Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: Night Boat
A guest post by Levi Branson
By 1920 Jerome Kern had achieved success as a noteworthy American composer with a uniquely American career. His melodies graced many entertainment platforms, but he was most prominently represented on the musical stage. His early composing career included scores for the successful Princess Theatre musicals as well as song interpolations into others' musicals. In 1919 a Charles Dillingham production paired him with a songwriter and librettist who would become a frequent collaborator in the approaching new decade, Anne Caldwell.
Anne Caldwell (O'Dea) began her career in entertainment when she debuted as a performer with a juvenile opera company at the age of 14. She began songwriting with her husband, James O'Dea, composing music first, and then proceeding to craft lyrics as well. Anne also enjoyed some success as an early American playwright. After her husband died in 1914, Anne continued to write, reaching the height of her career in the 1920s working with such notable composers as Ivan Caryl, Vincent Youmans, and Victor Herbert.
The first collaboration between Kern and Caldwell was the musical She's A Good Fellow (1919), and they would go on to create six other musicals that were very much American variations on traditional and generic plotlines. The Night Boat, Kern and Caldwell's second collaboration, is a light musical comedy with a storyline adapted from Alexandre Bisson's farce Le Controleur des Wagons-Lits. The plot centers on Bob White who persuades his wife, Hazel, and his mother-in-law to believe that he is the captain of an Albany night boat so that he might enjoy a few nights respite from his home and failing marriage. Becoming suspicious, the mother-in-law, Mrs. Maxim, with Hazel and her other daughter, Barbara, book passage aboard Captain Bob White's evening charter — comedy, mistaken identity, and complications ensue.
Opening in New York at the Liberty Theater on February 2, 1920, the show's most pleasing, lasting hits were "The Left All Alone Again Blues" and "Whose Baby Are You?", both recorded then by RCA records. The musical was produced by showman producer Charles Dillingham with breakout star Louise Groody (Barbara) who, according to the New-York Tribune, "contributed much to the entertainment" in the production. The Liberty Theater production was generally praised for the producer's showmanship in presentation and Kern's musical score. It ran on Broadway for a total of 313 performances before being forced to close by a production contracted to move into the Liberty Theater. However The Night Boat sailed out on a successful tour after its healthy run in New York.
While The Night Boat was one of Caldwell and Kern's more successful shows, their work isn't generally considered revivable today. The plots and comedy do not satisfy the expectations of contemporary audiences. However, their partnership was a fruitful one during the 1920's. Kern would proceed to collaborate with Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II on his final shows. Anne Caldwell would go on to success in Hollywood working for RKO on such movies as Flying Down to Rio (1933) and Babes in Toyland (1934) before dying in 1936. Although much of Caldwell's stage work is not produced today, her legacy and songs live on. Caldwell was a founding charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Along with Rida Johnson Young and Dorothy Donnelly, Anne Caldwell's work and career helped to establish the fact that writing American musical comedy was not solely a male domain and that a female writer could create works for the stage that were equally as satirical, witty, timely, and simply as comical as the work of any man.
A Note About The Libretto
The libretto here was transcribed from two typewritten copies of the script bound into a single volume and held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The first version included in this collection appears to be clean copy of the earlier version with handwritten edits that follows it in the volume.
The musical had pre-Broadway tryouts in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Rochester before opening in New York. According to Gerald Bordman's Jerome Kern: His Life and Music, the musical underwent little revision during this period save for some rearranging and editing of the songlist. Of the changes made, a few songs were cut ("She's Spanish" and "Jazz") and "Rip Van Winkle And His Little Men" was added and discarded in Philadelphia. The Broadway premiere included the addition of "Girls Are Like A Rainbow" and a group of girls in the first and final acts who acted as a sort of chorus providing "Plot Demonstrators." The version of the libretto used for this transcription includes "She's Spanish" and a placeholder in the script for "Jazz." The earlier version in the NYPL volume also includes the song, "Rip Van Winkle And His Little Men" but neither libretto includes "Girls Are Like A Rainbow" nor the "Plot Demonstrators". Therefore it is my conclusion that the clean libretto, which is the basis of this transcription, is an early version of the musical presented during or after its run in Philadelphia.
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Levi Branson is a student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, with an interest in archives and special collections. He lives in Chicago, is a university administrator at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and is a passionate American musical theatre enthusiast.
Bordman, Gerald Martin. Jerome Kern: His Life and Music . New York: Oxford UP, 1980.
"'Night Boat' Rocks Slightly, But is Off on Long Cruise." New-York Tribune , February 03, 1920, Page 11, Image 11. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1920-02-03/ed-1/seq-11/. Last accessed January 28, 2013.
Norton, Richard C. A Chronology of American Musical Theater. Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2002. Pages 297-299 and 1486-1487.
"Songwriters Hall of Fame - Anne Caldwell Exhibit," Songwriters Hall of Fame. http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C319. Last accessed January 29, 2013.
Rothman, Korey R. "'Will You Remember' Female Lyricists of Operetta and Musical Comedy." In Women in American Musical Theatre, edited by Bud Coleman and Judith A. Sebesta, 14-16. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.