The Saturday List: 1946 in Musical Theatre

Scenes from ST LOUIS WOMAN (featuring Pearl Bailey), LUTE SONG (featuring Mary Martin) and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (featuring Ethel Merman).
Scenes from St Louis Woman (featuring Pearl Bailey), Lute Song (featuring Mary Martin) and Annie Get Your Gun (featuring Ethel Merman).

Where were you when the first bikini was modelled in Paris? I wasn’t even a twinkle in my father’s eye. In fact, my parents weren’t born yet. It would have been my grandparents taking note of that first appearance of the bikini in 1946, the year chosen for today’s “Saturday List.” This was the year of Eva Perón’s Rainbow Tour, an event dramatised in the musical Evita three decades later. A good portion of the year was engaged with the Nuremberg trials, which had started late in 1945, and the subsequent executions during which ten prominent political and military leaders from Nazi Germany were put to death by hanging. Elsewhere, the first meetings of the United Nations, an institution established to prevent future world wars, took place. MENSA, a society with non-political aims for an IQ-measured “intellectual aristocracy,” was founded at Lincoln College in Oxford, England, in 1946. As is usual in history, we see people create forces that drive us apart even more quickly than those which might bring us together. At the movies, three musicals would place among the year’s top-grossing films: The Jolson Story and Night and Day, biographical musicals about Al Jolson and Cole Porter, and Blue Skies, an Irving Berlin jukebox musical. The top spots on the music charts belonged to Eddy Howard and His Orchestra for their rendition of the title song from the film To Each His Own and Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five for their blues and country-flavoured “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” Words-wise, 1946 was the year that a mistranslation of the Bible fuelled the biblical basis for prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people. The assertion that homosexuality was sinful impacted politics and human rights with deadly consequences. I had to take a beat to process that fact once again when writing this – it’s a lot – and moving to what was happening in musicals in this first year following the end of World War II.  

1. The Award Winners for Best Musical

1946 is a year that pre-dates the Tony Awards – so there’s not much to discuss here. There’s no doubt which show would have taken the Best Musical prize – look no further than Annie Get Your Gun. One hopes, though, that in true Tony Awards style, St Louis Woman would have appeared across the board when it came to the nominations and even taken home some of the prizes.

2. Most Overrated

It might be considered unfair to name a flop from the season as an overrated show, but 1946 had only a few shows that gave their net margins a run for the money. There’s also a difference between what a show was and what it means, which is why this week, I am going to take the unusual route of naming the same show as the most overrated and the most underrated of the season: Lute Song. While Lute Song lost something like $100 000 of its initial investment, it was considered by many critics to be a succès d’estime. It appeared on lists naming the best plays of 1946, and even critics who could not access its gentle pace raved about its aesthetics. Its 142-performance run was just short of the average run of musicals that opened in the same year, well ahead of the median show, which ran about half as long. The aspects of the show that are overrated in terms of its legacy really have to do with the typical yet problematic ways of representing China at the time: the use of yellowface and the sense of generic so-called Oriental pageantry in its dramatic structure, musical approach and design. It’s in recognising the way that the ending of the source material, Pipa ji, was shifted to suit the American standard of marital monogamy and to placate the egos of the show’s star, Mary Martin and her husband, Richard Halliday, who claimed that sharing a man was unworthy of a star of Martin’s status. It’s in understanding how songs like “See the Monkey” land(ed) on the year – then and now. It’s picking through the stories about co-star Yul Brynner’s heritage (leading to the follow-up question of whether minorities are interchangeable when it comes to casting) and life experience (did he really see Pipa ji in China, leaving such an impression on him that he simply had to do this show?) as ways of justifying his casting in the show, which had no Chinese American cast members and only a Japanese American choreographer, Yeichi Nimura, as a gesture towards any kind of authenticity. And that’s before we even get to the yellowface, the designer gowns created for Martin’s character when she is at her poorest in the narrative’s arc, and the Chinese ideography used randomly to infer some kind of overall integrity in the design. This list includes what many white American theatre critics referenced as the show’s positive aspects. In that sense, the critical reaction to the show was most certainly overrated. Had it not been for an article I read while preparing this column, Josh Stenberg’s “How far does the sound of a Pipa carry? Broadway adaptation of a Chinese classical drama” in Volume 14: 2 of the journal, Studies in Musical Theatre, that is where I might have left things.

3. Most Underrated

If you have not read Stenberg’s article, I urge you to seek it out. It really gets to grips with the idea of what Lute Song means despite what it was. He puts it better than I ever could in his abstract for his essay.

The 1946 Broadway premiere of Lute Song represents a milestone in reception of the Chinese dramatic tradition in the United States…. (I)t must be situated at the beginnings of a more respectful relationship to China and Chinese people, as the American stage began to move beyond treatments of China dominated by racist vaudeville or fantastical fairy tales. Instead, Lute Song emerged from a classic text, the long drama Pipa ji…. Lute Song, one of several indirect adaptations of Chinese dramas in the American mid-century, represents a milestone as the first Broadway show inspired by American immigrant Chinatown theatre and the first Broadway musical to be based on Chinese classical drama, mediated through European Sinology.

What Stenberg does well in his piece is explore both sides of the story convincingly. What he has to say gave me a great deal of food for thought and reminded me of the complexities existing in cultural texts from the past – a solid reason for Lute Song to be the most underrated show of 1946.

4. Hidden Gem 

Two shows might have taken this spot: St Louis Woman and Beggar’s Holiday. There might have made a nice moment to select the latter, which is derived from one of the root texts of the musical theatre format, The Beggar’s Opera, and which is jazz great Duke Ellington’s only stage show in this format – but one’s access to the show as it was is quite limited and severely mediated through a 2004 rewrite by Dale Wasserman, which is significantly different from the original in structure and tone – which means, I suppose, that the original truly is a hidden gem. On the other hand, St Louis Woman benefits from having both an original cast album and a recording of the score from a 1998 Encores presentation, which was by its very nature an attempt to represent the musical faithfully in a concert format. The crowning glory of this show is its score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Listening to standards from the score, like “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” alongside its other pleasures, including “Legalize My Name,” ‘I Feel My Luck Comin’ Down’, ”It’s a Woman’s Prerogative,” “I Wonder What Became of Me” and “Leavin’ Time,” it’s hard to imagine why this show hasn’t survived the ages like Oklahoma! or Carousel. Of course, the reason is its book, which doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be an operatic tragedy (the comparisons with Porgy and Bess at the time are an insight into this idea) or a more traditional musical comedy of the period (which is what, sadly, was the more common expectation for musicals focused on the African American experience on Broadway, and part of the reason that the NAACP criticised the musical). All of this shows the weight of expectations that theatre-makers must face, particularly with stories like the one told in St Louis Woman in the context of the 1940s. Could it be time for a revisal to transform material in the great musical play that it should have been?

5. Show of the Year

One show dominated 1946: Annie Get Your Gun. It ran longer by a third than its closet rival, the post-war revue, Call Me Mister, and is still one of the top 100 longest-running Broadway shows. In revival, it has proved just as successful, albeit in a revised format, with the 1999 production trailing only 15 spots behind the original. Would the show have been as successful with a Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score as was originally intended? Who knows? It would have certainly been a different show, but Kern’s sudden death opened a door for Irving Berlin into a new musical theatre world, one that he feared. Berlin was initially concerned that he could not write songs to suit a show differently structured from those he was accustomed to. After all, this musical was being created post-Oklahoma!, and the writers of that smash hit, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, were set to produce Annie Get Your Gun. But after an intervention by Hammerstein, Berlin delivered the first three songs of what would become a hit-filled score: “Doin’ What Comes Naturally,” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” With the songs that established the leading character’s journey in place and tailored to the talents of the show’s star, Ethel Merman, Berlin was on his way. There’s nary a misstep in the subsequent material Berlin drummed up, although the songs for the secondary couple, Tommy and Winnie, are arguably the least inspired. In fact, there’s only one song that never needs to be heard in a contemporary production of Annie Get Your Gun ever again, the racist “I’m an Indian, Too.” (Sorry, folks, the counterargument that the song is a satirical take on racial stereotyping just doesn’t wash, and it certainly doesn’t play.) The accompanying “Wild Horse Ceremonial Dance” and “Adoption Dance” can be jettisoned too. That’s just what happened in the 1999 revival, along with some retooling of the book to adjust how the Native American characters were portrayed. Did Peter Stone hit the mark? Not quite, but it was a step in the right direction. What’s missing, perhaps, in the attempt to create an ideal fictional word for Annie Get Your Gun is a criticism of the stereotyping and treatment of Native American groups in the real world in which this fictionalised biography is set. Nonetheless, Annie Get Your Gun is a cultural touchstone. On paper, it shows us what 1946 – rather than 1876, when the show was set – was like in the USA. In the sense that it is a show of its time, it certainly is the musical of the year.

All things told, 1946 was an interesting year in musical theatre and perhaps more of a cultural reflection point than it first might appear to be. The musicals from this year, even beyond those mentioned in this column, show the theatre-makers of a dramatic form grappling with the world around it, willing to hold up the mirror and reflect what they were seeing, but not to smash the mirror itself and rebuild something magnificent from the fragments.

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