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Hassard Short - Forgotten Innovator
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), 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.
Three's A Crowd (1930 - 272) had
a fine score by lyricist (and MGM publicity director)
Howard Dietz and
composer Arthur Schwartz. Libby Holman
sang "Body and Soul" while Clifton Webb
danced. Short kept the production simple and the skits fresh, resulting in a major
money maker at the height of the Great Depression. Under Short's direction,
this was the first Broadway musical of the 20th Century to eliminate footlights,
replacing them with floodlights suspended from the balcony. The practice soon
became an industry-wide standard.
The stars of The Band Wagon as seen on the original
program cover: Tilly Losch, Fred and Adele Astaire, Frank Morgan and Helen Broderick.
The last four went on to film stardom within a few years.
Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb and Helen Broderick in
As Thousands Cheer, one of Hassard Short's sophisticated 1930s revues.
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.
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
This postcard depicting the 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), 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 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.
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.
At Home Abroad
(1935 - 198) had Bea Lillie singing about "Paree" and
attempting to order "a dozen double damask dinner napkins" -- a
hilarious routine she would perform for decades to come. The Schwartz and
Dietz score included showpieces for vocalist Ethel Waters and dancer
Soon after Flo Ziegfeld died in 1934, Lee
Shubert purchased the rights to his old competitor's name and produced two
handsome new editions of the Follies. Both were built around the
stellar comic talents of Fanny Brice. In the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934
(1934 - 182) Brice introduced Baby Snooks, a character she would play
on radio for the remainder of her career. For the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936
(1936 - 227), Brice returned with Bob Hope and Eve Arden on hand
to spoof movie musicals, lotteries, and more.
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