A guest post by Ben West of UnsungMusicalsCo.
The cast of Are You With It? (Photo by The Graphic House)November 1945. The New York Post calls it "a long-awaited musical comedy hit;" Universal purchases the film rights for more than $100,000; and The New York Times urges its readers to "hurry, hurry folks and get your tickets. On second thought, it probably isn't necessary to break a neck: this carnival should be hereabouts for a long time to come."
If you've never heard of this raucous entertainment known as Are You With It?, you are not alone. Despite garnering a cornucopia of remarkable raves, it closed in June 1946 after only 264 performances, with the Times reporting, "The show started off with a bang when it first opened at the Century Theatre on Nov. 10 last year. There it flourished until it transferred to the Shubert Theatre on April 30."
An apparent victim of venue reassignment and a busy Broadway season, the wacky confection is nonetheless delightful and interestingly emblematic of its time. In the same year that saw the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein's second textually integrated, stylistically complex, story-driven work, Are You was thoroughly content maintaining—even celebrating—its musical comedy roots as a fun-filled carnival—both literally and figuratively—that was instead driven by outrageous personalities plopped in silly situations, with songs popping up out of nowhere.
Great songs, to be sure: tuneful, literate, even invigorating. The Are You score is by Academy Award-nominated film composer Harry Revel and prolific author Arnold B. Horwitt, this being the second in his string of five back-to-back main stem hits, beginning with Pins and Needles and continuing through Call Me Mister, Make Mine Manhattan and Inside U.S.A. For Are You, his assignment was strictly lyrics, and what he delivered is vintage Horwitt: wonderfully smart, warm-hearted, and brimming with full-throttle optimism. Note the opening lines of the show, sung by a stage of young women in their respective bedrooms having just woken up late for work...
"The mood of Oscar Hammerstein is fine in the morning
But mine, in the morning, is black.
I've harkened to his praise
Of the sun's first rays
But oh, my aching back.
There's a bright golden haze in the medder
But in bed it's so much bedder!"
Or, perhaps more to the third point, the final chorus of a delicious Are You trunk song, "Isn't It a Lovely View?"...
"It's beautiful how the blue
Is painting magic'lly skies like new.
You will find your heart is full of dreams;
You are floating on air it seems!
Here's a picture I'll frame for you...
Isn't it a lovely view?!"
Though you likely have not heard the music (warm, swinging Broadway brass), it should be noted that here, as in all his work, Mr. Horwitt's lyrical lines scan beautifully over the melodies to which they are married.
Photo by The Graphic HouseNow, if some of his Are You material should understandably strike one in 2013 as politically incorrect and rather antiquated, it does not negate the fact that it is—or rather, was—in its day, well-constructed. See: Cleo, the downtrodden African American woman who sings a bluesy lament to her abusive lover: "My man is so lowdown and mean; he beats me ev'ry hour, on the hour; and frequently in between;" or Marge, the sassy secretary who longs to be sent back to the kitchen: "Back to the life we used to lead, before we learned to write and read;" or even Olive, George and Richard, a trio of "midgets" (yes, you read that correctly) who reprise the song "Slightly Perfect" as "Slightly Slightly." It is surely more than enough to raise eyebrows today. But in 1945, a year that also saw Up in Central Park, The Girl From Nantucket and Billion Dollar Baby, it was a Broadway smash.
Based on the novel Slightly Perfect by George Malcolm-Smith, Are You With It? follows a bright, energetic and over-eager young actuary who misplaces a decimal point, quits his job and joins the circus. With a deceptively gentle book by Emmy Award-winning Jack Benny comedy writers George Balzer and Sam Perrin, the work is not laden with "jokes" as one might expect. Rather, the script appears to embrace the personality-driven nature of the piece by acting as a tight, fast-paced framework within which its players have the artistic freedom and comedic liberty to play. It is their outsized presence and over-the-top delivery that gives the work its punch. So, Balzer & Perrin's world is accordingly populated with the likes of the sexy Frolics bombshell, the overly charismatic swindler, and the frantically curt carnival owner; each one a hyperkinetic and singular "character" in the true sense of the word. And then, of course, there is the central issue of a strategically placed birthmark.
It all boils down to fun. That is what Are You With It? was, and still is, about; and that is what it delivered in 1945, by all accounts. The question now becomes: is there still fun to be had nearly seventy years later? We shall see on December 12 when UnsungMusicalsCo. holds a reading of the nutty 1945 hit at the NYPL's Bruno Walter Auditorium.
About a year ago, I began "slightly slightly" adapting the piece. Without altering the story, I have been working to tactfully eliminate some questionable elements, and further integrate others (e.g. the musical structure and lyrical division of the central couple's love song, "This is My Beloved"). One trunk song, "Isn't It a Lovely View?," has been restored, and I have also found seemingly natural places to use existing musical material to further the plot and/or support an individual's emotional arc. It is, perhaps, more texturing than anything else, particularly given the already tight nature of the existing structure.
For with its colorful characters, ridiculous complications, and refreshingly pure sense of fun, Are You With It? happily remains a snappy old-school musical comedy, one that I believe has the ability to resonate with contemporary audiences. And let us not forget its off-the-wall, undeniably devastating and delightfully tacky title...
"When I ask you, Are You With It?,
'Are you with it?' doesn't mean
Are you with the Elks or the D.A.R.,
The Book-of-the-Month Club or the Eastern Star.
When I ask you, are you with it?,
I'm inviting you to declare:
Are you a Joe who's in the know
Or a no-good square from Montclair!"
A note from Doug
This month's Musical of the Month is still protected by copyright law, but the rights holders have kindly given us permission to share the libretto here for research use only. If you are interested in producing this script, please contact UnsungMusicalsCo at email@example.com
All photos in this blog entry are used with the permission of Eileen Darby Images, Inc.
Download the Libretto (PDF only this month, scanned from a copy owned by the George Balzer estate)