Tag Archives: Broadway

P.G. Wodehouse: A Broadway Centenary — by Tony Ring

The name Tony Ring is familiar to many P.G. Wodehouse enthusiasts — it pops up often and in a surprising variety of places: from journal articles and forewords of new editions, to theatre programmes. Tony’s books on Wodehouse’s life and work line many of our shelves, and his sparkling presence has enlivened Wodehouse society events around the world. It is an honour and a pleasure to add Plumtopia to his long list of appearances.

Another Centenary to Celebrate

The Sunday Times Magazine for 9 April this year included a four-page article saluting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extraordinary achievement in having four shows in performance simultaneously on Broadway, though two of them are revivals. It suggests he shares this record with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and states that it hasn’t been done for 60 years.

Well, Rodgers, like Lloyd Webber, was a composer. Hammerstein was a lyricist. The paper overlooked Lloyd Webber’s one-time lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote this in his Introduction to the booklet contained in the 2001 CD The Land Where the Good Songs Go:

I am, I hope, a fairly modest cove, but I must admit I felt fairly gruntled when, in 2000, I could briefly brag about having my lyrics on Broadway in no less than four shows at the same time [including one revival]. Surely this must be a record, I reckoned – certainly for a British lyricist.

So the errors the Sunday Times made are stacking up. First, as they refer to Hammerstein as one of the previous record-holders, they clearly mean to include lyricists. Therefore, Lloyd Webber’s achievement, though amazing, also only equals that of Tim Rice. And when earlier this year his fourth show opened, it was only 17 years since Tim Rice’s achievement, not 60.

But that is not all. Tim Rice went on to add in his remarks that he had mentioned his achievement only because of its relevance to the CD – which was full of songs by one of his literary heroes, P G Wodehouse.

For in 1917 the mighty Plum, lyricist and British to boot, had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. That achievement reaches its Centenary on November 7, this year.

It is only fair to admit that some of the shows were far less successful than the typical Lloyd Webber and Rice offerings, and that in one in particular he was not the only lyricist. Nevertheless, it is an achievement which should not be overlooked.

In all, Wodehouse contributed lyrics to 25 musicals in one or both of the UK and the USA, and the changes in style and approach which he and Jerome Kern in particular brought to the format of musical comedies smoothed the way for the next major revolution, with the production of such shows as Show Boat. Along with Guy Bolton, who was generally responsible for the first drafts at least of the libretti, they introduced the idea of simpler plots relating to subjects more in keeping with the experience of theatre-goers.

Poster for 2010 Chicago production of 'Oh,Boy!' (Bolton, Wodehouse & Kern)
Playbill from a 2010 production

Whereas one of their earliest efforts, Miss Springtime, paid lip-service to the earlier traditions of comic opera, the setting for their first 1917 hit, Have a Heart, was the life of a salesgirl in a retail clothing store. This was followed by Oh, Boy!, which encompassed a modern take on romance, with newlyweds, misunderstandings and a lecherous old judge; and Leave It To Jane, based around American football.Wodehouse absorbed this policy in future collaborations with other composers – the 1926 show Oh, Kay!, written with the Gershwins, had the theme of bootlegging during the prohibition era; while Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s 1934 perpetually popular show, featured escaped criminals. Porter, who had written the lyrics for all the songs in the Broadway production, invited Wodehouse to anglicise a couple of them for London, and he pulled no punches in satirising the greed of certain classes even in times of economic difficulty.

Do the following examples sound like Wodehouse? They were.

The Duke who owns a moated castle
Takes lodgers and makes a parcel
Because he knows
Anything goes

It’s grab and smash today
We want cash today
Get rich quick today
That’s the trick today
And the Great today
Don’t hesitate today
But keep right on their toes

And lend their names, if paid to do it
To anyone’s soap or suet
Or baby clo’s
Anything goes

If you enjoy Wodehouse but have not heard – knowingly – any of his lyrics (the one EVERYBODY has heard without realising it is Bill, originally written for Oh, Lady! Lady!! in 1918, dropped from that show but added, with a little tweaking by Oscar Hammerstein II, to Show Boat in 1926, where it has resided ever since), I recommend that you try to get one of the three CD’s, each with a variety of his lyrics, recorded since 2000.

Maria Jette & Dan Chouniard CDThey are:

The Land Where the Good Songs Go
Singers: Hal Cazalet, Sylvia McNair, Lara Cazalet; Pianist: Steven Blier
2001   Harbinger Records   HCD 1901

In Our Little Paradise
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2011   Woleseley Recordings

The Siren’s Song
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2004   Woleseley Recordings

For a relatively modern recording of a complete show, try Sitting Pretty (1926), recorded on a double CD in 1990 under the direction of John McGlinn. It was published by New World Records (80387-2).

But let your mind wander a little further. You may not have been aware that Wodehouse was quite such an important lyricist. Perhaps you have not realised that he was an accomplished playwright, as well. He never reached quite the same prominence as with his other activities but, while mentioning impressive achievements, we should not overlook that in December 1928 he had three new plays on the West End stage simultaneously – and that is something not many of even our greatest playwrights can boast.

Perhaps you could suggest some names of those who have matched this achievement – either on the West End or on Broadway?

Tony Ring

April 2017

Happy New Year: Snifters with Ukridge at the Coal Hole

Coal Hole and steps
Ukridge took snifters at the Coal Hole in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’. Image by Honoria Plum

N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.

‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’

(Ukridge, 1923)

Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.

stage_door_johnnies_28drawing29
Stage Door Johnnies (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.

The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.

There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.

(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)

874817Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.

There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.

‘You aren’t George Bevan!’

‘I am!’

‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’

George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.

‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’

‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’

‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’

‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’

‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’

A Damsel in Distress (1919)

Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.

We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.

My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.

Best wishes to you all for 2016!

HP

Coal Hole cellar bar
The Coal Hole cellar bar (Image by Honoria Plum)

 

Moments when one needs a drink (Barmy in Wonderland)

1952 Barmy in Wonderland (UK title) mycopy

‘There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’

So says Mervyn Potter, Hollywood heart-throb, who leads poor Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps astray in Barmy in Wonderland (1952). But before you start quoting these sentiments as the views of the author himself, have look at what happens to the frequently pie-eyed Mervyn. In Chapter One, he gets blotto, burns down a hotel bungalow, and induces Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (a hotel employee) to slip a frog into his employer’s bedroom. In Chapter Five, Mervyn is already soaked when Barmy arrives at his house (for a dinner he never gets).

It was plain to him that the other, fatigued no doubt after a long day’s rehearsal, had yielded to the dictates of his lower self and for some considerable time must have been mopping up the stuff like a vacuum cleaner. If not actually ossified, he was indubitably plastered, and Barmy could only hope that he would not eventually reach the truculent stage.

Mervyn Potter does indeed reach the truculent stage. First, he creates a disturbance during the cabaret performance in the Champagne Room at the Piazza Hotel. Next he takes a late taxi to the Long Island home of his fiancé, where the occupants of the house are sleeping. Mervyn insists that Barmy ‘shin up the waterpipe’ and start breaking windows. The episode ends badly for Mervyn, who is discovered by Bulstrode the butler, sitting at the foot of the drainpipe reciting Longfellow’s Excelsior.  At this point his fiancé, Hermione Brimble,  very sensibly insists that he give up drinking.

‘I wonder, Phipps,’ he said, ‘if you have the slightest conception what it means to be on the wagon. I shall go through the world a haunted man. There will be joy and mirth in that world, but not in the heart of Mervyn Potter. Everywhere around me I shall hear the happy laughter of children as they dig into their Scotch highballs, but I shall not be able to join them. I shall feel like a thirsty leper.’

This is moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. I am reminded of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking, as told by Galahad Threepwood in Heavy Weather:

…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”

“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”

His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”

Unfortunately Mervyn Potter is unable to sustain this binge-free lifestyle and Hermione cancels the fixture. He gets drunk on the opening night of his latest play (in which Phipps has invested his fortune) and refuses to perform. When ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ closes, Potter is the happy star of a hit play, but his long-term future is uncertain. Whereas Barmy, who hardly touches a drop after his initial night out with Potter, is rewarded with both riches and romance.

I’m not suggesting ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ is a moral tale about the evils of drink – far from it. But it’s not quite the ringing endorsement of drinking that the original quotation (if taken as the author’s view on the subject) might suggest.  Which brings me back to my original point. Wodehouse’s characters espoused a great variety of views and opinions, often ludicrous or extreme, which makes for great comedy. We can do nothing to stop a vexatious critic from presenting these opinions as the author’s own, but we should take care not to do so ourselves.

But that’s enough from me for one day.  This blogging is thirsty business and it’s almost noon – or will be once I’ve dressed and prepared my liver for the day’s potations. I leave you with these fine sentiments from the attractive Peggy Marlowe (‘not unknown to the choruses of Broadway’) who has difficulty procuring a glass of champagne after the opening-night flop in ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ .

‘What I vote,’ said Miss Marlowe, ‘is that somebody slips me a tankard of that juice. I’m surprised you haven’t offered me any before, dreamboat,’ she went on, addressing Barmy reproachfully: ‘Who do you think I am? Volstead or someone?’

HP