Leiter Looks Back: Five Musicals of 1920-1921 (Part 3)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Note: The function of this column is to describe either five plays, musicals, revues, or revivals for a specific year, from the 1920s on. Today Leiter looks back briefly at musicals from the 1920-1921 season.
As has been noted, the 1920s were especially prolific for musical theatre but much of what was produced was little more than forgettable fluff. The 1920-1921 season saw around fifty musicals and revues, so choosing what to include is no simple matter. One show, Sally, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, the era’s leading musical theatre impresario, stands out in a season far more inclined toward revues than book musicals. But historical value also clings to shows such as Poor Little Ritz Girl, Mary, Shuffle Along, and The Sweetheart Shop.
The first to open was Poor Little Ritz Girl (Central Theatre, July 27, 93 performances), its book by George Campbell and the great comic actor, Lew Fields (of Weber & Fields), for whom it was a significant stepping stone as a progressive musical theatre. Having heard the songs of teenaged Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in amateur shows they’d written with his son, Herbert (himself eventually a major progressive musical theatre producer), Fields hired them to compose the tunes for their first professional venture. Several came from their earlier shows, a few with new lyrics. But, to their great disappointment, they learned on opening night that more than a half-dozen were replaced by interpolations from Sigmund Romberg and Alex Gerber, among other pre-opening revisions.
The simple show biz-based plot was about a chorus girl (Eleanor Griffith) who rents a furnished apartment only for its wealthy, attractive owner (Charles Purcell), who never gave permission for the rental, to return unexpectedly and demand his place back. Complications follow and the couple fall in love and marry.
The Sun and Herald laughed and the Times said the show had “much that is above the average . . . as well as a good deal that is just average.” Clever set changes using rollers were considered technically impressive. Heywood Broun was one who enjoyed the score, noting that while Romberg’s serious numbers were pleasing, Rodgers’s lighter ones were “striking.” His “Mary, Queen of Scots,” words by Herb Fields, was among the best liked.
The Sweetheart Shop (Knickerbocker Theatre, August 31, 55 performances) is recognized here principally because its score was by young George Gershwin, with his brother, Ira, penning his first published lyrics with “Waiting for the Sunshine to Come Out.” Arriving locally after a smash Chicago reception, the show was “an entertainment which was more than usually pleasing in some spots and more than usually dull and lifeless in others,” observed the Evening Sun.
The humdrum plot was set in a “sweetheart shop” to which young men and women come looking for romance, with a main focus on the love affair of Natalie (Helen Ford) and Julian (Joseph Letora).
George M. Cohan received no writing or directing credits for Mary (Knickerbocker Theatre, October 18, 220 performances), but it was common knowledge he had rewritten Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel’s book and was considered the very definition of “Cohanization.” Compared to other musicals, said Burns Mantle, “it is the pepperiest and most tastefully staged [director: Sam Forrest; choreographer: Julian Mitchell], it has the most lucid story and the best cast.” Its hit song, “The Love Nest,” along with several other pleasant tunes, made it excellent musical entertainment. The dances inspired Arthur Hornblow to note: “It seems impossible that so much vigorous gymnastic work was ever crowded into one musical comedy before.”
The shallow libretto was about a Kansas girl, Mary (Janet Velie), who loves Jack (Jack McGowan) and plans to marry someone wealthy so Jack’s impecunious family can share in the profits. Jack manages to make his own fortune, though, and all problems, romantic and financial, are happily resolved.
Sally (New Amsterdam, December 21, 561 performances; return engagement, September 17, 1923) was the season’s big takeaway, with its Jerome Kern score, Guy Bolton book, Clifford Grey (and others) lyrics, and stars Marilyn (then spelled Marilynn) Miller, Leon Errol, and Walter Catlett. Among the most popular tunes were “Look for the Silver Lining,” “The Little Church around the Corner,” “Sally,” “Wild Rose,” and “Whip-poor-Will.” One that slipped away, though, was “Bill,” immortalized a few years later in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s score for Show Boat.
Lavishly produced, Sally was the rags-to-riches fable of a poor dishwasher (Miller) in a Greenwich Village restaurant who befriends a waiter, Connie (Errol), once a Balkan duke. His devices enable her to substitute at a fancy garden party for a Russian ballerina, which leads to her being cast in the Follies and marrying millionaire Blair Farquar (Irving Fisher). Connie, for his part, marries a society dame played by six foot-one showgirl Dolores.
Errol and Catlet (as a press agent) got laughs, but it was the charm and talent of twenty-year-old Miller that drew the crowds to what was her first legit musical theatre role after a beginning in revues. She showed she could sing almost as well as she could dance. Check her (and Errol) out in any of the multiple clips from the 1930 movie version (the entire film is also available). Interestingly, Ludwig Lewisohn, comparing her to the Hungarian star, Mitzi, wrote that Miller “has less personality and intelligence. Her extreme prettiness is still a little icy, unmelted from within. But she dances like an elf, like a petal in the winds of spring.”
According to Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse in Bring on the Girls! the former’s libretto originally brought the star on as one of a group of six orphans dressed identically for their inspection by an employer looking for a dishwasher. However, Ziegfeld wanted a “star” entrance for her, only giving in when Miller herself decided to follow Bolton’s unconventional notion. “It’s fine,” she said, “Just right for my eccentric dance.” Of course, the entrance was a hit. “A delighted gasp went up all over the theatre when the last of the row of orphans was yanked out of the line . . . and revealed herself as Marilyn.”
Shuffle Along (Sixty-third Street Music Hall, May 23, 504 performances) was an all-black show—although it still used blackface—that became the prototype for black musicals throughout the decade. In 1979, its score was the basis for the hit show Eubie! The 1921 original was termed a revue but it did have a thin plot line. Born in Philadelphia, it played a series of one-night stands out of town before limping into New York at an out-of-the-way venue, where it was largely ignored. However, word of mouth spread, and people soon were humming “Bandanna Days,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and the sensationally popular “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”
Songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle appeared in the show along with greats such as Florence Mills, Lottie Gee, Josephine Baker, and Hall Johnson. Like the shows it influenced, Shuffle Along laid the dancing on fast and jazzy.
The fragile story was about a Jimtown race for mayor between two grocery store partners (Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles). The winner appoints his rival as police chief, corruption follows, a reformist appears, and the mayor and chief are ousted. Said the Evening Journal: “Shuffle Along is a breeze of super jazz blown up from Dixie. Syncopated singers and steppers speed the action to ragtime rhythm [sic].” The Times, however, called it “extremely crude . . . a fair-to-middling amateur entertainment.”
Next installment: the revues of 1920-1921.