The Saturday List: Five Bees-Knees Musicals of the 1920s

How’s tricks, everyone? Today’s “Saturday List” takes a look at my top five musicals from the 1920s. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts on these nifty little shows and, as always, I’m keen to hear about some of the musicals from this decade that you think are the cat’s meow – so feel free to share your thoughts using the comments box below!

Gertrude Lawrence in OH, KAY!

Gertrude Lawrence in OH, KAY!

5. Oh, Kay!

There are a number of shows that I could have placed into this fifth spot, none of which I truly prize above the other. Honourable mentions, then, must go to Strike up the Band, Dearest Enemy, The Desert Song, Funny Face and No, No, Nanette. In the end, I chose George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse’s Oh, Kay! because it is the show that gave the world that most enduring of standards, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” There are other delights in the score, including the ebullient “Do, Do, Do,” “Clap Yo’ Hands” and “Fidgety Feet.” Together, the numbers encapsulate the great appeal of the Gershwins in the 1920s: catchy lyrics and heartfelt sentiments married to the kind of music for which the term “earworm” was invented. It wouldn’t be hard for you to guess then, dear reader, what tune is spinning endlessly in my mind as I’m typing up this column.

An album cover for MR CINDERS

An album cover for MR CINDERS

4. Mr Cinders

I love a Cinderella story. I’m also a sucker for a good partworks collection. One such series was  The Musicals Collection, which allowed me to add the highlights of a cast recording and a magazine to my CD rack once a fortnight. I knew many of the shows that they featured already, but there were several that were new to me, including this little gem by Vivian Ellis, Richard Myers, Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman.  A reverse gendered version of this most beloved of fairy tales, Mr Cinders toys with social class by placing Jim, a servant at Merton Chase, opposite Jill, an American heiress at the neighbouring home, The Towers. The usual fizzy 1920s plot devices knit together the appealing score, which includes a breakout hit (“Spread A Little Happiness”), a collection of witty numbers for the two nasty brothers (“Blue Blood”, “True To Two” and “Honeymoon For Four”) and a pair of delightful ensemble numbers  (“On With Dance” and “18th Century Drag”). Having enjoyed a couple of revivals towards the end of the last century, Mr Cinders has all but disappeared over the past two decades. Here’s hoping for a second rediscovery of this charming little musical!

Movie Poster for THE STUDENT PRINCE

Movie Poster for THE STUDENT PRINCE

3. The Student Prince

My way into Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s The Student Prince, as in so many matters musical theatre, was through my grandmother. My grandmother’s record collection was the source of the first musicals I encountered, but it wasn’t until she guided me towards knowing The Student Prince. I was gathering some movie musicals for my gran to watch on her new flatscreen TV and The Student Prince was one of the films she asked me to find. When I sat down to watch it with her, I had prepared myself for something I’d have to endure. I found myself seduced by the giddy romance of this tale, in which love and life experience transforms the staid Prince Karl into a man who has to choose between the kingdom for which he is responsible or Kathie, the woman he loves. (In the interest of full disclosure, it was partly the dreamy Edmund Purdom and Mario Lanza’s heartfelt vocal for Prince Karl’s “I Walk With God” that sealed the deal for me, even though I know this song was written for the film rather than the original stage production. But as I mentioned before, one song can be the gateway to the entire journey.) What is particularly bittersweet about The Student Prince is that Kathie – to some extent, given the period – is able to exercise her own agency in bringing Karl to his final decision. Her choices, thoughts and emotions matter as much as his. I don’t know where it would play, but I’d love to see a contemporary revival of this show.

The National Theatre's THE THREEPENNY OPERA

The National Theatre’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA

2. The Threepenny Opera

I always respected Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, but I never truly loved it until I saw the National Theatre’s live broadcast of their 2016 production, a new adaptation by Simon Stephens that was directed by Rufus Norris. Watching the incredible cast bring this interpretation of the material to life, I felt within me everything that, until then, I only understood academically about this brilliant piece of theatre. Its unforgiving commentary on human vices such as corruption, exploitation and hypocrisy remains as incisive today as it must have been at its premiere in Germany in 1928. (In truth, perhaps it was watching the United States cut of the 1962 film that had disenchanted my ability to perceive its brilliance.) Besides its thematic heft, The Threepenny Opera also numbers in its score some jewels of songwriting, “Pirate Jenny” (which I had the privilege of seeing Bea Arthur sing live in Just Between Friends as she shared her memories of the brilliant Lotte Lenya’s performance of the same song) and the “Jealousy Duet” (which Arthur intones most memorably with Jo Sullivan on the 1954 cast recording of the show) among them. What I enjoy most about The Threepenny Opera, I think, is how layered it is. It’s serious stuff, but it’s so funny. It plays with you as you watch it.  And isn’t play one of the things we desire most when we go to the theatre?

Cape Town Opera's SHOW BOAT

Cape Town Opera’s SHOW BOAT

1. Show Boat

One of the most fascinating things about Show Boat is the sheer number of iterations of the show that have played the world’s stages since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II created this landmark musical. These are largely documented in Miles Kreuger’s Show Boat – The Story of a Classic American Musical, offering a rare and detailed tour through the production history of the show up until the time of its final revision in 1990 before going out of print. What makes Show Boat survive the ages? Certainly, its classic score has something to do with it, the grand lyrics and gorgeous melodies of songs like “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” being unforgettable, as is the wit of numbers like “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” the radiant joy of “Why Do I Love You?” and the devastating rawness of “Bill.” That said, there are many great scores that have slipped into the recesses of time. May I submit the idea that it is Hammerstein’s integrity in handling the themes that emerged from Edna Ferber’s novel that lends the show its continued relevance? For in addition to its central love story, Show Boat tackles the shifting dynamics of race relations in the face of a society that espouses the ideal of freedom for all but still treats people unequally in reality. This idea is strongly resonant with our times and in an age where Oklahoma! can be explored with a contemporary sensibility, as is being done in the production directed by Daniel Fish that is currently in previews at the Circle on the Square theatre in New York, perhaps the time is right for Show Boat to be reinvented yet again.

 

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