History of the Musical Stage
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State of the Art, Circa 1940
With the world at war and America still suffering echoes of the Great Depression, most Broadway professionals felt that audiences of the early 1940s wanted an escape from reality, the more lighthearted the better. For example, Irving Berlin had reigned as America's most popular composer since 1911, contributing hit songs to numerous stage reviews and films. The 1940s brought his first book musical to Broadway -- Louisiana Purchase (1940 - 444 perfs) a comic send-up of corrupt Louisiana politics co-starring the popular team of William Gaxton and Victor Moore.
After America entered World War II, Berlin triumphed again with This is the Army (1942 - 113 perfs), a revue with an all-Army cast poking lighthearted fun at the trials of military life. Musical highlights included "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen." Berlin himself performed "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which he had introduced in the World War I fundraiser Yip, Yip, Yapank (1918 - 32). After an extended Broadway run, This is the Army toured the US, had a hit London run, and was made into a popular film, eventually earning over $9 million for the Army's Emergency Relief Fund.
In the early 1940s, musical comedy master Cole Porter continued his long-running streak of hits, with four shows that racked up impressive runs
As the 1940s began, great art was not the goal in musical theatre. Most producers and critics were convinced that good songs and good fun were all that theatergoers required. As had happened before and would happen again, the experts were underestimating the ticket-buying public.
Signs of Change
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart took some creative risks with Pal Joey (1940 - 374 perfs), Broadway's first musical to center on an anti-hero. The title character is a sleazy nightclub hoofer who hustles his way to success by manipulating a wealthy mistress, only to lose everything when she dumps him. The score ranged from the innocent romance of "I Could Write A Book" to the sexual bite of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Newcomer Gene Kelly played the title role, with Vivienne Segal as his mistress and June Havoc (vaudeville’s former "Baby June") as one of the nightclub showgirls. Of course, it helped that veteran director George Abbott was on hand to pull all these elements together. Though most critics objected to Pal Joey's seamy subject matter, it ran for a profitable year. Many of the same critics would praise the show when it was revived in 1952.
Ira Gershwin withdrew from songwriting for several years after his brother George's death. He returned in style by teaming with composer Kurt Weill and playwright Moss Hart to create Lady in the Dark (1941 - 467 perfs), the story of a magazine editor using psychoanalysis to explore her emotional insecurities. The music was restricted to several dream sequences in which the main character saw herself at events representing her inner turmoil -- a party, a trial, and a circus. Newcomer Danny Kaye winning performance as an effeminate fashion photographer (and his lightning fast delivery of the patter song "Tschaikowsky") made him an immediate star, but even he could not steal the show from Gertrude Lawrence. With "My Ship" and "Jenny," this masterful stage star kept audiences cheering for the longest run of her career.
An Ending and a Beginning
Rodgers and Hart took a lighter turn with By Jupiter (1942 - 427 perfs), which told of a conflict between ancient Greeks and female Amazon warriors. Although it was a traditional musical comedy, hilarious role reversals between men and women ("You swear like a longshorewoman!") stretched the creative boundaries. A stellar performance by Ray Bolger and a score that included "Wait Till You See Her" made this Rodgers & Hart's longest running show. It was also the last new show they would collaborate on.
Torn by personal demons, Hart had become a hopeless alcoholic. His talents were intact, but he would disappear for days and even weeks at a time, making it impossible to complete new projects. An anxious Rodgers asked his longtime partner to dry out and work with him on a musical adaptation of Lynn Rigg’s unsuccessful play Green Grow the Lilacs. The Theatre Guild, which had given Rodgers and Hart their first big break, needed this project to settle its mounting debts. When Hart refused, Rodgers warned that he was ready to collaborate with Oscar Hammerstein II. Hart encouraged Rodgers to pursue the new partnership, then headed off to Mexico for a drinking spree.
Rodgers got busy with Hammerstein, who had been interested in adapting Green Grow the Lilacs for several years (his longtime collaborator Jerome Kern had rejected the project). Thus began the most renowned creative partnership the American musical theatre has ever known. "They couldn't pick a better time to start in life . . ."
Next: 1940s Part II - Oklahoma