History of The Musical Stage

1930s - Part II: Legendary Revues

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)

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

Hassard Short - Forgotten Innovator

hassard.jpg (4210 bytes)Director Hassard Short, who brought new style to the Broadway revues of the 1930s.

Revues remained popular in the 1930s, but the form underwent radical redefinition. The old "girls and gags" formula lost its appeal. Florenz Ziegfeld had ten composers contribute to a new Follies (1931 - 165 performances), but lukewarm reviews and high production costs made it impossible for the show to turn a profit, ending a legendary series. George White's Scandals and Earl Carroll's Vanities also faded away after unsuccessful editions in the early 1930s. Bigger was no longer better on Broadway.

Limited budgets and changing tastes demanded a fresh approach. As the decade rolled by, the more inventive a revue was, the more likely its success -- and the best of them were staged by groundbreaking director and choreographer Hassard Short, working with producer Max Gordon. Taking a long-overdue cue from the London revues of Charlot and Cochran, Short tossed out the overblown sets and curvaceous chorines of the 1920s, relying instead on stronger scores and innovative visual ideas that could please audiences without bankrupting producers. The social and political upheavals of the 1930s offered abundant topical material, and talented writers were looking for work.

Program cover for The BandwagonThe stars of The Band Wagon as seen on the original program cover: Tilly Losch, Fred and Adele Astaire, Frank Morgan and Helen Broderick.

The Band Wagon (1931 - 260) reunited Short, Dietz and Schwartz, with playwright George S. Kaufman providing the skits. This witty revue offered "I Love Louisa," the sensuous "Dancing in the Dark," and Adele and Fred Astaire in their last joint appearance. Short staged the show on a pair of gigantic turntables, making swift scene changes in full view of the audience – the first use of this technology in a Broadway musical. Some critics suggested that no revue could top The Band Wagon, but that challenge wouldn't go unanswered for long.

Producer Sam Harris brought together Hassard Short with composer Irving Berlin and playwright Moss Hart for Face the Music (1932 - 165). It followed The Band Wagon into the same theatre, so Short was able to use the double turntable stage again, and to even more dramatic effect. There was a thin excuse for a plot (a corrupt cop pours graft money into a Broadway revue), but the result was more of a revue than a book musical. Topical humor in the songs and scenes aimed at such diverse targets as high society, show biz tradition, and Albert Einstein. Berlin's "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" depicted socialites impoverished by the Depression dining with the poor at the automat. Despite rave reviews and strong ticket sales, Face the Music was forced to close when star Mary Boland headed off to Hollywood.

As Thousands CheerMarilyn Miller, Clifton Webb and Helen Broderick in As Thousands Cheer, one of director Hassard Short's sophisticated 1930s revues.

In As Thousands Cheer (1933 - 400), Sam Harris reunited Short, Berlin and Moss to create the most acclaimed Broadway revue of the decade. They used a newspaper format to satirize current events and celebrities. Marilyn Miller (in her last Broadway appearance) dazzled audiences by playing Joan Crawford, heiress Barbara Hutton, a newlywed, and a little girl – among other roles! Berlin's masterful score included "Easter Parade" and "Heat Wave." "Easter Parade," had the chorus dressed in shades of brown and tan, invoking the look of sepia-toned photo magazines (then known as "rotogravures"). "Suppertime," a disturbing ballad inspired by racist lynchings in the Southern US, was sung to shattering effect by African American vocalist Ethel Waters.

The Great Waltz

The Great WaltzThis postcard depicting the lavish finale of The Great Waltz was distributed free to audience members. A note on the back reads, "Why not let one of your friends know how much you enjoyed The Great Waltz? If you address this card and give it to one of the ushers, we will post it for you."

Some react to hard times by spending like there is no tomorrow, a tactic that can have surprising results. Backed by financier John D. Rockefeller, producer Max Gordon and director Hassard Short abandoned their usual sense of economy and pulled out all the stops for The Great Waltz (1934 - 298 performances), a musical biography of Johann Strauss II that used some of "The Waltz King's" most popular melodies. With a cast of 180, over 500 costumes and massive sets moved by an innovative hydraulic system, it was the biggest spectacle Broadway had seen in decades. The "Blue Danube" finale brought a 53 piece orchestra up from the depths, eight crystal chandeliers down from above, and the entire cast waltzing on in lavish period attire. Most critics dismissed all this spectacle, but ticket buyers packed the 3,000 seat Center Theatre (now the site of Rockefeller Center's parking garage) for months, making the show a profitable hit.

The Great Waltz was the exception. Most Broadway producers had no Rockefeller to foot their bills, so they had to find an attractive alternative to costly book shows. That is why the 1930s became the golden age for budget-conscious Broadway revues.

Shubert Revues

The Shuberts were accused of many things, but good taste had never been among them. That changed when Lee Shubert took full control of production in the 1930s. Forcing his contentious brother Jacob to grumble on the sidelines, Lee surprised everyone in the business by producing several high-quality revues.

The longest running production of the decade was a very different kind of revue -- the only Broadway hit to date that got its start as an amateur show.

Next: Stage 1930s - Part III