Old Musicals Like New

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Whiting should have told a story dating back to 1940, when Arlen and Mercer came to her home (Margaret's father was another Mercer collaborator, Richard Whiting; they wrote "Hooray for Hollywood") eager to play a song they had just composed for a Warner Bros. melodrama. From the first bars of "Blues in the Night" ("My momma done tol' me…") everybody knew the song was gold. Inexplicably, it was left off the song list at the Y.

But the audience, of which an estimated 80% were older than I am (and I've been humming these songs for 50 years or more), was indulgent, enthralled, in the moment — at once in the present and the beloved past. When an on-stage screen flashed the lyrics to "Moon River," almost everyone sang along, in tribute to Mercer, their huckleberry friend, and to the avid consumers of great pop music they all, we all, were.


With a book by director George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his brother Ira, Of Thee I Sing opened Dec. 26, 1931, with George conducting the orchestra, and ran for 441 performances. It would be the Gershwin's biggest hit, and the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The award went to Kaufman, Ryskind and Ira Gershwin for supplying the words; George, who supplied the immortal music, was not eligible. (The decision chafed him.)

Set in what seemed the depths of the Depression — how little they knew — the play relates the machinations of political bosses to get its man, John Wintergreen (here, Broadway veteran Victor Garber), into the White House. Bereft of ideas or ideals, they take the advice of a chambermaid and run on a platform of Love. Their scheme is to stage an Atlantic City beauty contest and marry off the winner, a Southern honeypot named Diana Devereaux (wowser Jenny Powers), to the bachelor Wintergreen. The candidate, though, has fallen for his secretary, Mary Turner (Jennifer Laura Thompson, fresh from playing Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked). The John-loves-Mary affair wins the hearts of the electorate, and Wintergreen is soon President. But an international scandal explodes when the French Ambassador reveals that the spurned Miss Devereaux is "the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon." The President is impeached, with proceedings chaired by the comically anonymous Vice President Throttlebottom (Jefferson Mays, of I Am My Own Wife, in an endearing Mr. Cellophane turn). All is resolved when Mary announces she is pregnant, with twins. Posterity is just around the corner. Of thee I sing, babies!

According to Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski, Kaufman and Ryskind wrote the whole first act in 16 days. Seeing the show today, smiling at some jokes, groaning at others, you may ask, "It took that long?" This was a script built for laughs, not to last. It's less a Petronian satire than a Catskills burlesque, reveling in fake French ("Garcon, s'il vous plait, / Encore, Chevrolet coupe") and real Yiddish, as when French soldiers sing, "A vous toot dir veh, a vous?" and the nine Supreme Court justices declare, "We're the A.K.'s / Who give the O.K.'s" — A.K.'s meaning alterkockers. (For this lore I thank Alan Abrams, Time's Broadway-musical scholar in residence, who played Wintergreen in summer stock a few years back.)

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