Forgotten Musicals Friday: PEGGY-ANN

Helen Ford in PEGGY-ANN
Helen Ford in Peggy-Ann

Another Friday, another forgotten Rodgers and Hart gem from the 1920s. This week, it’s all about Peggy-Ann, one of the six shows that would credit Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart as composer and lyricist respectively in 1926. We’ve already taken a look at The Girl Friend and Lido Lady, while two revues – The Fifth Avenue Follies, a new version of The Garrick Gaieties – had also made their bow. Their final show of the year, Betsy, would open the day after Peggy-Ann premiered. Quite a busy year!

Historians are inclined to frame Peggy-Ann as a twist on Alice in Wonderland, although given its American nature, I’m inclined to think of it more as a distant cousin of The Wizard of Oz. This is due to the use of an extended dream sequence that was central to the story of the titular heroine, whose everyday life was, like so many Cinderella-type heroines of the 1920s, characterised by drudgery. In this case, Peggy-Ann works in her mother’s boarding house and dreams of a better life for herself, which includes a marriage to her boyfriend, who is a grocery store clerk. By the time the dream sequence ended and the curtain fell, nothing much had happened other than Peggy-Ann making up her mind to go for it.

Peggy-Ann was scripted by Herbert Fields, who based the tale on a 1910 musical called Tillie’s Nightmare, which his father, Lew Fields, had produced. Written by Alfred Baldwin Sloane, John Golden and Edgar Smith, Tillie’s Nightmare had been a star vehicle for Marie Dressler, who would go on to star in a film adaptation alongside Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand under the direction of Mack Sennett. Dressler would go on to star in three sequels, Chaplin would become one of the greatest film legends of all time and Normand and Sennett would become the subjects of the Jerry Herman musical Mack and Mabel. There are incredible intersections between showbiz greats when you dive into the world of Peggy-Ann.

Peggy-Ann was also a show of firsts – or at least of significant lapses from the traditions of the time. The opening chorus that was a staple of 1920s musicals was cast aside in favour of fifteen minutes of dialogue before the show’s first number. The chorus girls were used to establish the situation and plot when they arrived. Also, dream sequences weren’t really a feature of musical theatre at the time and would continue to be an underused mode of storytelling until Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart’s Lady in the Dark in 1941 and Rodgers’s own exploitation of the conceit in collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II in 1943’s Oklahoma!

Two hit songs emerged from the show, “A Tree in the Park” and “Where’s That Rainbow?” The latter has perhaps kept the memory of the show alive, albeit faintly, thanks to its inclusion in the 1949 film, Words and Music, and several cover versions by the likes of Barbra Streisand and Betty Buckley. These and other highlights from the score are available to hear in the playlist at the end of this post. The 42nd Street Moon company in San Francisco also revived the show in a staged concert version in 2002.

Perhaps the biggest win for Rodgers and Hart was the critical response to Peggy-Ann, which ran for 333 performances. Reviews of the time referred to them as a modern Gilbert and Sullivan, indicating that they were now a known quantity on the Broadway scene even as they continued to refine their approach and style.

Want to add your own thoughts about Peggy-Ann? Share your ideas in the comment box below!

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