A guest post By Laura Frankos
Oh, Boy!: Kern, Bolton, Wodehouse and the Princess Theatre Musicals
The Genesis of the Series
Image ID: th-56990In 1913, the Shuberts added another theatre to their empire at 104 West 39th Street, on the edge of the theatre district. Architect William Albert Swaney, who had built the Winter Garden for the brothers, designed an intimate 299-seat house, with an understated Georgian exterior of red brick and limestone and five stories of office space for rental income. The theatre, dubbed the Princess, spent its first seasons as "the Theatre of Thrills," as manager Ray Comstock mounted a series of unsuccessful Grand Guignol one-acts. Its future was in doubt when agent Elisabeth Marbury made a suggestion that would have a lasting effect on the history of the American musical.
Marbury, a feisty agent who represented, among others, Wilde, Barrie and dance duo Vernon and Irene Castle, was one of the first to demand percentages of the box office take for her clients. She had previously tangled with Comstock, but she now joined him as a co-producer. She proposed using the intimate Princess to best advantage: staging small-scale shows, with more realistic, less fanciful plots played out on two sets. By necessity, they would scale down the personnel to a handful of principals, a chorus of eight to ten, and an eleven-piece orchestra. A big operetta could have as many as a dozen sets, a chorus of to ninety, and a forty-piece orchestra.
Nor would the plots be set in exotic lands or glamorous past eras. Contemporary American settings meant economizing on costumes, a key issue, as the first show had a budget of $7500 and the small house meant a lower weekly income. Marbury's partner, designer Elsie de Wolfe, did the sets at a discount. Marbury suggested Jerome Kern, who had been interpolating songs into shows for a decade on both sides of the Atlantic, as composer.
Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern
Comstock and Marbury's next project was based on Over Night, a comedy by Philip Bartholomae. Again, there were wholesale changes in the creative team during tryouts. At Kern's urging, Bolton joined them, doctoring Bartholomae's farce. He later wrote, "I laid out the music plot with Jerry and discussed the lyrics in relation to the subjects that the action of the play called for..." The plot was frivolous fun — mixed-up honeymoon couples on a Hudson River cruise ship — with the humor arising from the situations and characters. Retitled Very Good Eddie, it opened in December 1915 and became the Princess' second hit, running a whopping 341 performances, with numerous road companies.
But while Kern and Bolton worked well together, they did not have a consistent lyricist. Half a dozen hands, including Kern, contributed verses to Very Good Eddie.
Here Pelham Grenville (P.G.) “Plum” Wodehouse entered the picture. In their hilarious (but highly imaginative) memoirs, Bring On the Girls, Bolton and Wodehouse described their meeting at Very Good Eddie’s opening night, which Plum covered for Vanity Fair. An Englishman who would become one of the most acclaimed humorists of the twentieth century, with over ninety novels, countless short stories, and immortal characters, including Jeeves and Wooster, to his credit, Wodehouse passionately loved theatre. He had, in fact, briefly worked with Kern on a British show in 1906. The imagined meeting has Plum saying he liked Eddie, but not the lyrics, leading to his joining them as lyricist. Whatever the details, it brought the melodic genius of Kern together with the wit of Wodehouse and the skilled pacing and deft plots of Bolton.
Only one hitch: Ray Comstock rejected their first ideas. This doesn't speak well for his judgment, since both eventually became huge hits (Oh, Boy! and Sally). The trio didn't like Comstock's proposal — which would flop horribly — and worked on a show for Klaw and Erlanger, Miss Springtime (September 25, 1916). Kern's work was limited to a few lovely interpolations; Bolton and Wodehouse's contributions got excellent notices.
Miss Springtime was based on a Viennese operetta. While Americanized, it was still far from the contemporary zing of the Princess libretti. The trio's next work, Have a Heart (January 11, 1917, the Liberty Theatre), hewed closer to the Princess parameters, again featuring a plot with honeymooning couples. It didn't have a long run, but had a charming duet, "You Said Something," and the comic song, "Napoleon."
Comstock wooed the trio back to the Princess, accepting Oh, Boy! at last. Bolton wrote the first draft in fall 1916. He continually revised to keep even pacing as they inserted songs. Kern wrote the music before Wodehouse added his verses, a system both men preferred. Wodehouse felt that after hearing the melodies, he could better meld his words with the emotional flow of the music. Perhaps it was the care that went into those drafts, perhaps it was that all the elements of the team were in place from the start; but, unlike its predecessors, Oh, Boy! was in fine shape through its tryouts. It opened on February 20, 1917, to rave reviews and ran 463 performances, moving to the larger Casino and playing in London as Oh, Joy!, with young Beatrice Lillie as Jackey.
Oh, Boy! : The Story
Bolton's plot for Oh, Boy! centers on marriage and mistaken identities. The first act is set in the apartment of George Budd, who has just eloped with Lou Ellen Carter, only to postpone their wedding night. George's guardian, his Quaker Aunt Penelope, having learned of her nephew's romance, has sent a telegram. She's coming to check out his intended, and warns against hasty action. That's not George's only worry: his pal Jim Marvin is throwing a party in the dining room. Keeping his marital state a secret, George tells Jim to move his bash elsewhere, and sadly takes Lou Ellen home. Jim's alone in the place when a girl with a gun — an actress named Jackey Sampson — breaks in. She's on the run following an altercation at the Inn with a drunken lecher named Tootles and a cop named Simms. Gallant Jim covers for her when Simms enters, introducing her as George's wife. Jim tells Jackey to stay in the apartment; George can bunk on Jim's sofa. Meanwhile, Jim will go back to the Inn to search for Jackey's purse.
George returns to find a strange woman in his wife's pajamas. He learns the details of the charade in time to produce his marriage certificate as further proof for Simms' second appearance. The cop is much taken with "Mrs. Budd's" pajamas; he'd like the pattern for his own wife. George departs in the rain for Jim's place.
(Clippings file, LPA)The chaos continues when he returns in the morning. Jim's debutantes are back, and first Judge Carter, then Lou Ellen and her mother show up, with Aunt Penelope due any minute. George dispatches his valet, Briggs, to detain the aunt at all costs. He spins yarns of chemical experiments to keep everyone out of his bedroom. Too late, for Jackey emerges, and George hastily passes her off as Aunt Penelope. Jackey plays along, with Wodehouse introducing Quakerisms ("I never knew about thee") in the lyrics. She gets her own surprise when she recognizes Judge Carter as the boisterous Tootles.
The Carters leave for the Country Club; Jackey vows to follow, for Jim has discovered the ammunition she needs: the manuscript of a speech the Judge was scheduled to present.
Act Two is set at the Country Club, with the chorus still partying, Briggs nursing a shiner where Aunt Penelope smacked him, and Simms hunting for his assailant... and pajama patterns. Jackey and the Judge parley: she'll return the speech if he gets her purse from Simms. Mrs. Carter, meanwhile, has had enough of the wild Mr. Budd; she says he and Lou Ellen may never speak to each other again.
Jim is now clearly fixated on Jackey, and urges her to consider a romantic future with him in "Nesting Time in Flatbush." George learns of Aunt Penelope's arrival, but, because of his promise, he must converse with Lou Ellen through Briggs about their future. Jackey returns, and pretends to be a Quaker aunt and George's wife at the same time. She orders cocktails, claiming to be ill, and everyone retires to the porch.
Aunt Penelope enters, shaken from her battle with Briggs. Simms shocks her further, remarking he's met Mrs. Budd. She's overcome, but, instead of downing water, drinks Jackey's cocktails. She gets plastered, and goes to lie down.
Now matters have come to a head, for Lou Ellen has discovered Aunt Penelope and demands explanations. When Jackey, Simms, Briggs, the Carters, and drunken Aunt P. all end up on stage, everything is resolved. Jackey gets her purse, the Judge gets his speech, the snockered aunt gives her consent, and George reassures Lou Ellen that that girl in the p.j.'s "is the wife of Jim Marvin...at least she's going to be." Which, Jim notes, is the first time all day George has told the truth.
In the playbill for the Princess shows, Bolton and Wodehouse shared credit for book and lyrics, though Bolton was primarily responsible for the libretti and Wodehouse the lyrics. Yet certain touches in the script for Oh, Boy! recur in Wodehouse's fiction, including tyrannical aunts, judges behaving badly, and the irate policemen, who have either been socked or had their helmet stolen. The valet Briggs, however, is no Jeeves, ready to solve George's problems. He's Cockney, and is there to be shocked at what he sees as his master's sudden wildness and mistaken for a maniac by the aunt. Wodehouse has even admitted that writing a novel was like "making a musical comedy without the music." Two of his tales, Bill the Conqueror and The Small Bachelor, were direct adaptations of musicals (Sitting Pretty and Oh, Lady! Lady!!).
Bolton keeps the action in Oh, Boy! at a constant clip, with characters pelting in and out of doors with perfect timing. The song intervals serve as breathing spaces for the audience, as Sondheim's songs do in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The humor is largely situation-based, but Bolton also indulges in puns, ranging from chorus characters' names (Phil Ossify, Annie Olde-Knight) to the dialogue, as when George says, "My wife has too much honor," to which Simms replies, "Too much on her? If she had on much less, I'd pinch her." Or Jim, contemplating idyllic landscapes — "Between us would lie the greensward," — prompts Jackey to ask, "Oh, Jim, why do you want a sword between us?"
Puns aside, Bolton manages to give the characters likable, distinct personalities. George is nervous, admitting he wilted when the minister asked him "Wilt thou?", but gamely tries to set things right. Jim is a party animal, given to slang and clipping his words ("Simms is snooping around and would be very suspish."). But he shows his mettle defending Jackey. Lou Ellen has less to do, but still seems sweet. The authority figures (the cop, the aunt, the judge) have a reality beyond their stock, comic attributes.
Oh, Boy! : The Songs
The trio agreed that the songs should spring naturally from the action of the plot. For the most part, those in Oh, Boy! do. The opening chorus, sung by Jim and his girls, proclaims "Let's Make a Night of It" as they prepare to raid George's booze. After the newlyweds arrive, Bolton has George admit his past was dark, "because you weren't there to brighten it," smoothly transitioning to "You Never Knew About Me." The couple regret that they hadn't met in childhood: "I'd have let you feed my rabbit/Till the thing became a habit, dear!/But I never knew about you."
Kern wasn't above recycling melodies, and "A Package of Seeds" came from the flop Ninety in the Shade, with Wodehouse revising Herbert Reynolds' lyrics for Jim's ode to ladies. Bolton prepares the way for the song, giving Jim dialogue about a garden of "American beauties."
Lou Ellen's number, "An Old-Fashioned Wife," in which she declines the debs' invitation to party, reveals her character. Jackey and Jim's first duet, the sprightly cakewalk, "A Pal Like You" shows their free spirits, as does Jackey's "Rolled into One."
The big hit was "Till the Clouds Roll by," one of Kern's personal favorites. It arises realistically, for George must leave the apartment in the rain, lest he ruin Jackey's reputation: "I'd be gaining/Nothing by remaining,/What would Mrs. Grundy say?" Concerned Jackey frets (in a splendid bit of rhyming), "What bad luck, it's/Coming down in buckets,/Have you an umbrella handy?" Wodehouse's naturalistic touches, with references to waterproof coats and bracing nips of brandy, combined with Kern's sweet melody, win the audience over. The pair are not lovers, yet they're as warm as the glass of toddy Jackey mentions.
Jim and Jackey's duet, "Nesting Time in Flatbush," is a comic masterpiece. Here Wodehouse has the lovers dismiss songs celebrating spring in Normandy for more conventional joys: "When it's nesting time in Flatbush,/We will take a little flat,/With welcome on the mat,/Where there's room to swing a cat." The mood is cozy, not exotic: fitting for the Princess shows.
Oh, Boy! : The Cast and Crew
Although its budget ($29,000) was far larger than earlier shows, Oh, Boy! starred lesser-known actors. Tom Powers (George) had some stage and film credits, but would go on to greater fame afterwards. With the Theatre Guild, he starred in Strange Interlude, and later toured as Brutus in Orson Welles' Julius Caesar before returning to the screen. Anna Wheaton (Jackey) and Hal Forde (Jim) also weren't stars. The big attractions were the chorus girls, Marion Davies and Justine Johnstone, whom Comstock bragged he had lured from Ziegfeld. The truth was that Johnstone was Bolton's lover and Davies had been in Ninety in the Shade, a teenaged chorine who hadn't added yet that "e" to her surname. Davies got the frisky "A Little Bit of Ribbon," a kind of ancestor to Porter's "Satin and Silk," and she and Johnstone wore eye-catching gowns. Davies would gain fame in films and as William Randolph Hearst's mistress. Johnstone left show business, became a pathologist, and helped create the modern intravenous drip. Edna May Oliver (Penelope) made a career of playing spinsters on stage and screen, turning the cliché of the inebriated matron into a comic specialty. She impressed Kern enough to get the role of Parthy in Show Boat.
Oh, Boy!'s director was Edward Royce, an Englishman who had worked with Kern before and would direct more of his shows. The orchestrator was Frank Saddler, who worked closely with Kern on many scores, helping to revolutionize the sound of musical theatre. For a 1912 show, he and Kern put the first saxophones in a Broadway pit. He admirably met the challenge of tailoring Kern's music to the tiny Princess orchestra.
Later Collaborations and Lasting Influence
The trio would create several more shows together: the college romp Leave It To Jane (August 1917 at the Longacre, but considered a Princess show); The Riviera Girl (September 1917, New Amsterdam); Miss 1917 (November 1917, Century); Oh, Lady! Lady!! (February 1918, the final Princess show); Sally (December 1920, New Amsterdam — lyrics mostly by Clifford Grey); and Sitting Pretty (April 1924, Fulton). Jane and Lady! were successes, and, at 570 performances, Sally was one of the longest running shows in history.
Kern and Wodehouse worked together on a few more shows, and a cut song from Oh, Lady! Lady!! wound up in Show Boat: the classic "Bill." Bolton and Wodehouse remained close friends throughout their long lives. They collaborated on several more shows, notably the Gershwins' Oh, Kay!, Gershwin and Romberg's Rosalie, and the original libretto for Porter's Anything Goes.
The Princess shows weren't the first musicals to try to integrate story and song, but the trio of talents did it so well they had a lasting influence. The next generation of songwriters were hooked on them. Vincent Youmans' No, No, Nanette is a clear descendant. Young Richard Rodgers saw Very Good Eddie six times, and recognized the American character of Kern's music: "I was watching the beginning of a new form of musical theatre... and wanted desperately to be part of it." Rodgers' future lyricist, Lorenz Hart, took Wodehouse as his inspiration. The Gershwin brothers were also devotees — young George was rehearsal pianist on the flop, Miss 1917.
Perhaps George Kaufman put it best, parodying a ditty about the Chicago Cubs infield (Tinker to Evers to Chance):
This is the trio of musical fame,
Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern.
Better than anyone else you can name,
Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern.
Nobody knows what on earth they've been bitten by,
All I can say is I mean to get lit an' buy
Orchestra seats for the next one that's written by
Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern.
Laura Frankos is an escaped academic who has written in the fields of mysteries, science fiction and fantasy. She turned a lifelong obsession with musicals into The Broadway Musical Quiz Book (Applause Books, 2010), and also writes " The Great White Wayback Machine," a column devoted to musical theatre history.
A note on the text from Doug
The following eTexts were produced from a transcription made by Ann Fraistat from a copy of an early promptbook owned by NYPL. This prompt book did not include most of the lyrics, though these are available in the published sheet music. The text was encoded by me (Doug) for the various eBook file-types.
Because this text of Oh, Boy! was not published prior to 1923, the text is in copyright until 70 years after the author's death. The Wodehouse and Bolton estates have kindly granted us permission, however, to present this new edition for research use only. Those wishing to license the play for production should contact Tams-Witmark Music Library, Inc.
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