1940: A Year In Review (IV)

Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday! Today continues our series of posts on Broadway musicals of 1940. 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, and Hold On To Your Hats. Today…


IV. Cabin In The Sky (10/25/40 – 03/08/41)


Best remembered by a narratively faithful (but musically and stylistically divergent) MGM film adaptation in 1943, this 1940 all-black musical parable has since earned a reputation as one of the most innovatively staged shows of the pre-Oklahoma! theatre. Credit must be given to George Balanchine, who, in both his staging and choreography, gave the show its style. Much of this was lost in the film, which nevertheless transported two of the stage show’s stars and managed to keep the story intact (save the “it was all a dream” ending). The show concerned the morally misguided Little Joe Jackson (Dooley Wilson), a chronic gambler who is brought back to life for six months, during which his soul is fought over by both a General (Todd Duncan) of the “Lawd” and Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram), an agent of Satan, who tempts Little Joe with pleasures, wealth, and a seductress named Georgia Brown (Katherine Dunham). Can Little Joe’s pious wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) win back her husband from Georgia and reform him before his soul is corrupt forever?


Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson and Lena Horne filled in for Wilson and Dunham in the film as room was also made for Louis Armstrong, while Arlen and Harburg contributed several songs to the otherwise full score by Vernon Duke and John La Touche. One of the most famous songs from the film was actually an Arlen/Harburg contribution, “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” which, contrary to popular belief, was not written for the stage show. However, it was included in the 1964 Off-Broadway revival, the only major restaging of Cabin In The Sky, which filled out the score — unnecessarily — and many agreed was a disappointment compared to the original. (Many have since felt that both the show and film depict African Americans in an unflattering light, although sentiments regarding the original production, largely due to the fine performers and the novelly multi-dimensional characters, seemed to have been quite the opposite.) Our focus, as always, shall remain on the 1940 production, and more acutely, the miraculous score that swings and glides and runs the gamut of musical emotions. Perhaps the most well known song from the production is Waters’ “Taking A Chance On Love,” which was written several days before the October 25 opening. (This show did not go out of town, and previewed in New York. Uncommon then, this is now the course most Broadway shows follow.) The recording below is by Waters herself.

Waters got another great number in “Love Turned The Light Out,” which she also recorded in 1940.

By contrast, Dunham’s Georgia Brown got the double entrée laden “Honey in The Honeycomb,” which is performed below (in the extended soundtrack version) by Lena Horne.

Unfortunately, one of my absolute favorite songs from the score — a duet for Little Joe and Georgia — was not included in the film (beyond an instrumental). Here’s “Love Me Tomorrow” from the 1964 Off-Broadway Cast Recording.

Another stellar number excised from the film is Lucifer Jr.’s “Do What You Wanna Do,” which is also taken below from the aforementioned Off-Broadway album.

And we’ll conclude today’s post with Waters’ 1940 recording of the title song, which is the Act One duet for Petunia and Little Joe.



Come back next Monday for a new 1940 musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the third season of The New Dick Van Dyke Show!