The success of The Garrick Gaieties opened up doors for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Although they had tried to get Dearest Enemy produced before, those who were considered to be “in the know” had thought that a musical by a relatively untried songwriting team that dealt with an apparently trivial event during the American Revolutionary War would never fly. But with a hit like “Manhattan” behind them, Dearest Enemy suddenly became a viable proposition. With a book by Herbert Fields, direction by John Murray Anderson, the direction of the libretto by Charles Sinclair and Harry Ford and dance and ensemble direction by Carl Hemmer, the show ended up running for 286 performances. The show made Helen Ford a star and how much of that had to do with her entrance wearing only a barrel is up for conjecture!
At the centre of Dearest Enemy is the historic incident of how Mary Lindley Murray detained the British troops in her home, thereby allowing 4000 American soldiers to sneak past and assemble in Washington Heights in 1776. Fields threw in a couple of fictional love stories, between Jane, Mary’s daughter, and Harry Tyron, the British general’s son and between Betsy Burke, Mary’s niece, and Sir John Copeland, a British captain, and Rodgers and Hart gave them all a sunny score through which all and sundry could be romanced.
It’s nice to have a musical from the 1920s with so much material available to explore. In the 1950s, a television broadcast of the show was flighted and this is now available on DVD – wonderful! A cast recording lifted from the soundtrack of the television special is available, as is a studio recording from the 1980s. Truly wonderful, however, is the 2012 studio cast recording from New World Records, a jam-packed, beautifully performed recording of the score. It has the ring of authenticity in its approach, but it never feels jarring on our modern ear either. It gorgeously showcases the finest moments of the score: its cornerstone, “Here in My Arms,” the characterful and witty “I’d Like to Hide It,” the touching “Bye and Bye” and the catchy and irreverent “Sweet Peter.” Personally, I think it’s an essential cast album in any musical theatre fan’s collection.
Although the history books sadly seem to consider Dearest Enemy somewhat unremarkable, I think it has a bit more joy on offer all told, even more so given the period in which it was created. And with retooled and “new” Gerswhin shows like Crazy For You and Nice Work If You Can Get It surfacing all the time, perhaps it’s time that someone dusted off Dearest Enemy for the audiences of today.
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