Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: Bless You All
A guest post by Ben West of UnsungMusicalsCo.
Between March 1946 and December 1948, six highly successful musical revues opened on Broadway, playing a combined total of 2,653 performances and marking a brief resurgence of the once fashionable form. The rapturous response to these half-dozen hits was quite likely the driving force behind the pack of ten new entries that stormed the scene in the three years that followed (1949-1951).
However, with the exception of the Bert Lahr-Dolores Gray vehicle Two on the Aisle, none of these subsequent entertainments proved successful. Still, the remainder of the decade saw about two revues open each season, with only four making any sort of impact. (Even the brand name Ziegfeld Follies closed out of town in 1956.) No, by the 1950s, with musical theatre trends changing and television variety shows booming, the great Broadway revue—as shaped by the likes of Dietz & Schwartz, Hassard Short and Florenz Ziegfeld—had become a thing of the past. Perhaps ironically, it was a 1950 extravaganza that was meant to celebrate the illustrious institution which actually signaled its demise: Bless You All.
With sketches by Arnold Auerbach, an Emmy winner for "The Phil Silvers Show" and an exceptionally sharp comedy writer, and a score by Harold Rome, an architect of infectious melodies and intelligent lyrics, Bless You All came to town with much promise and a great deal of momentum. Its acclaimed authors had written Call Me Mister just four years earlier. A wonderfully humorous look at a soldier's life after the army, the joyous 1946 tuner was, in my estimation, the show that launched the unexpected revitalization of the languishing Broadway revue. As such, hopes were high for Auerbach and Rome's latest collaboration.
It may be of interest to note that the pair did not start out to write another revue after their 734-performance smash. In fact, Auerbach had initially thought up a concept for a new book musical: in the future there would be no more electioneering, but instead politicians would do all their campaigning on television. (How terribly prescient!) Upon bringing it to Rome, they agreed that it would make a good first act finale for a revue. And thus, Bless You All was born.
Unlike Call Me Mister and its neighboring hits, Bless You All did not fuse its individual items together with a common theme, as had become the latest trend. Make Mine Manhattan was a loving send-up of the Big Apple. Lend an Ear was an intimate backstage showcase for a host of young performers (see: Carol Channing). Bless You All, on the other hand, was a throwback to the big Broadway revues of the 1920s and '30s, when the form was in its heyday and itself the attraction - a period when each lavish entertainment was tailored to the strengths of its artists, with little thought toward a central subject and heavy emphasis on classy, top-flight material, sleek, inventive staging and, perhaps above all else, deliciously outsized performances. Without acknowledging it, Bless You All was an homage to another time, its disappointing 84-performance run suggesting an era nearing its end.
Incidentally, headlined by Jules Munshin, Mary McCarty and Pearl Bailey, the production opened to rather glowing notices: "Blessed with many laughs," Robert Coleman, Daily Mirror; "A gay and bountiful revue with style, wit, pace and musical felicity," Howard Barnes, Herald Tribune; "A smart and funny revue," John Chapman, Daily News. The sole criticism was that the material occasionally felt uneven. (John McClain in the Journal American wrote, "There are so many high spots that it seems almost a matter of criminal incompetence when parts of it fall below the level which it originally promises.") Yet, even those critics who found it such qualified their comments by noting, as Brooks Atkinson did in his New York Times assessment, that "what they are doing would be riotous in a small theatre or supper club." Bless You All, however, played the beautiful, if rather expansive, Mark Hellinger Theatre. Perhaps some of the comedy got lost in location.
But to be sure, the revue was decidedly well-received. And Auerbach and Rome's material is exceptionally smart and wonderfully satirical. (Note the priceless sketch set in a posh Manhattan restaurant called "22," clearly a trenchant send-up of the still vibrant 21 Club!) Perhaps more surprisingly, the foundation for all of the sketches holds up exceedingly well today. They are all relatable. None is based on a specific headline from 1950. In a New York Post interview about the show, Auerbach actually states, "One of the worst things you can do is to base your show on headlines. You have to work on a trend which will be good for at least a year. Every subject [in the show] came out of our own experience and is close to that of the audience."
Bless You All is certainly a project to which I have become close, and I am thrilled to be revisiting Auerbach and Rome's extraordinary entertainment this September in a new production for UnsungMusicalsCo.
Given its vaudevillian roots, its aggressively entertaining disposition and its wonderfully dynamic sculpture, this classic revue has become, for me, a colorful, vivacious celebration of the legendary art form. It is this vision that has guided the reimagining of our new production. Working from the original production's manuscripts and musical charts, I have restructured the program order and created eleven distinct performer tracks, each one an homage to the iconic figures that defined the Golden Age of the Broadway revue:
- The Diva (Dolores Gray, Pearl Bailey)
- The Singing Comic (Beatrice Lillie, Betty Garrett, Nancy Walker, Mary McCarty)
- The Entertainers (Paul and Grace Hartman, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller)
- The Top Bananas (Olsen & Johnson, Willie & Eugene Howard, Bert Lahr)
- The Second Banana (Reginald Gardiner, Hiram Sherman, Clifton Webb)
- The Supper Club Chanteuse (Ethel Waters, Eartha Kitt)
- The Male Song-and-Dance Team (Make Mine Manhattan, George White's Scandals)
- The Female Dance Specialty (Valerie Bettis, Eleanor Powell, Colette Marchand)
In addition to exploring these distinctive personalities, we have also created a subtle nod to the Supper Club days of fabled dancing couple Gower and Marge Champion. (The former, it should be noted, launched his distinguished career choreographing such revues as Three for Tonight and Lend an Ear, for which he won his first Tony Award.) Moreover, our reshaped intermissionless Bless You All! is sprinkled throughout with several archetypal elements of the traditional Broadway revue, each designed to elevate the excitement of the evening; among them, the eleven o'clock dance feature, the in-one crossover, and the interpolation.
Strange as it may seem, interpolating new material into up-and-running revues was a rather common practice. The original Broadway run of Bless You All, for example, saw the addition of a new sketch ("Meet the Authors") by Jerome Chodorov; the tour of At Home Abroad in 1936 featured a supplemental scene ("The Girl Friend") from leading lady Beatrice Lillie's less successful 1932 revue Walk a Little Faster; Will Glickman and Joseph Stein contributed an item to Charles Gaynor's 1948 hit Lend an Ear. Revues were well-known for their rather fluid line-up. Building upon this long-standing tradition, our new Bless You All! program will include a never-before-seen comedy sketch co-written circa 1940 by Auerbach and Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk: "Justice on the Lam." When I stumbled upon this particular piece during my research at the Library of Congress, I was confident it would make an excellent addition to the entertainment.
I have also worked to tighten much of the existing material, simply making minor edits to sketches for cleanliness of staging and acceleration of pace, while reconceiving several of the musical numbers such that their staging, sound and purpose are specific to our production and feed into the overriding thrust of the revue. Conversely, I have eliminated only a handful of items, three of which I felt might be comparatively "uneven." And of the authors’ quite extensive cut material, we will restore "I'll Take the Check," a fantastic comedy sketch that was discarded during the production's out-of-town tryouts for, I suspect, logistical reasons. (That said, we will also be incorporating about 32 bars of the trunk song "Weekend" into the finale!)
Arnold Auerbach and Harold Rome are both remarkable writers - highly intelligent craftsmen with "the same viewpoint about material," as the former notes regarding their collaborations. "It's a kind of intellectual approach which we try to kick in the pants on stage." I am honored to have the opportunity to carry on their esteemed legacy of pant kicking this September when we revisit their 1950 work (with an added exclamation point) in a three-week engagement at the intimate Connelly Theatre. It is a project about which I am particularly passionate and a celebration of an era of which I am even more so. Hopefully UnsungMusicalsCo.'s 2013 production of Bless You All! will offer a new generation of theatergoers the opportunity to experience the Golden Age of the Broadway revue.
A note from Doug
This month's Musical of the Month is different in several ways. As Ben West describes above, the script included with this post is not the original version but a revision made for the upcoming UnsungMusicalsCo production. Further, unlike the public domain scripts often found in this series, 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.