Regular readers will likely recall that, as part of my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory, my students take part in a staged reading of a historically significant but relatively unknown or even forgotten musical. The idea is to expose them to shows that they otherwise might not have a chance to perform in, or even see. I usually like to say that if I tell people the name of the show I'm directing, and that person has actually heard of it, then I have failed.
Now, this isn't entirely true, but it conveys the essence of my goal. The inaugural show in this series, in the fall of 2009, was the George M. Cohan musical Little Johnny Jones (1905). Last semester we did Very Good Eddie (1915), one of the influential "Princess musicals," with scores by Jerome Kern. Not exactly top-of-mind theater fare, but nonetheless historically significant in the development of the musical-theater form.
This semester, I wanted to do a topical revue, a very common genre in the 1920s and 1930s, although the form has since virtually disappeared. These shows essentially grew out of the lavish Broadway revues that sprang up between the two world wars, the most famous being those of Florenz Ziegfeld. Other entrants in this genre included Earl Carroll’s Vanities, George White’s Scandals, and the Shubert brothers’ Passing Show series. The revues of the '20s were mostly escapist fare, although they did contain the occasional nod to topicality and social relevance.
The 1930s were a time when the Broadway revue would reach both its maturity and ultimate decline. The standard formula featured marquee-value stars, tuneful scores, and copious dance. Add in plenty of vaudevillian-style humor and some stunning visuals – in the form of lavish sets and costumes, and a brace of pulchritudinous showgirls – and the stage was set for a grand night at the theater. The least interesting revues of the ’30s were little more than variety shows. But the most compelling were an art form in themselves, reflecting a cohesion that brought all the elements together into a unique experience, often one with a lot more on its mind than mere entertainment.
In the transition from the '20s to the '30s, the tone of shows on Broadway changed a great deal, and the revue form followed suit. With the advent of the Depression, left-leaning creators co-opted the musical art form to decry, lament, and otherwise comment on the seeming collapse of capitalism. Among the more satiric revue offerings were Pins and Needles, Life Begins at 8:40, and As Thousands Cheer, the last of which the students of my musical-theater history class will be presenting this Saturday and Sunday at the Boston Conservatory.
Fresh from the success of their well-received Face the Music (which features an unscrupulous producer who wants to deliberately produce a flop show - sound familiar?), composer/lyricist Irving Berlin and librettist Moss Hart turned their satiric eye to the events of the day. They chose as their framing device the daily newspaper. Each of the scenes and songs in the show was preceded by a newspaper headline, with sketches that poked fun at wide variety of subjects, from the marital woes of Barbara Hutton ("Barbara Hutton to Marry Prince Mdvani") and Joan Crawford ("Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Announce Divorce"), to Gandhi and Aimee Semple McPherson ("Gandhi Goes on New Hunger Strike"), to an embittered President and Mrs. Hoover leaving the White House ("Franklin Delano Roosevelt Inaugurated Tomorrow"). The score featured what would become some of Berlin's most popular songs, including "Easter Parade" (The Rotogravure Section) and "Heat Wave" ("Heat Wave Hits New York City").
But the most memorable, and heartbreaking moment in the show comes in the second act. An African-American woman sings what initially seems to be yet another "He Done Me Wrong" torch song, but at the end of the song the headline reveals the stark truth: "Unknown Negro Lynched by Angry Mob in Mississippi." The song is the simple but stunning "Supper Time," and we have the great fortune of having BoCo junior Lori Tishfield to perform it. (Mark that name my friends. Some day soon you will see it in lights.) As Thousands Cheer was the first Broadway show to give an African-American star, in this case the legendary Ethel Waters, equal billing with whites.
The original 1933 production also featured Marilyn Miller, in her final stage appearance before her premature death, as well as Clifton Webb and Helen Broderick. The show ran at Irving Berlin's Music Box Theatre for some 400 performances, which was pretty impressive for a show that opened in the heart of the Depression. The show has had only one significant revival, in 1998 at New York's Drama Department. That production was directed by Christopher Ashley and featured musical staging by Kathleen Marshall. The cast included Kevin Chamberlin, Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillin, Paula Newsome, Mary Beth Peil and B. D. Wong, and it produced the show's only original cast recording. (Cast recordings didn't really catch on until the 1940s with Oklahoma, although both Pins and Needles and The Cradle Will Rock were recorded prior to that.)
So, hey, if you're in the 'hood, and want to see a show that you otherwise might not have a chance to catch, why not head down to the Boston Conservatory. The show is this Saturday at 9PM and Sunday at 7PM, both in the Zack Box Theater at 8 The Fenway. We'd love to see you there.