Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: Barefoot Boy With Cheek
A guest post by Ben West
“A young alumnus of the University of Minnesota and an old hand from Harvard and Broadway have turned out a wonderfully amusing musical comedy called Barefoot Boy With Cheek. A horde of exuberant young singers, dancers and actors, all of them bursting with vigor and brimming with talent, bounced it around the stage of the Colonial Theatre last night and rolled the customers out into the aisles. It’s the newest of the hits and one of the happiest.”
If this deliciously zany 1947 romp, based on the best-selling novel of the same name, was not previously on your radar, it is likely because Barefoot Boy chalked up a Broadway run of only 108 performances, despite Elliot Norton’s rave review in the Boston Post – not to mention those from the Boston Herald (“smash hit”), Billboard (“zippy, tuneful and altogether delightful”) and the other news outlets that covered the musical’s pre-Broadway engagements. It seems the New York critics were less taken with the show than their regional counterparts. But first things first...
“It was [Pulitzer Prize-winning composer] Morton Gould who gave me the idea of doing a musical with Max Shulman’s book as its base,” veteran producer-director George Abbott recounted in an interview. “Then there was the question of getting the right people to do the score, and all at once I remembered Sidney Lippman and Sylvia Dee [of “My Sugar is So Refined” and “Too Young”], who had submitted some work to me in the past.”
An outrageous satire of college life at the ‘fictitious’ University of Minnesota, Barefoot Boy With Cheek is a thoroughly nutty musical farce in the grand Broadway tradition (and written by three Broadway neophytes, no less). With a smart, tuneful score by Mr. Lippman and Ms. Dee and a sharply comic book by Mr. Shulman, steeped in his signature drollness, it is one of those rare musical comedies in which all of the elements – book, music, lyrics – come together seamlessly to create an exciting, genuinely engaging narrative told in a stunningly specific style and inhabited by an array of colorful, unique characters.
Moreover, the musical is superbly structured. Sun columnist Betty Brown’s 1947 article about the show noted, in fact, that Mr. Shulman “[rewrote] the script nine times” since it had been “grabbed for Broadway.” That Barefoot Boy is so tightly constructed is no small feat when you consider the story centers on freshman Asa Hearthrug, his trio of love-starved coeds (Clothilde Pfefferkorn, Noblesse Oblige and Yetta Samovar, the resident communist), the frat boys who con him into pledging their bankrupt fraternity (Roger Hailfellow, Shylock Fiscal), the smoother-than-smooth senior he unwittingly challenges (Kermit McDermott), his sardonic, over-the-hill professor (Schultz) and the rest of a rowdy gang, all set against the backdrop of a raucous student government election and an over-budget Pan-Hellenic dance. Absurd? Absolutely. Blissfully so!
If my aggressively positive characterization of this decidedly forgotten musical seems somewhat over-the-top, there could be three explanations: 1) in the short time I have known it, Barefoot Boy has become one of my favorite musicals; 2) I believe Mr. Shulman’s libretto to be among the best ever written for a musical comedy; or 3) it really is that good.
With a cast including Red Buttons, Ellen Hanley and celebrated comic actress Nancy Walker, Barefoot Boy journeyed to Boston and New Haven for its exceptionally well-received out-of-town tryouts, with essentially the sole criticism being the need for minor trimming and tightening. Its construction, however, was clearly sound. (Incidentally, my research has found only two unused musical numbers that had been written for the show: “Don’t Spoil the Party”, originally intended as the act one finale; and “Put ‘er There, Pal”, the lyric of which appears in an early draft of the libretto, though it is unclear if any music was ever composed for it.) With only a few minor changes on the road, namely “After Graduation Day” shifting positions, the stars seemed to be aligning for Broadway’s newest hit.
Yet, when Barefoot Boy ultimately opened in New York on April 3, 1947, the reviews were distinctly less enthusiastic, however favorable, to be sure. It seems most main stem critics were preoccupied with taking Mr. Abbott to task for presenting yet another collegiate satire filled with what the World-Telegram called the “same old campus humor.” Reviewing the musical in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson acknowledged its talented cast, clever lyrics and buoyant atmosphere, but summed up his comments by noting that “in his association with embryo citizens Mr. Abbott has had more real fun in the past.”
Still, the old-school entertainment had its fans, and Mr. Abbott and his team got encouraging news in the musical’s first full week of Broadway performances when it pulled in the highest one-week box office gross in the twenty-three year history of the Martin Beck Theatre: $34,232. But the momentum did not last. Barefoot Boy ended its brief run on July 5, an unfortunate victim of timing, as I see it, having been the latest in a string of youth-driven George Abbott musicals like Too Many Girls and Best Foot Forward, to which some critics compared it. Had Barefoot Boy been produced a few years earlier, or even later for that matter, I suspect the situation would have turned out differently.
Regardless, Barefoot Boy With Cheek remains a first-rate musical comedy. And from one of my favorite authors. A prolific writer across virtually all mediums, Mr. Shulman’s resume boasts numerous best-selling satirical novels (Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!), a series of successful short stories introducing the Dobie Gillis character, a popular television program (“The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”), a handful of hit film adaptations (The Tender Trap) and a Tony-nominated Broadway musical (How Now, Dow Jones). Yet, virtually all of his work is now out-of-print and overlooked, particularly his theatrical endeavors.
But the tides are hopefully turning. In January 2011, my not-for-profit production company UnsungMusicalsCo. (UMC) began exploring Barefoot Boy through its developmental reading series. Though we have made a few minor musical and textual edits (which include restoring “Don’t Spoil the Party” as the act one closer, adding a musical moment for Professor Schultz and shifting “After Graduation Day” to its original position), the libretto we are using remains substantially as Mr. Shulman wrote it. I very much look forward to bringing today’s audiences a fully realized production of this extraordinary musical comedy in the not-too-distant future. Until then, I leave you with the Author’s Note from the novel upon which this daffy delight is based:
“All characters and events in this book are fictitious. The University of Minnesota is, of course, wholly imaginary. I think it would be of some interest to the reader to know how I happened to pick the name ‘Minnesota’. It is a combination of two Indian words – ‘Minne’ meaning a place where four spavined men and a minor woman ate underdone pemmican, and ‘sota’ meaning the day the bison got away because the hunter's wife blunted his arrows in a fit of pique. The combination of these two words means little, if anything, but the reader must consider that they are the only two Indian words I know.” –Max Shulman
A note from Doug
Like Ben West's other guest blogs, this month's Musical of the Month differs from our usual practice in several ways. As West describes above, the script included with this post is not the original version but a revision made for the the UnsungMusicalsCo production. Further, both the original and UnsungMusicalCo version remain under copyright protection, and the PDF of the new version is offered here for research use only with the permission of the rights holders. If you are interested in producing this script, please contact UnsungMusicalsCo at firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos in this blog entry are used with the permission of Eileen Darby Images, Inc.
Download the Libretto (PDF only this month)