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State of the Art, Circa 1940
Ethel Merman is profiled in the
souvenir program for Something for the Boys (1943).
With the world at war and America still suffering echoes of the Great
Depression, most Broadway professionals felt that audiences of the early 1940s wanted
an escape from reality, the more lighthearted the better. For example,
Irving Berlin had reigned as America's most popular
composer since 1911, contributing hit songs to numerous stage reviews and films. The 1940s
brought his first book musical to Broadway -- Louisiana Purchase (1940 -
444 perfs) a comic send-up of corrupt Louisiana politics co-starring the popular
team of William Gaxton and
After America entered World War II, Berlin triumphed again with
This is the Army (1942 - 113 perfs), a revue with an all-Army cast poking lighthearted
fun at the trials of military life. Musical highlights included "I Left My Heart at the
Stage Door Canteen." Berlin himself performed "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the
Morning," which he had introduced in the World War I fundraiser Yip, Yip, Yapank
(1918 - 32). After an extended Broadway run, This is the Army toured the US, had
a hit London run, and was made into a popular film, eventually earning over $9 million for the
Army's Emergency Relief Fund.
In the early 1940s, musical comedy master
continued his long-running streak of hits, with four shows that racked up impressive
Panama Hattie (1940 - 501 perfs) starred
Ethel Merman as a brassy Canal Zone bar owner who tries to
polish up her act when she falls in love with a Philadelphia socialite. Merman and eight year
old Joan Carroll shared "Let's Be Buddies." Hattie marked Merman's
first time as a solo star, and it became the first Broadway musical to top 500 performances
since the 1920s.
Let's Face It (1941 - 547 perfs) featured
Eve Arden and Danny Kaye in a tale of
three wealthy wives who get revenge on their cheating husbands by taking on three
soldiers as gigolos. The score included "You Irritate Me So." Wartime
audiences were delighted, and Porter had another show top the 500 performance mark.
Something For the Boys (1943 - 422 perfs) is the perfect
example of what musical comedy tried to be in the early 1940s, placing a major star
in an unlikely situation and adding a few wacky comic twists. Ethel Merman
played a wartime factory worker who inherits property adjacent
to a military base in Texas. While there, she falls in love with a bandleader/soldier
and finds that her dental fillings pick up radio signals. (No, I am not making this up.)
This silliness gave Merman plenty of comic moments and Porter songs (including "Hey
Good Lookin'" and the suggestive title tune) to belt in her trademark
style. Not great art, but it packed the Imperial Theatre for more than a year.
As the 1940s began, great art was not the goal in musical theatre.
Most producers and critics were convinced that good songs and good fun were all that
theatergoers required. As had happened before and would happen again, the experts
were underestimating the ticket-buying public.
Signs of Change
A few people were determined to make the Broadway musical grow up, and their
innovative efforts snuck in right alongside the traditional fluff. Composer
and lyricist John LaTouche offered Cabin In The Sky (1940 - 156 perfs), the
parable of an angel and a demon in a tug of war for a black man's soul. The fine score
(including "Taking a Chance On Love") was integrated with the
book, but the show had a limited appeal. The superb 1943 MGM film version had a similar
fate -- rave reviews, weak box office response.
Kelly, Vivienne Segal and members of the ensemble on the original cast Playbill for
Richard Rodgers and
Lorenz Hart took some creative risks with
Pal Joey (1940 - 374 perfs), Broadway's first musical to center
on an anti-hero. The title character is a sleazy nightclub hoofer who hustles his way
to success by manipulating a wealthy mistress, only to lose everything when she dumps him.
The score ranged from the innocent romance of "I Could Write A Book" to the sexual
bite of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Newcomer
Gene Kelly played the title role, with
Vivienne Segal as his mistress and June Havoc
(vaudeville’s former "Baby June") as one of the nightclub showgirls. Of course, it helped
that veteran director George Abbott was on hand to pull
all these elements together. Though most critics objected to Pal Joey's seamy subject
matter, it ran for a profitable year. Many of the same critics would praise the
show when it was revived in 1952.
Ira Gershwin withdrew from
songwriting for several years after his brother George's death. He returned in style by teaming
with composer Kurt Weill and playwright
Moss Hart to create
Lady in the Dark (1941 - 467 perfs), the story of a magazine
editor using psychoanalysis to explore her emotional insecurities. The music was restricted
to several dream sequences in which the main character saw herself at events representing her inner
turmoil -- a party, a trial, and a circus. Newcomer Danny Kaye
winning performance as an effeminate fashion photographer (and his lightning fast delivery of the
patter song "Tschaikowsky") made him an immediate star, but even he could not steal
the show from Gertrude Lawrence. With "My Ship"
and "Jenny," this masterful stage star kept audiences cheering for the longest run of
The result was a stunning blend of all
components of the theatre. According to published reports, the production
involved a company of 58 performers, 51 stagehands, and 4 revolving stages.
It was mounted for the then staggering cost $130,000.
- Stanley Richards, Great Musicals of the American Theatre, Vol. 2,
(Radnor, PA: Chilton Books, 1976), p. 74.
An Ending and a Beginning
Ray Bolger as Sapiens, the emasculated husband of an
Amazon warrior in Rodgers and Hart's longest running stage hit,
Rodgers and Hart took a lighter turn with By Jupiter
(1942 - 427 perfs), which told of a conflict between ancient Greeks and female
Amazon warriors. Although it was a traditional musical comedy, hilarious
role reversals between men and women ("You swear like a longshorewoman!")
stretched the creative boundaries. A stellar performance by
Ray Bolger and a score that included "Wait
Till You See Her" made this Rodgers & Hart's longest running show. It was
also the last new show they would collaborate on.
Torn by personal demons, Hart had become a hopeless alcoholic. His talents
were intact, but he would disappear for days and even weeks at a time, making it impossible
to complete new projects. An anxious Rodgers asked his longtime partner to dry out and work
with him on a musical adaptation of Lynn Rigg’s unsuccessful play Green Grow the Lilacs.
The Theatre Guild, which had given Rodgers and Hart their first big break, needed this
project to settle its mounting debts. When Hart refused, Rodgers warned that he was ready
to collaborate with Oscar Hammerstein II. Hart
encouraged Rodgers to pursue the new partnership, then headed off to Mexico for a drinking
Rodgers got busy with Hammerstein, who had been interested in
adapting Green Grow the Lilacs for several years (his longtime
collaborator Jerome Kern had rejected the project). Thus began the most renowned creative
partnership the American musical theatre has ever known. "They couldn't
pick a better time to start in life . . ."
Next: 1940s Part II -