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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: Sally


A guest post by Maya Cantu

Marilyn Miller in "Sally"Marilyn Miller in "Sally" "America at the close of the Great War was a Cinderella magically clothed in the most stunning dress at the ball... immense gains with no visible price tag seemed to be the American destiny," as historian Ann Douglas has noted. In the expansively optimistic and prosperous America of 1920, there could hardly have been a musical — or heroine — more suited to its times than Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton's Sally, a Jazz Age Cinderella story clothed in opulent enchantment.

At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, Sally was a sensation. With the effervescent Marilyn Miller in the title role of a waif who becomes a Follies star, Sally danced to the New Amsterdam Theater sprinkled with the box office fairy dust of Florenz Ziegfeld, then at the height of his commercial prowess as "The Great Glorifier." Opening on December 21, 1920, and running for 570 performances, Sally marked Ziegfeld's first great book musical; a crown jewel upon thirteen dazzling editions of his Follies. In terms of box office intake, Sally was "the biggest Broadway musical hit up to its time," as noted by Gerald Bordman, grossing over five million dollars (translating to sixty-five million, according to modern currency rates) by the end of Sally's New York run. "Sally is nothing less than idealized musical comedy," raved Charles Darnton of the Evening World, while audiences of Sally's Broadway, London, and national tour productions swooned to Sally's hit ballad "Look for the Silver Lining" (a song that has become so emblematic of its early-1920s era that it's been heard on both "Boardwalk Empire" and "Downton Abbey").

Certainly, the fabled "Ziegfeld Touch" and Kern's lilting melodies formed a large part of Sally's immense popular appeal. Yet the musical's creative team boasted a full dream team of musical theater wizards. As a star vehicle for Marilyn Miller (then billed as "Marilynn"), Sally showcased the charm and talent of its leading lady, whose own rise to fame both paralleled and exceeded Sally's fictional triumph in the Follies. In addition to its Kern score (with book by Guy Bolton and lyrics by various writers, including Clifford Grey), Sally also featured a "Butterfly Ballet" composed by the great Victor Herbert, and scenic design by Joseph Urban, the Austrian-born set designer whose exquisitely stylized landscapes had become a staple of the Follies.

Marilyn Miller and Leon Errol in "Sally" (g98f739_002)Marilyn Miller and Leon Errol in "Sally" (g98f739_002) While the production's scenic and theatrical beauties (not to mention Ziegfeld's "Glorified" ones) drew audiences in droves to the New Amsterdam, so did Sally's musical storytelling. Sally exemplified a wave of "Cinderella musicals" that swept the Broadway stages of the early 1920s, and Kern and Bolton's fancifully modern spin on the classic fairy tale captivated a public who, despite the short-lived economic recession of 1920-1921, could dream of joining a rapidly expanding middle class. While audiences may have seen their own aspirations mirrored in the ascent of Sally's spirited title character, who rises from foundling's rags to a Ziegfeld star's riches, female audiences in particular may have glimpsed shades of the "New Woman" in Miller's Sally, who is as much an ambitious modern working girl as she is the more traditional subject of a Prince Charming's courtship.

Echoing the metamorphic motif of Victor Herbert's "Butterfly Ballet," each of the musical's three acts takes its heroine through, quite literally, stages of transformation. Sally is a musical of — and about — acts of performance, as the heroine shifts through various identities as "Sally of the Alley, A Foundling," "Mme. Nockerova, A Wild Rose," and a "Premiere Star of the Follies." Accordingly, Sally's settings ascended in splendor, from "The Alley Inn, New York," to "The Garden of Richard Farquar, Long Island," to "The Land of Butterlies in the Ziegfeld Follies," "Sally's Dressing Room at the New Amsterdam Theatre After the Follies Premiere," and "The Little Church Around the Corner."

The first act introduces the heroine, toting her dog Custard, as an orphan from the settlement house of Mrs. Ten Broek, who arranges for Sally to wash dishes at the Elm Tree Alley Inn. Here, Sally – an aspiring dancer – attracts both the friendship of waiter Connie (really the exiled Constantine, Duke of Czechogovinia in disguise), as well as the romantic notice of society scion Blair Farquar. In the second act society ball, set at Blair's Long Island mansion, Sally masquerades as the Russian femme fatale dancer Madame Nockerova, beguiling Blair as her more luxuriously dressed alter ego. When her charade is revealed, Blair revokes his affections for the lowly dishwasher. (Sally's pose as Madame Nockerova anticipates Eliza Doolitte's Hungarian princess in My Fair Lady, a 1950s Cinderella musical by way of Pygmalion and Shaw). The final act covers Sally's transformation into a Ziegfeld star, as theatrical agent Otis Hooper wins Sally the star dancing spot in the latest Follies. Sally both triumphs in "The Butterfly Ballet," and agrees to become the wife of a repentant Blair Farquar. In a triple wedding finale, Sally marries Blair, Otis weds his girlfriend Rosie, and Connie ties the knot with Mrs. Ten Broek (played in the original production by Ziegfeld's stateliest showgirl, Dolores).

While Sally opened at the New Amsterdam with "such a splendor of curtains and settings and costumes as few theatres in the world dare dream of" (as described by Alexander Woollcott), the musical's origins were surprisingly modest. In fact, it was to have been a Princess Theatre musical. Sally was an expanded revision of Kern, Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse's aptly titled The Little Thing (1916), which would likely have been the third entry in the innovative series of intimate musicals at the Princess (after Nobody Home and Very Good Eddie), had it not been for the objections of co-producer F. Ray Comstock. With the Cinderella musical craze still a few years away, and marital farce the Princess house style, Comstock was unimpressed by The Little Thing's "whimsical trifle about an orphan girl in a Greenwich Village boarding house" (as described in Bolton and Wodehouse's marvelous joint memoir, Bring on the Girls!). Instead, Comstock urged Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse to work on another project: a musical adaptation of Charles Hoyt's 1894 farce A Milk White Flag. As Bolton and Wodehouse recounted, the writers were skeptical of the project's prospects:

Guy was still staring incredulously. "I've read A Milk White Flag," he said. "It's about a man who pretends to be dead so as to evade his creditors and collect on his insurance. He's laid out on ice and catches cold."

"That's right," said Ray, laughing heartily. "I had forgotten about him catching cold. I remember now it was terrific..."

"But listen, Ray. The thing that has made the Princess shows is charm. We must have charm."

"Be as charming as you like. No one's stopping you."

"Well, you can't say A Milk White Flag has charm, with a corpse that keeps coming on the stage without any trousers on."

As eventually adapted by another team (as Go To It), the musical A Milk White Flag ran for 23 performances at the Princess Theatre. Meanwhile, Bolton, Wodehouse, and Kern shelved The Little Thing to work on the much more successful — and charming — Oh, Boy! (NYPL's August Musical of the Month).

The Little Thing was laid aside until 1919, when Bolton and Wodehouse ran into Ziegfeld while vacationing in Palm Beach. The impresario, currently presenting Marilyn Miller in the Follies of 1919, was considering a vehicle for the elfin blond dancing star (and the latest object of his romantic infatuations). Like Comstock, Ziegfeld had hit upon a not very promising source for a musical — Clare Kummer's farce Be Calm, Camilla, with book and lyrics to be written by Kummer, and music by Jerome Kern. "Isn't that the play in which the heroine breaks her ankle in the first act," enquired Plum (Wodehouse) innocently. "I wouldn't have thought it the ideal vehicle for a dancer," as the writers recounted in Bring on the Girls!.

 g99f739_004)Leon Errol and Marilyn Miller in Sally (id: g99f739_004) Instead, Bolton suggested The Little Thing as a possible vehicle for Miller. The impresario was intrigued, and aboard a luxurious chartered yacht, Ziegfeld, Bolton and Wodehouse discussed the possibility of collaborating on The Little Thing. However, by the time Ziegfeld confirmed his commitment to produce The Little Thing a few months later, P.G. Wodehouse was unavailable. Increasingly successful with his Jeeves novels, Wodehouse decided to return to English literary life, leaving Kern and Bolton short a lyricist for the new version (at first titled Sally of the Alley, and finally, Sally). Rewrites for Sally were extensive, with eccentric characters from The Little Thing (Esmeralda, Sally's aged ex-ballet diva mentor, and the former's suitor Mr. Tolly) making way for new ones, including Sally's fairy godfathers Connie and Otis (vaudevillian roles tailor-made for Leon Errol and Walter Catlett, both of whom Ziegfeld had also contracted starring vehicles for). In a stroke both metatheatrical and characteristically self-publicizing, Ziegfeld stipulated another change: Sally must not only become a star dancer, but a star dancer in the Follies.

For the revamped Sally, Clifford Grey signed on as Wodehouse's replacement lyricist, though "Wild Rose" was one of only a few entirely new numbers written for Sally. Sally's score is a lyrical patchwork, with songs also co-written by Wodehouse, B.G. DeSylva and Anne Caldwell (who had replaced Wodehouse as Kern's most regular collaborator). While "Joan of Arc" (originally titled "You Can't Keep a Good Girl Down") and "The Little Church Around the Corner" were Wodehouse holdovers from The Little Thing, songs dropped from other Kern musicals dominated Sally's score. "The Lorelei," wittily conjuring the Rhine siren as the "Theda Bara of the days gone by," was written for Kern and Caldwell's The Night Boat (1920), while both "Whip-poor-will" and "Look for the Silver Lining" actually came from the flop Zip Goes a Million (1919), with lyrics by DeSylva. (Meanwhile, he ballad "Bill," first dropped from the Princess show Oh, Lady! Lady!!, was let go once again from Sally, only to turn up seven years later in Ziegfeld's production of Show Boat).

"It was all pretty haphazard and very different from the Princess days," recalled Bolton and Wodehouse of the show's musical motley. Nevertheless, Sally's score holds together not only in the throughline of Kern's melodious, lightly jazz-inflected music, but of its lyrical themes: while "Look for the Silver Lining" evokes a more gentle optimism, "The Lorelei," "(On the Banks of) The Schnitza-Kommiski" and "Wild Rose" glorify an emergent post-WWI ethos of individualism: of consumption, sensuality, and urban leisure. "We love the boys and all the noise/And lively plays and cabarets," sang the chorus girls in Sally's glamorous and rousing opening number, "It's the Nighttime."

As produced by Ziegfeld, Sally was certainly not deliberately "integrated" in the sense of either the Princess Theatre musicals, nor of Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat (1927). Drawing from the lavishness of Ziegfeld's own revues, Sally is a spectacular book musical, with origins in extravaganza. Sally's Variety reviewer discerned as much when he wrote, referring to two 1903 musicals (the latter with music by Victor Herbert), "Ziegfeld has turned back the clock fifteen years and produced a pictorial extravaganza reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Toyland."

While retaining the charm and melody of the Princess Theatre shows, Sally also set the pattern for a series of Ziegfeld book musicals throughout the 1920s and early '30s (other examples include Rosalie, Rio Rita, and Whoopee). Variously musical comedy and operetta, the stories of these lavish productions centered around a standard boy-meets-girl plot, and one or more comic subplots, while serving the guiding principle of extravaganza. Like the other Ziegfeld musicals it inspired, Sally was a mix of visual opulence, feminine spectacle filled with dozens of "Glorified Girls" (Ziegfeld boasted that he'd chosen from among 10,000 beauties for Sally's chorus), and ethnically inflected vaudeville jokes — such as an order of "Hebrew coffee" suggested to Otis by the White Russian-like Connie, who'd heard another waiter say, "you wish (jew-ish) coffee?"

For all of Sally's show-stopping spectacle and groan-worthy gags, contemporary critics of Sally noted "a pretty little story (told with) deftness and humor and more plausibility than is common to musical comedy" (The Boston Daily Globe). Nevertheless, many critics noted "The Great Ziegfeld" as Sally's mastermind, and it was the synchronized beauty of the production, rather than Bolton's book, that was most effusively praised: Sally (is) "perfectly balanced in all its component elements, and with everything done just a little better than it has ever been done before" (Boston Daily Globe), while The New York Times's Alexander Woollcott raved of "a producer who knows a little more than any of his competitors the secret of bringing beauty to his stage...strangely enough, it is not of Urban, nor Jerome Kern, nor Leon Errol, nor even of Marilynn Miller that you think of as you rush for the subway at ten minutes to midnight. You think of Mr. Ziegfeld. He is that kind of producer. There are not many in the world."

By all accounts, Sally showcased some of the producer's most stunning displays of stagecraft, in collaboration with director Edward Royce, set designer Urban, and a costume team of no less than five couturiers (Alice O'Neil had top billing). As for Sally's staging, highlights included the star's "surprise" entrance, in which Sally was yanked out of the end of a line of orphans wearing shabby dresses and oversized bonnets, suddenly revealing the sixth foundling as Marilyn Miller. Adding to audiences' appreciation of Miller, Ziegfeld installed a mechanical platform that rolled out over the orchestra pit during Miller's numbers, allowing them better views of the star's dancing feet.

Sally's sets and costumes dazzled alongside Miller. While audiences were touched by the buoyant simplicity of "Look for the Silver Lining," sung by Sally to Connie in the plainest of garb, they marveled at Miller's costumes as Madame Nockerova, and those of the showgirls in the "Butterfly Ballet." Even more eye-popping was a wedding finale in which, according to Bordman, Miller "paraded in a $10,000 lace wedding gown with a long train that required the attentions of fifty beautiful bridesmaids." The latter gowns were designed by Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, Ziegfeld's regular costume designer for the Follies. On the scenic end, Joseph Urban's wonders included a breathtaking quick change from a theatre dressing room to the exterior of the Little Church around the Corner, with Urban exquisitely rendering the Madison Avenue architectural landmark.


While the musical's form represented a mix of stylistic modes – intimate Princess Theatre whimsy and blockbuster Ziegfeldian spectacle – Sally is also a quintessential Cinderella musical. As a subgenre of musical comedy, Cinderella musicals were ubiquitous on Broadway in the first half of the 1920s, though anticipated by such earlier shows as the British A Gaiety Girl (1893), with its fabled chorus line of aristocrat-marrying Gaiety Girls. The 1919 smash hit Irene, about an Irish-American shop girl, sparked the 1920s series, and as Gerald Bordman recounts of Sally, "In raising a poor girl from rags to riches, Bolton's story fell in line with two other hits then running on Broadway, Irene and Mary (1920). Together, these three musicals established a vogue for similar stories and led to the early years of the 1920s being looked at as the Cinderella Era of American musicals."

While the genre was diverse, almost all Cinderella musicals were modern, democratic fairy tales set in Manhattan. But whereas the classic European fairy tale had moved its heroine from hearth to castle, the '20s Cinderella musicals took her from New York tenement to mansion. The genre's typical plot formula involved a young, Irish-American working girl, usually a poor shop girl, secretary, or aspiring actress, who — through a mix of pluck, luck, and hard work — wins the heart of a handsome millionaire, and, in quite a few cases, career success of her own. (Thoroughly Modern Millie, the movie turned Broadway hit, represents a contemporary pastiche of the early-'20s Cinderella musical). While the orphaned Sally (unlike Irene's Irene O'Dare) is not explicitly Irish-American, nor of an identified ethnic background, she follows genre convention by marrying into WASP high society, obtaining the American dream of assimilation and upward mobility.

 g99f739_004)Marilyn Miller and Irving Fisher in "Sally" (id: g99f739_004)Yet marriage to a Long Island Prince Charming by no means defines the Cinderella musicals, whose heroines also reflected the ascendance of the New Woman. Following WWI, scores of young (mostly unmarried) American women entered urban shops and offices in unprecedented numbers, forging new paths of personal and professional independence. Reflecting the heightened visibility of women in the workplace (and of working women in the audience), the heroines of '20s Cinderella shows are often surprisingly ambitious and assertive, such as Mary Thompson, who follows her boyfriend to Manhattan, only to out-succeed him in business by becoming a cookie company entrepreneur in The Gingham Girl (1922). Similarly, some Cinderella musicals bent formula in quirky and novel directions, as in Kern and Anne Caldwell's Good Morning, Dearie (1921), in which the Cinderella is a bootlegger's moll, and Harold Levey and Zelda Sears' The Magic Ring (1923), in which songwriter Polly makes her "sensational entrance" to the ball by crashing in through the chimney. (Caldwell, who penned Sally's "The Lorelei," and Sears were only two of the gifted women writing librettos during this era).

Certainly, the title character of Sally is no exception to this bolder strain of Cinderellas. Unlike her more demure fairy tale prototype, Sally has her own career ambitions. And while one might expect Sally's establishing "I want song" to be a ballad about waiting for her prince, Sally's first number is Kern and Wodehouse's march-like "Joan of Arc." Dreaming of own fame as a stage performer, Sally re-imagines the Maid of Orleans as a pugnacious flapper: "I wish I could be like Joan of Arc/She was "it" right from the start...She loves to fight and when foe-men come in sight/She would hand them Dempsey punches/Where they used to keep their lunches/For you can't keep a good girl down." Elsewhere, Sally displays a fast wit, sharp tongue, and fiery temperament, which she puts on uninhibited display in the dance number "Wild Rose." Here, Sally – masquerading as Nockerova — dances wildly with a chorus of serenading stage door Johnnies. "Wild Rose" (exhilaratingly performed here by Marilyn Miller and ensemble, in one of the surviving Technicolor sequences from the 1929 Warner Brothers/Vitaphone film adaptation of Sally) channels the intoxicating new freedoms that bloomed in the flapper era.

The title role of Sally — part winsome ingénue, part willful spitfire — was a perfect fit for Marilyn Miller, who, despite her reputation as "the undisputed queen of American musical comedy" in the 1920s, remains less familiar to musical theater aficionados than such later divas as Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. Happily, Miller did preserve two of her legendary 1920s performances, in the title roles of Sally and Sunny, in early talkie Hollywood musicals, both of which are now readily accessible on DVD. (Miller's connections to Hollywood royalty are notable: she was the one-time sister-in-law of Mary Pickford, having married Mary's playboy brother Jack. Miller also gave her name to a more famous blond Marilyn, when Miller's ex-fiancé Ben Lyon — à la Otis Hooper in Sally — became an actors' agent and suggested a name change to client Norma Jean Baker).

Dubbed the "Titania of the Jazz Age" by theater critic John Mason Brown, Miller played upon a fairy-princess appeal heightened by her ethereal dancing style, pert comic presence, and a thin, but charming, light soprano: her Cinderella persona was the Broadway counterpart of "America's Sweetheart." Offstage, Miller was another story. Tough, volatile, and headstrong (she battled constantly with the infatuated and controlling Ziegfeld), Miller was described by Mary Pickford as "probably the most ambitious human being I have ever met." A shrewd businesswoman, Miller was also the first female Broadway star to command a percentage of box office intake: roughly ten percent of Sally's weekly grosses. (Miller would go on to star in Sunny, Rosalie, and one of the great musical revues of the 1930s, As Thousands Cheer, before dying tragically young at the age of 37, from complications of surgery treating her chronic sinus infections).

Miller's mix of charm and drive comes through strongly in the 1929 film Sally, which co-starred Joe E. Brown in Leon Errol's role of Connie (Errol did reprise his performance in a 1925 silent film adaptation of Sally, with flapper star Colleen Moore in the title role). Sally was also resurrected in Hollywood for the 1946 MGM Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By (with Judy Garland, as an unlikely Marilyn Miller, singing "Look for the Silver Lining"). Two years later, a Broadway revival of Sally, co-starring Bambi Lynn and Willie Howard, ran for an unsuccessful 36 performances, its frivolities ill-timed at the height of the Rodgers and Hammerstein integrated musical play era. In 1948, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson (presciently foreseeing the early-1970s Broadway nostalgia craze) mused of the revival, "Although Sally sounds sweet, she has the old look now. Probably she should not be revived for another quarter of a century, when she will be in fashion again."

While the spectacular musical has yet to debut once again in a full-scale Broadway revival (or under the more likely auspices of Encores!), Sally's stardust can be traced in a wide array of other musical theater classics, perhaps most apparently in My Fair Lady, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. The spirit of Sally also glistens in many backstage musicals. As Stuart Hecht has suggested, Funny Girl can be seen as a retelling of Sally, ethnically recasting the latter's (Anglicized) Follies Cinderella story through the life of the Jewish Ziegfeld star, Fanny Brice. Another great female character, Sally Durant-Plummer — the haunted ex-Weismann Girl of Sondheim and Goldman's Follies — might likewise represent an ironic nod to her 1920 namesake, while on a more optimistic note, Annie's eponymous orphan might be seen as a child tintype of Sally, even down to the mutt friend and millionaire's mansion. (In fact, in a 1988 staged concert of Sally, presented by the New Amsterdam Theater Company, Annie's original Sandy made a comeback appearance as Custard).

In 1949, a year after the failed Sally revival, and at the start of the Cold War era, Leo Robin and Jule Styne paid tribute to an already bygone age in the 1920s-set musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, blithely romanticizing the "Era of Wonderful Nonsense." In the song "Homesick Blues," heroines Lorelei and Dorothy, two American showgirls in Paris, led the ensemble in raising a toast: "Here's to Tin Pan Alley/A Yankee rally/A show like Sally." The American musical is a Janus-faced form, looking forward in optimism, looking backward in nostalgia — and, as Sally poignantly and exuberantly reminds us — ever looking at (if not for) the silver lining, such stuff as its dreams are made on.

Works Cited/Further Reading

Bordman, Gerald. Jerome Kern. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Bolton, Guy, and P.G. Wodehouse. Bring On the Girls!: The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy with Pictures to Prove It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1996.

Harris, Warren G. The Other Marilyn. Westminster, MD: Arbor House Publishing Company, 1985.

Hecht, Stuart. Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Mordden, Ethan. Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

About the Guest Blogger

Maya Cantu is a Doctor of Fine Arts candidate at Yale School of Drama, where she received her MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism in 2010. A theater historian, teacher, critic, and production dramaturg, Maya is currently writing a dissertation entitled "Working Girls, Gold Diggers, Broads, and Boss Ladies: Cinderella Mythologies of the American Musical Stage, 1919-1959."

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A note from Doug

The following eTexts were transcribed by Ann Fraistat and encoded by me based on a typescript copy of the libretto held in the Morton Da Costa papers here at the Library for the Performing Arts. Although there is a handwritten note on this copy that reads: "Copyright Version 1921," I have been unable to confirm that it was ever registered with the U.S. copyright office. As such, it is likely an unpublished work and still under copyright until 70 years after Guy Bolton's death (around 2050). However, the Bolton estate has very kindly given us permission to publish this transcript here for research and personal use. If you are interested in producing or performing this script, please contact the Tams-Witmark Music Library for licensing.

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Ms. Cantu does a most incomplete job on the history of "Sally." She doesn't even mention Walter Catlett, who was the second male, comic lead. He was with the show on Broadway and in the National Touring company. The essential comic relief he provided was critical to the show's success.

Walter Catlett...

Mr. Paradise, you may want to take a closer look at this thorough and excellent essay on "Sally"-- Walter Catlett is definitely mentioned (along with Leon Errol).

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