Starting this semester, I've added staged readings to my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory. The idea is to give the students a chance to experience some obscure but historically significant shows, works that they would otherwise be unlikely to have a chance to see or appear in. This semester, we're doing Little Johnny Jones, which was the show that put George M. Cohan on the map. Next semester, I'm looking into doing one of the "Princess" shows, perhaps Oh, Boy! or Very Good Eddie.
Initially, I was hoping to perform the original script and score to Little Johnny Jones. My first difficulty: they were rather challenging to track down, but I eventually found the libretto through the good folks at Goodspeed Opera House. As of yet, I've only been able to locate fragments of the original score. But the hunt for the score proved moot when I read the original book to Little Johnny Jones, which was creaky to the point of being virtually unplayable.
History books often point to the aforementioned Princess shows as the start of the musical-theater integration process. As significant as those shows are, they came about a decade after the first Cohan shows. Prior to Cohan, most early American musical comedies were fragmented and diffuse. The songs and dances usually had little or nothing to do with the plot of the show, and were often changed to suit popular tastes and new performers. Cohan brought a bit more cohesion to the American musical, with songs and dances that were at least marginally related to the story. But that doesn't mean the shows were any good, at least by modern standards.
But there was another challenge to presenting the original show: racism. I had always read that Cohan shows were patriotic to the point of jingoism, and Little Johnny Jones certainly reflects that nationalistic bent, with foreigners portrayed in a rather unflattering light. But the original show also presents some challenging racial stereotypes, mostly with respect to the Chinese and Asian Americans. There's even a song in the second act called "March of the Frisco Chinks."
I've always taught my students that shows should be considered in their historical context. The very first word to Show Boat is the N-word, and my contention is that it should remain so, although many modern productions change the lyric to "colored folk work on the Mississippi" or "Here we all work on the Mississippi." The folks at the BoCo came across this conundrum last year when we presented a concert version of Show Boat, prompting a good deal of discussion and controversy. Eventually we went with "colored folk," a choice that I disagree with, but given the strength of feeling from our African American students, it may have been the wisest political move at the time.
As for Little Johnny Jones, fortunately there's a revised version, which was originally presented at the Goodspeed, and then transferred to Broadway. The show starred Donny Osmond as Johnny (opposite the BoCo's own Maureen Brennan in the ingenue role), and only lasted one performance. In his New York Times review, Frank Rich slammed Alfred Uhry's reworked book as a "synthetic hodgepodge," while acknowledging that the original would probably have been "just as unworkable."
The new book does indeed have its problems, but I have decided to use it rather than the original for a number of reasons. First, I can't find the complete original score. (Anyone?) Second, Uhry's adaptation, while workaday, is a considerable improvement. And a distant third is the racism. The new book still has Chinese stereotypes, but Uhry makes some changes that make it all a bit more palatable. Again, the goal is to expose students to historically significant shows. And, interestingly enough, the new book does indeed reflect the imperfect integration of shows at that time, and it will be considerably more pleasant for the audience to sit through. The historian in me hates to compromise, but the showman in me wants to put on an enjoyable, and educational, show.