Thursday, June 24, 2004


In honor of the upcoming release of De-Lovely, I thought I'd write a bit about a Cole Porter show that probably won't be mentioned much in the movie, even though it was a big hit: Something For the Boys (1943). This was Porter's fifth and last show with his favorite interpreter of his songs, Ethel Merman. It was a major production with a heavyweight team: not only Merman and Porter, but producer Michael Todd (a future Mr. Elizabeth Taylor and producer of Around the World in 80 Days) director Hassard Short (Lady in the Dark), and scriptwriters Herbert and Dorothy Fields. The plot involves three cousins who inherit a ranch in San Antonio, Texas, which happens to be near an army base; Merman's character falls in love with a sergeant (Bill Johnson, later the star of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream; he had one of those wonderful, big, well-produced baritone voices that you almost never hear in a musical nowadays), and complications ensue when the ranch is mistaken for a brothel. The plot isn't much, but it combines the stuff that you need in a musical comedy, like romance, an unusual setting, and a bit of risque humor, with the things that were on people's minds in 1943, like patriotism and the military. This show opened just before Oklahoma! did, so it's kind of a perfect example of the kind of show Oklahoma! helped to do away with; Ethan Mordden has a good summary of Boys in his book on Rodgers and Hammerstein, noting how Boys combines all the elements of a late-'30s early-'40s musical comedy: a big star, an almost nonexistent plot, topical references, and lots of schtick.

Basically, the format of Something For the Boys shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who's seen a movie musical from around the same time. There's a simple plot that's tailored to its performers, and the songs are written not to further the plot or characterization, but to fill "spots": here's the spot for a love song, here's a spot for a beguine-flavored torch song, here's the spot for an army song ("I'm in Love With a Soldier Boy," sung by Betty Garrett, who was also Merman's understudy). But when a movie musical does this kind of thing, we accept it because we can actually see it with the performers for whom the material was intended; the material works because its raison d'etre, the particular performers, are preserved for us. A show like Something For the Boys makes no sense without Ethel Merman and it wasn't supposed to. Again, this comes back to the most important point about musicals before Oklahoma!: musicals were not franchises then. They weren't blockbusters. Something For the Boys ran 422 performances, an excellent run at the time. Only a few years later, that would have been considered a disappointment. The example of Rodgers and Hammerstein, along with changing economics, meant that producers of musicals were looking for three or four-year hits, not one-year hits. And that means that a show had to be tight enough, sensible enough, "integrated" enough to make sense without a star. Three years later, when Ethel Merman returned to Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, it was a show that needed her star power but could get along with another star. But try and put, say, Mary Martin in Something For the Boys and it wouldn't work; the comedy is built around Merman's straight-talking wisecracker character, and the songs are Merman specialties. This show isn't unrevivable, exactly; like a lot of shows of its era, if you approach it in the same spirit in which you'd approach an old movie musical, the comedy can be pretty good and the plot is considerably less stupid than, say, Rent. But in a sense, reviving a show like this is pointless, and that's the big difference between the pre- and post-Oklahoma! era. Oklahoma! was written to stand on its own, to last a long time. Something For the Boys was written to entertain people for a year and then when it's over, it's really over, and Cole and Ethel and all the others move on to next year's show.

Well, that's a lot about what kind of show this was, and not much about what kind of score Porter wrote. Like I said, it's a catalogue of song formats familiar from other Porter shows. There's the scene-setting chorus ("See That You're Born in Texas"), the torch song ("He's a Right Guy"), the slangy uptempo romantic duet ("Hey, Good-Lookin'"), the ballad for the hero ("Could it Be You?"), the eleven o'clocker ("By the Mississinewah") and, my favorite kind of traditional musical comedy number, the mock-gospel number, "There's a Happy Land in the Sky." (Gospel numbers were a major staple of Broadway musical comedy; think of Porter's "Blow, Gabriel Blow," or "Brotherhood of Man" in Loesser's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I think the last good example of the genre was "See the Light" in 70 Girls 70 by Kander and Ebb, in 1971.) The score didn't produce any hits, though I think this was partly due to a musician's strike that prevented the recording of singles from the show.

I said in an earlier post that Porter changed his style to suit the times, and the sound of the early '40s comes through in this score; one song, "The Leader of a Big-Time Band," is a tribute to what was then hot in popular music:

In the old days, when a maid desired to wed,
Any man who'd foot the bill could fill the bed.
But today the guy who's sure to win her hand
Is the leader of a big-time band.
Even gals who go for wrestlers quit 'em quick
When they meet some guy who sings and swings a stick.
For of late the only date they long to land
Is the leader of a big-time band.
When they hear Harry James
Make with the lips,
The most Colonial dames
Fracture their hips.
So if thee would like to be in great demand,
Be the leader of a big-time band.

Merman never recorded this song, but it's so closely tailored to her particular style -- especially with the sustained notes at the ends of lines, with a higher note near the end of the refrain to show off the Merman lungs at full capacity -- that it's hard to sing it without coming off as a Merman impersonator.

At this time Porter had purged his style of much of the sophistication for which he became famous in the '30s: no more references to high living, no more jokes about his society friends, simpler harmonies and song structures. His lyrics still have all the craftsmanship and rhyming skill we'd expect from him, of course, but simpler, more populist, more in line with then-prevalent tastes in pop songwriting:

When my baby goes to town,
Does my baby knock 'em down!
When she saunters by on Broadway,
Lookin' oh, so serene,
People stare in such an awed way
You'd think she was a queen.
When my baby's had her stroll,
I see her home, God bless her soul,
And in her front parlor, nice and warm,
Does she convince me she's in perfect form!
When my baby goes to town.

There was no cast album for Boys, and Merman didn't record singles, so getting to hear the songs is difficult, but not impossible. There was a cast recording, with piano accompaniment, from a production by San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon, probably the leading company when it comes to doing staged readings of pre-Oklahoma! musicals. There is a radio-broadcast recording of the original cast performing much of the score, albeit in poor sound. Garrett, in Merman's role, recorded "By the Mississinewah" with original-cast member Paula Laurence (who also made a recording of the title number, though Merman sang it in the show). And Kim Criswell performs "He's a Right Guy" and "Leader of a Big-Time Band" on an EMI CD -- now out of print, I think -- with the original orchestrations, conducted by John McGlinn with his usual stolid, reverence-for-a-classic approach (which still beats conductors who think that the best way to perform songs like these is to rearrange them beyond recognition).

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