(The images below are thumbnails click on them to
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Three of the most successful Broadway revues of the 1930s came from unexpected
sources -- a labor union, a "has been" pair of vaudeville comedians, and London's
Pins and Needles
Mussolini (Murray Modick) and Hitler (Berni Gould)
portray themselves as "Angels of Peace" in
Pins and Needles.
The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was using the old
Princess Theatre as a meeting hall. Several members talked the union into sponsoring
an inexpensive revue that had only two pianos in the pit and a cast made up of ILGWU
workers. Because of their factory jobs, rehearsals had to be held at night
and on weekends, and performances could only be offered on Fridays and Saturdays.
The appropriately named Pins and Needles (1937 - 1,108)
looked at current events from a pro-union standpoint. Skits by various authors spoofed
everything from Fascist European dictators to bigots in the DAR, and the score by young
composer-lyricist Harold Rome included "Sing Me
a Song of Social Significance" and "It's Better With a Union Man."
Pins and Needles was fresh, melodic and funny, and word of
mouth was so enthusiastic that the production soon expanded to a full
performance schedule. Of course, the cast abandoned their day jobs. As the show ran
into the next decade, new songs and skits were introduced every few months
to keep things topical. Pins and Needles is the only hit ever
produced by a labor union -- and the only time when a group of unknown
non-professionals brought a successful musical to Broadway.
A flyer for the long-running
slapstick revue Hellzapoppin. The artwork gives some indication of what a crazy
sight-gag whirlwind this show was.
The longest-running Broadway production of the
1930s was Hellzapoppin' (1938 - 1,404), a rowdy hodgepodge of
skits and routines created by the vaudeville comedy team of Ole Olsen and
Chic Johnson. They had no previous Broadway hits, and several other
attempts by former vaudevillians to create revues had failed. So Olsen &
Johnson caught critics and audiences off guard with this insane show -- and
the effect was definitely one of barely controlled insanity. Opening with
a mock newsreel in which Hitler spoke with a Yiddish accent, Hellzapoppin'
combined zany slapstick stage acts with wild audience participation gags. Midgets,
clowns and trained pigeons added a circus touch. New bits were constantly added
to freshen the mayhem.
The score by lyricist Charles Tobias and noted composer Sammy Fain was almost
an afterthought as if anyone cared about songs with titles like "Fuddle Dee
Duddle"! Hellzapoppin' became the longest running Broadway musical up to that
time. Olsen & Johnson staged successful sequels through the next decade, but never
matched the phenomenal success of this show.
Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence performing "Has Anybody Seen Our
Ship?" in Tonight at 8:30.
The 1930s were a lackluster decade for British musical theater, with the glittering
exception of one multi-faceted talent Noel Coward.
His songs and plays made him the only Englishman to conquer both London and Broadway
during this period. His transcontinental stage hits in this decade included
The Third Little Show
(1931 - 136) featured Coward's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," a
showstopper for Coward's longtime friend and sometime nemesis Bea Lillie.
Tonight at 8:30
(1936 - 118) featured Coward and Gertrude
Lawrence in a series of nine one-acts including the musical
The Red Peppers, in which they played an argumentative music hall
Set to Music (1939 - 129) featured
Bea Lillie singing Coward's hilarious "I've Been to A
Coward was at his creative peak in this decade, turning out hit
songs, revues, comedies and dramas. Coward made memorable appearances on Broadway
in two of his finest comedies, Private Lives (1930) and Design For Living
(1933). His London stage spectacle Cavalcade (1931) was considered
"too British" for a Broadway production, but a lavish screen adaptation
won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1933. Combining a stinging
condemnation of war with fervent British patriotism, it included Coward's
"Twentieth Century Blues." (You can find more info on "The
Master" in Coward 101.)
The 1930s saw the Broadway revue reach unprecedented heights of
creativity and popularity. But network radio began offering all-star variety
entertainment seven nights a week at no charge. Revues became rare on Broadway in the
1940s, and eventually moved to the less expensive realm of Off-Broadway. From the 1950s
onward, revues also thrived on network television, where such latter day luminaries as
Carol Burnett would carry on the
musical and comic traditions initiated by Flo Ziegeld, George White and Hassard Short.
Next: Stage 1930s - Part IV