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History of The Musical Stage

The 1930s I: Great Songwriting Teams

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

"Old Man Trouble"

Broadway in the 1930'sEver wonder why Broadway is called "The Great White Way"? This vintage postcard gives an aerial view of Manhattan's glowing theatre district in the 1930s.

 

When the last vaudeville bill closed at New York's Palace Theatre in 1932, some feared that Broadway theatres would soon face 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 (average admission in 1935 was 25 cents) 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 sound."
- 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 urban real estate in cities all across the US, advisors urged them to sell off all or part of the chain and invest in other businesses. In a daring move, the Shuberts declared bankruptcy to clear their corporate debts. Then Lee Shubert dug into his personal savings 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 reducing his hated brother Jacob to a frustrating supportive role), Lee spent millions more to produce shows and keep the 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. As Stanley Green, the dean of musical theatre historians has explained it --

"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 public."
- Stanley Green, Ring Bells! Sing Songs!: Broadway Musicals of the 1930s (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971), p. 12.

The Gershwins

Of Thee I SingWilliam Gaxton, Lois Moran and Victor Moore as they appear on the original cast Playbill cover for Of Thee I Sing.

George and Ira Gershwin turned out six shows in the 1930s, displaying a wider artistic range than any other team at that time. Their hits included –

After two quick failures, the Gershwins gave Broadway a unique jazz opera.

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 and Hart

On Your ToesRay Bolger and Doris Carlson starred as the music-loving lovers in Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes (1936) -- seen here on the cover of an entertainment guide distributed in the 1930s.

Hollywood had been clueless in its handling of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in the early 1930s. After one of their songs was cut from several films, they arranged for it to be recorded independently -- and "Blue Moon" immediately out-sold any song they had written for the screen. Soon afterward, the duo 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.

The Boys From SyracuseEddie Albert and Jimmy Savo are both about to encounter their long lost twins, setting off a storm of mistaken identities in The Boys From Syracuse (1938). Savo's twin was played by Larry Hart's brother Teddy. Although this may sound like pure nepotism, it was really a case of two actors who bore a striking physical resemblance to each other. Critics and audiences praised both performers, and few subsequent casts have been able to offer twins bearing even a vague similarity in appearance.

 

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 and new talents to musical theater, and would be part of dozens of hits in the years to come.

Next: 1930s II - Legendary Revues