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Good News: "Do the Varsity Drag"
The program title page for the original Broadway production of
Good News (1927 - 557) was not the first musical comedy
about college life, but it was such a hit that it became the definitive example of this
lighthearted sub-genre. The plot about a wealthy football hero who has to pass an exam so he can
play in the big game and win the impoverished girl he loves inspired a slew of imitations on stage
and screen, but none could match the infectious score composed
by Ray Henderson with lyrics by
Buddy DeSylva and
Lew Brown. Their dance-happy songs included "The
Best Things in Life Are Free," "Lucky in Love" and "The Varsity Drag,"
a Charleston-style number that became an international dance craze.
The libretto was a loose affair, allowing members of the cast to offer audience
pleasing specialties without relying too heavily on the plot for
motivation. Produced for approximately $75,000
(typical for a Broadway musical at that time), Good News made
millions and remained popular for
decades, with a film version in 1932, and a hit Technicolor remake in 1947. A stage
revival toured with Alice Faye in the 1970s.
Depicting the "roaring 20s" as many would like to remember it, this
show remains one of the definitive theatrical events of that era.
Al Jolson: "The World's Greatest
This composite photo compares the
unadorned Al Jolson with his black-face alter
America's top musical stage star of the 1920s was born in a Russian shtetl in
the 1880s. Soon after his family emigrated to the United States in 1894, young Asa Yoelson
decided to become a variety entertainer and changed his name to
Al Jolson. After winning fame in minstrel shows
and vaudeville, Jolson made his Broadway debut at The Winter Garden Theatre in
the Shubert Brothers production, La Belle
Paree (1911). The show was a little more than a series of variety acts held together by a
thread of plot (American tourists visiting Paris -- not much more), but Jolson
stole the show and became the toast of New York.
When audiences, responded with enthusiasm to Jolson's charismatic
singing, the Shuberts made the most of their new star. They tailored a series of stage
musicals for Jolson's outsized talents, and even built a runway across the Winter Garden's
main floor so Jolson could sing right into the midst of his fans.
His shows toured the country for years at a time, making him a star from coast to coast.
Jolson's charismatic blend of comedy, pathos and powerhouse singing had an almost sexual
effect on audiences. His booming voice could fill any theater, a major asset at a
time when electrical amplification was in its infancy. With an ego that
matched his talents, Jolson expressed no surprise when the Shuberts began
billing him as "the world's greatest entertainer."
Three of Jolson's biggest hit musicals were built around "Gus," a
likeable blackface character Jolson had been using since his years in minstrelsy
Sinbad (1920 - 164) had Gus as a porter
who lands in a variety of historic settings. Jolson interpolated
"Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,"
"Swanee" and "My Mammy" into the otherwise disposable
Bombo (1921 - 219)
turned Gus into a deckhand for Christopher Columbus. Jolson kept
audiences cheering by adding "Toot, Toot Tootsie,"
"April Showers" and "California Here I Come" to the show.
None had anything to do with the plot.
(1924 - 180) had Gus as a jockey, featuring live horses racing
on treadmills. Jolson interpolated "Keep Smiling at Trouble"
and reprised the best of his past hits. With occasional interruptions,
Jolson traveled in Big Boy for more than three years.
When audiences were particularly enthusiastic, Jolson would dismiss the supporting
cast and sing solo for an hour or more. However, if Jolson felt an audience was unresponsive, he
would just as easily give a half-hearted performance and skip
refrains to get the curtain down early.
As offensive as Jolson's use of blackface seems today, it was an accepted
theatrical device used by many white and black performers in the first half of the 20th Century.
Behind a mask of burnt cork, one theoretically became an "everyman" facing trials and
heartaches. Jolson claimed that blackface makeup gave him the emotional distance he needed to
unleash himself as a performer. Since many of his most effective filmed moments capture him
singing in blackface, it is impossible to dismiss the role this makeup played in his success.
And Jolson's use of blackface was not an expression of racism. According to friends and
colleagues, he championed the rights of black performers on several occasions.
Al Jolson's fame has dimmed somewhat with time, but no review of the popular
culture of the 20th Century can afford to overlook his presence. He was a star of minstrelsy,
vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood and radio, riding high through each evolution of popular
entertainment in his lifetime. Jolson was one of the
greatest stars show biz will ever know, and he would have been the first to insist that
history should remember him as such. (For more, please see our website's special feature,
Al Jolson 101.)
Show Boat: The Musical as Epic
A caricature of Show Boat's
original stars, taken from the title page of the program.
One of the most powerful and popular musicals ever written,
Show Boat (1927 - 572) was the collaborative effort of
three theatrical giants -- producer Florenz Ziegfeld,
composer Jerome Kern and lyricist-librettist
Oscar Hammerstein II. Telling the epic
story of how the inhabitants of a Mississippi show boat survive from the 1880's to the 1920s,
this show deals with racism, marital heartbreak and alcoholism subjects that had
previously been considered taboo in musical theatre.
The ground-breaking libretto was matched by an innovative,
character-driven score with such hits as "Make Believe," "Old Man
River" and "You Are Love." Saloon singer
Helen Morgan had the greatest success of her career
depicting the mulatto actress Julie LaVerne, introducing "Can't Help Lovin' That Man"
and "Bill," performing the latter while sitting atop an upright piano. Although many
identify "Old Man River" with Paul Robeson, the song was actually introduced on
Broadway by Jules Bledsoe. Robeson later performed the song in the 1928 London
production and the 1936 film version.
Show Boat was a tremendous commercial gamble. Nothing like it had ever been
tried on Broadway before, and Ziegfeld had serious doubts about the show's
chances of making a profit. Even so, he spared no expense, giving this sweeping saga the visual
grandeur it needed. After the opening night audience filed out of the
Ziegfeld Theatre in near silence, Ziegfeld thought his
worst fears had been confirmed. He was pleasantly surprised when the next morning brought ecstatic
reviews and long lines at the box office. In fact, Show Boat proved
to be the most lasting accomplishment of Ziegfeld's career, the only one
of his shows that is still performed today.
Show Boat can be appreciated at various levels. To many, it is
an epic tale of undying love, but it also demonstrates how human sufferings and triumphs
can fade away as time, embodied by the ever flowing Mississippi, "just keeps rolling
along." This innovative masterpiece spawned no trends, but it showed what musical theater could
aspire to -- aspirations that Hammerstein would re-ignite sixteen year later when he and Richard
Rodgers gave birth to Oklahoma!. With three film versions and four acclaimed Broadway revivals,
Show Boat's appeal has survived the test of time. With each generation emphasizing different
aspects of the story, no two productions have been exactly the same.
By late 1929, some things were not "rolling along" as they had before. The
disastrous stock market crash in October of that year effectively ended "the
roaring 20s." But the real blow came that December, when poor
management forced the Bank of the United States to shut its doors, wiping
out the life savings of more than 400,000 families. More banks followed suit
over the next few years as the world plunged into the worst economic depression ever known.
Companies failed, jobs disappeared, and with no unemployment insurance or
public assistance to provide a safety net, over one third of American adults
found themselves unable to find work. Despite the hard times (and, in part,
because of them), musical theatre managed to grow and develop. People needed the emotional
satisfaction of good entertainment more than ever. And how did the musical theater oblige?
Next: Stage 1930s