest in what was becoming an annual tradition from these two — the intimate musical revue with a great cast and a charming score. Coming the year after the smash success of The Band Wagon, Flying Colors reunited Tamara Geva and Clifton Webb, both of whom had appeared in Three’s A Crowd, itself the successor to The Little Show, in which Webb also appeared. Also in Flying Colors‘ expert cast were Charles Butterworth, Patsy Kelly, Larry Adler, Buddy Ebsen and his sister Vilma, Jean Sargent, Philip Loeb, and a young Imogene Coca. Agnes de Mille did the choreography until she was replaced by Albertina Rasch following a row with Gordon. Dietz also wrote the sketches (with contributions by George S. Kaufman, Corey Ford, and Charles Sherman), one of which concerned a hotel that catered to customers who, in the midst of the Depression, were aiming to commit suicide. (The higher the room, the greater the price.) The show was able to eke out a tiny profit — but only by reducing ticket prices 50%.
The score, meanwhile, was, like all of the others mentioned above, a real treat, with several numbers that would become standards (some of which were included in the 1953 film version of The Band Wagon). You may remember “Louisiana Hayride,” a rousing spiritual led by Webb and Geva (the staging of which incorporated a filmed backdrop), performed above by Schwartz himself with the Eva Jessye Choir.
Other standards included the optimistic “A Shine On Your Shoes,” performed above by Fred Astaire from the soundtrack of The Band Wagon, and the wondrous “Alone Together,” sung below by original cast member Jean Sargent.
Much has also been made of the taboo “Smokin’ Reefers,” inspired by the proliferation of marijuana in Harlem. The rendition below comes from a Ben Bagley album and is performed by Harlem’s own Cab Calloway.
Another racially charged ditty has gained notoriety for its inclusion in a 1953 Joan Crawford film, Torch Song, in which she performs the number in blackface. In actuality, the song had been recorded by India Adams and cut from The Band Wagon film. Hear it below.
Schwartz later claimed that his own favorite number from the score was the lesser known “Fatal Fascination,” which was added shortly after the opening, and is heard below by Nancy Dussault.
And we’ll close today’s post with a number I’ve shared on this blog before, my personal favorite from Flying Colors, the effortlessly, but not relentlessly, joyful “A Rainy Day,” performed below by original cast member Clifton Webb.
Come back next Monday for another Arthur Schwartz musical! Tune in tomorrow for my picks for the best from the fourth season of The Golden Girls!