(The images below are thumbnails click on them
to see larger versions.)
"Old Man Trouble"
A vintage postcard gives this aerial view of Manhattan's
glowing theatre district ("The Great White Way") in the
When the last vaudeville bill closed at New York's Palace Theatre in
1932, some feared that the Broadway musical was doomed to a similar fate.
Stage musicals were charging three dollars for an orchestra seat at a time
when many people could not afford a five cent movie admission. If ticket buyers
were scarce, investors were almost extinct. By 1935, investment dollars were
so hard to find that Broadway did not see its first new musical of
the year until late May. With the Great Depression at its worst and
many going hungry, how could Broadway hope to survive?
Some producers complained that films were taking away the audiences that
used to attend live theater, but that was not the whole truth. A 1932 study
commissioned by Actor's Equity suggested that
. . . movies largely created their own audiences . . . (and)
would not have hurt the legitimate theater appreciably had its internal conditions been
- Alfred Bernheim, The Business of the Theater (1932 -
reprinted by Benjamin Blom Inc., NY, 1964), pp. 85-86.
Since most of Lee and Jacob Shubert's
theaters stood on prime real estate locations in cities all across the US, advisors urged
them to sell off all or part of the chain.. In a daring move, the Shuberts declared
bankruptcy to clear their corporate debts. Then Lee Shubert dug into his personal
fortune to re-purchase the corporate assets at a fraction of their old value,
including all the theatres. After taking primary control of the company (and leaving
his hated brother Jacob in a frustrating supportive role), Lee spent millions
more to produce shows and keep theaters open. Thanks to this investment,
theatre buildings all across the United States were preserved and the professional
theater survived the Great Depression.
Despite extraordinary financial and political turmoil, the 1930s saw the Broadway
musical reach new creative heights.
The musical theatre the most opulent, escapist,
extravagant, and unabashedly commercial form of the theatre could not
hide from what was going on. Of course, it could still provide relief from
reality. It could still offer evenings of mirth and song and glamour. But it
showed a growing awareness of its own unique ability to make telling
comments on such issues of the day as the folly of war, municipal
corruption, political campaigns, the workings of the federal government, the
rising labor movement, the dangers of both the far right and the far left,
and the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. It discovered that a
song lyric, a tune, a wisecrack, a bit of comic business, a dance routine
could say things with even more effectiveness than many a serious minded
drama simply because the appeal was to a far wider spectrum of the theatergoing
- Stanley Green, Ring Bells! Sing Songs!: Broadway Musicals of the
1930s (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971), p. 12.
William Gaxton, Lois Moran and Victor Moore as
they appear on the original cast Playbill cover for Of Thee
Ira Gershwin turned out six shows in the
1930s, displaying a wider artistic range than any other team at that time. Their
Strike Up the Band
(1930 - 191), a political satire that had the United States and Switzerland
go to war over high chocolate tariffs. The jaunty title march and the
ballad "I've Got a Crush on You" became popular favorites.
Girl Crazy (1930 - 272) told of a rich New York playboy
falling in love with an Arizona cowgirl. The show starred
Ginger Rogers but was
stolen by Ethel Merman, a
stenographer from Queens who made a sensational Broadway debut belting
out "Sam and Delilah" and "I Got Rhythm."
Of Thee I Sing (1931 - 441) was the
longest running Broadway book musical of the 1930s. The Gershwins worked
with script writers George S. Kaufman and
Morrie Ryskind on this satirical tale of a President who gets elected
(and almost impeached) because he marries the woman he loves. Several
scenes were set to music in a semi-operatic format, but the score was pure musical
comedy. The Gershwin score included "Who Cares," "Love Is Sweeping
The Country" and the martial title tune. Starring
and Victor Moore (pictured above),
Of Thee I Sing was the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for
After two quick failures, the Gershwins gave Broadway a unique jazz opera.
For Porgy and Bess (1935 - 124) the Gershwins teamed
with writer DuBose Heyward to adapt Porgy, his novel and
hit play (co-adapted by wife Dorothy Heyward) about poor blacks
living in the dockside tenements of Charleston. It had passion,
infidelity, rape and heartbreak -- all the makings of grand opera.
George Gershwin's score offered a singular blend of classical, popular and
jazz styles was possible only on Broadway. Most Depression-era critics and
theater goers were less than enthusiastic about seeing such a serious show,
so the original production was a financial failure. But Porgy and Bess
became more popular over time, with acclaimed Broadway revivals in 1942
(286 perfs), 1952 (305 perfs), and 1976 (129 perfs). In 1985, it became the
first Broadway musical to enter the repertory of The Metropolitan Opera
Company. It seems some triumphs are so great that it takes fifty years for
them to set in.
George Gershwin was working in Hollywood when he died due to a brain tumor in 1937. We
can only imagine what he might have contributed to musical theater and film had he lived
longer. Although heartbroken, Ira would work on many important stage and screen
scores through the 1950s, so his name re-appears in the pages ahead.
Rodgers & Hart
Bolger and Doris Carlson starred as the music-loving lovers in On Your
Toes (1936). Their photo appears on the cover of an entertainment guide
distributed in the 1930s.
After a frustrating sojourn in Hollywood during the early 1930s,
Richard Rodgers and
Lorenz Hart returned to Broadway
to write an enviable string of musical comedy hits. In each case, a lighthearted
script was sprinkled with marvelous songs, some integrated into the action and
some not. Comfortably enriching traditional musical comedy with innovative
flair, Rodgers and Hart were at the top of their game.
Jumbo (1935 - 233) was a circus spectacle staged in
the old Hippodrome Theatre. It featured a live elephant, expert
clowning by Jimmy Durante, and the hit songs
"The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and "My
Romance." Tickets sold well, but producer Billy Rose's record-setting
$340,000 budget made it impossible for the production to turn a profit.
On Your Toes (1936 - 463) starred
Ray Bolger as a classical music professor
(and former vaudeville dancer) who finds himself entangled in the world of
classical ballet. This was the first Broadway musical to make dramatic use of
classical dance. Choreographer
George Balanchine staged
several numbers, including the "Slaughter On Tenth
Avenue Ballet." The score boasted "There's a Small Hotel"
and "Its Got to Be Love."
Babes In Arms (1937 - 289) had stage struck teenagers
putting on a show to raise
money for their impoverished vaudevillian parents.
Alfred Drake and
The Nicholas Brothers were in
the youthful cast, and the hit-drenched score included "My Funny
Valentine," "Where or When," "Johnny One Note" and
"The Lady is a Tramp."
I'd Rather Be Right (1937 - 290) was a political satire
starring George M. Cohan as a
singing, dancing President Franklin Roosevelt. The most memorable number was
"Have You Met Miss Jones?"
I Married An Angel (1938 - 338) told of a Hungarian
count who finds his prayed-for marriage to an actual angel ruined by her
Eddie Albert and Jimmy Savo each of whom is
about to encounter his long lost twin, setting off a storm of mistaken
identities in The Boys From Syracuse (1938).
The Boys From Syracuse (1938 - 235) was an adaptation of
Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, with two sets of long-lost
identical twins getting caught in hilarious identity mix-ups in
ancient Greece. Rodgers & Hart's superb score included "Sing
for Your Supper" and "Falling in Love With Love." Eddie
Albert made his musical debut singing "This Can't Be Love."
Too Many Girls (1939 - 249) featured newcomers Desi
Arnaz, Eddie Bracken and Van Johnson as college football
stars hired to protect a millionaire's freshman daughter. The songs
included "Give It Back to the Indians" and "I Didn't
Know What Time It Was."
As director and librettist, George Abbott was a major
contributor to five Rodgers & Hart hits. His fast-paced staging and naturalistic comic
dialogue set the tone for American musical comedy from the 1930s right into the 1960s. A
no-nonsense director, he was not afraid to introduce new elements to musical theater.
Next: 1930s II - Legendary Revues