The Saturday List: Five Bees-Knees Musicals of the 1920s

THE STUDENT PRINCE, THE THREEPENNY OPERA and SHOW BOAT are just the bee's knees!
The Student Prince, The Threepenny Opera and Show Boat are just the bee’s knees!

How’s tricks, everyone? Today’s “Saturday List” looks at my top five musicals from the 1920s. There are, of course, many nifty little shows that one might consider in compiling such a list. Honourable mentions like Strike Up the Band, Fifty Million Frenchmen or No, No, Nanette all have their delights, but these five are the cat’s meow for me!

5. Oh, Kay!

There are several shows that I could have placed into this fifth spot, none of which I prize above the other. Could it have been Dearest Enemy? Absolutely! The Desert Song? For sure! What about Funny Face? Why not? As it is, I chose George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse’s Oh, Kay! because it is the show that gave the world that most enduring of standards, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” There are other ebullient pleasures in the score, including the “Do, Do, Do,” “Clap Yo’ Hands” and “Fidgety Feet.” Together, the numbers encapsulate the great appeal of the Gershwins in the 1920s: catchy lyrics and heartfelt sentiments married to the kind of music for which the Germans invented the term “earworm.” It wouldn’t be hard for you to guess then, dear reader, what tune is spinning endlessly in my mind as I’m typing up this column.

4. Mr Cinders

I love a Cinderella story. I’m also a sucker for a good partworks collection. One such series was The Musicals Collection, which allowed me to add the highlights of a cast recording and a magazine to my CD rack once a fortnight. I already knew many of the shows they featured, but several were new to me, including this little gem by Vivian Ellis, Richard Myers, Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman. A reverse gendered version of this most beloved of fairy tales, Mr Cinders toys with social class by placing Jim, a servant at Merton Chase, opposite Jill, an American heiress at the neighbouring home, The Towers. The usual fizzy 1920s plot devices knit together the appealing score, which included a breakout hit in “Spread A Little Happiness.” A collection of witty numbers for the two nasty brothers, “Blue Blood”, “True To Two” and “Honeymoon For Four,” as well as a delightful pair of ensemble numbers, “On With Dance” and “18th Century Drag,” rounded out a jaunty overall set of songs. Although it enjoyed a couple of revivals towards the end of the last century, Mr Cinders has all but disappeared over the past two decades. Here’s hoping for a second rediscovery of this charming little musical!

3. The Student Prince

My way into Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s The Student Prince, as in so many musical theatre matters, was through my grandmother. My grandmother’s record collection was the source of the first musicals I encountered, but it wasn’t until much later that she guided me towards knowing The Student Prince. I was gathering some movie musicals for my gran to watch on her new flatscreen TV, and The Student Prince was one of the films she asked me to find. When I sat down to watch it with her, I had prepared myself for something I’d have to endure. I found myself seduced by the giddy romance of this tale, in which love and life experience transforms the staid Prince Karl into a man who has to choose between the kingdom for which he is responsible or Kathie, the woman he loves. In the interest of full disclosure, the dreamy Edmund Purdom and Mario Lanza’s heartfelt vocal for Prince Karl’s “I Walk With God” (which Nicholas Brodzsky and Paul Francis Webster wrote for the film) sealed the deal for me. As I mentioned when discussing Oh, Kay!, one song can be the gateway to the entire journey. What is particularly bittersweet about The Student Prince is that the piece gives Kathie – to some extent, given the period – agency in bringing Karl to his final decision. Her choices, thoughts and emotions matter as much as his. I don’t know where it would play, but I’d love to see a contemporary revival of this show.

2. The Threepenny Opera

I always respected Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, but I never truly loved it until I saw the National Theatre’s live broadcast of their 2016 production, a new adaptation by Simon Stephens that was directed by Rufus Norris. Watching the incredible cast bring this interpretation of the material to life, I felt within me everything that, until then, I only understood academically about this brilliant piece of theatre. Its unforgiving commentary on human vices such as corruption, exploitation and hypocrisy remains as incisive today as it must have been at its premiere in Germany in 1928. (In truth, perhaps it was watching the United States cut of the 1962 film that had disenchanted my ability to perceive its brilliance until then.) Besides its thematic heft, The Threepenny Opera also numbers in its score some jewels of songwriting, “Pirate Jenny” (which I had the privilege of seeing Bea Arthur sing live in Just Between Friends as she shared her memories of the brilliant Lotte Lenya’s performance of the same song) and the “Jealousy Duet” (which Arthur intones most memorably with Jo Sullivan on the 1954 cast recording of the show) among them. What I enjoy most about The Threepenny Opera, I think, is how layered it is. It’s serious stuff, but it’s so funny. It plays with you as you watch it.  And isn’t play one of the things we desire most when we go to the theatre?

1. Show Boat

One of the most fascinating things about Show Boat is the sheer number of iterations of the show that have played the world’s stages since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II created this landmark musical. These are largely documented in Miles Kreuger’s Show Boat – The Story of a Classic American Musical, offering a rare and detailed tour through the production history of the show up until the time of its final revision in 1990 before going out of print. What makes Show Boat survive the ages? Certainly, its classic score has something to do with it, the grand lyrics and gorgeous melodies of songs like “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” being unforgettable, as is the wit of numbers like “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” the radiant joy of “Why Do I Love You?” and the devastating rawness of “Bill.” That said, there are many great scores that have slipped into the recesses of time. May I submit the idea that it is Hammerstein’s integrity in handling the themes that emerged from Edna Ferber’s novel that lends the show its continued relevance? For in addition to its central love story, Show Boat tackles the shifting dynamics of race relations in the face of a society that espouses the ideal of freedom for all but still treats people unequally in reality. This idea is strongly resonant with our times and in an age where Oklahoma! can be explored with a contemporary sensibility, as was done in Daniel Fish’s recent take on the material, perhaps the time is right for Show Boat to be reinvented yet again.

Well, there you go! As I’ve written this piece, names of other great 1920s shows have popped into my mind, including Bitter Sweet, The Girl Friend and The New Moon. It was a decade of memorable songs that keep one’s foot tapping and heart singing, whether the show overall is a favourite or not!

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