Vanity Fair, April 1915
TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF MUSICAL COMEDIES
By P. G. Wodehouse
IT has always seemed to us that the chief modern example of that dogged indomitableness which, in the course of the centuries, has raised Man from a pollywog messing about in the primeval slime to a semi-divine Being in a sack-coat and rubbers, is to be found in the fact that in each successive theatrical season optimists are not wanting who think they have discovered what it is that New York likes in the way of musical comedy.
Capricious as the public is, it acts in regard to the other forms of dramatic art with a certain method. It usually selects the season in which you produce your great crook melodrama to patronize nothing but farce and the season in which you present your riotous farce to spend its money on crook melodrama, but it does know what it wants when it wants it.
But as regards musical comedy it seems to have no views whatever. Two diametrically opposite types of musical comedy, “Watch Year Step” and “The Only Girl,” are playing simultaneously to capacity, or as near to capacity as makes no matter. Which is next season’s manager to imitate? For the only known rule governing musical comedy is that you must imitate the last success.
Does the vogue of “Watch Your Step” mean that the plotless musical play is to be the fashion, or does the congested condition of the orchestra chairs at the Lyric Theatre mean that people are returning to the musical play with a coherent story? This is the problem which is causing managers to moan in their sleep and pick feebly at the coverlet. It is this that makes them burst into tears if you speak to them suddenly.
The acuteness of the problem is intensified by the fact that the one type of entertainment is so much more expensive than the other.
“Watch Your Step” is the dramatic equivalent of the frontal attack in military manœuvres. By sheer weight of numbers and disregard for cost Mr. Dillingham has forced victory. He has adopted the simple method of engaging practically every star in existence. If he had signed up the Secretary of State he would have had a full hand. The success of “Watch Your Step” was a mathematical certainty. If the Vernon Castles do not seem to you good value for your two dollars—six, from speculators—you are probably one of the people who would omit dinner rather than miss a Frank Tinney show. If you care neither for dancing nor monologues, there still remain Harry Kelly, Elizabeth Murray, Elizabeth Brice, Charles King, and Sallie Fisher. You cannot escape “Watch Your Step.” Sooner or later it must draw you in. The chorus, the dresses, and Irving Berlin’s music would by themselves have made it a success.
IT is positively painful to pause for an instant and ponder on the “Watch Your Step” salary list. There can hardly be that much money in the world. If Harry Kelly’s dog is drawing the salary he deserves—and he probably is, for he has a hard, mercenary look,—Mr. Dillingham must walk home on Friday nights to save carfare.
Once he had reconciled himself to the expense, Mr. Dillingham’s greatest difficulty must have been to see that in an entertainment of limited length each of his stars got enough to do. That he should have succeeded in this is a remarkable achievement and a proof of the amiability of great men, for in “Watch Your Step” one may see the unprecedented spectacle of stars acting as feeders to brother-stars. But for the regrettable disturbance in Europe, one would say that the Millenium had arrived. One always knew that the lion would some day lie down with the lamb, but nobody ever really hoped that a time would come when high-salaried actors would stand on the stage and smilingly speak the lead-ups to other actors’ laughs. The whole thing is great team-work. “Watch Your Step” is one of those rare entertainments in which everyone, down to the stage-carpenters, and Harry Kelly’s dog, can point to the crowds pouring into the theatre and say complacently, “I done it.” Or its canine equivalent.
Now consider “The Only Girl.” Here we have a starless cast, inexpensive scenery, and a chorus of six. The music, though by Mr. Victor Herbert, is not remarkably attractive. It is the play with its straight comedy story and its logical situations that has made the success. It contains a real idea, worked out on strictly comedic lines. That a play has to have luck as well as merit is proved by the fact that the original comedy, “Our Wives” on which “The Only Girl” is based, was a failure on Broadway.
BY musical comedy standards, the cost of running “The Only Girl” must be almost nothing. Well as it is played, it does not depend on the players. There is no star on whose presence in the cast the success of the venture hangs. On the other hand, there is no part that loses in the hands in which it has been placed. Mr. Ernest Torrence’s performance of the Scotsman is the gem of the evening, and Mr. John Findlay, who played the same part in the original piece, makes an outstanding character of Saunders, the butler, in spite of the fact that he has only a few lines to speak and spends most of his time at the back of the stage, fiddling about with a chafing-dish. Adele Rowland is excellent as the soubrette.
So here we have the two opposite poles of musical comedy, each apparently equally popular. What are managers to do? Are they to copy Mr. Dillingham’s spacious methods, or are they to put their money boldly on their author? The idea of an author being of any importance will be almost shocking to the conservative musical comedy manager. Yet the fact remains that, though “Watch Your Step” may be making more money than “The Only Girl,” it is costing ten times as much to run. As a property “The Only Girl” may possibly be more valuable, for it is portable and can be played with profit on one-night stands and by minor stock companies.
The fact that “Chin-Chin” at the Globe is also playing to capacity without the aid of any story that can be discovered without the aid of a microscope may seem at first sight to add weight to the theory that it is the plotless musical play that the public wants, and that the success of “The Only Girl” is merely a freak success. But “Chin-Chin” cannot be said to prove anything, except that people will flock to see Fred Stone, whatever the quality of the piece in which he appears. If he did an Ibsen season, he would be just as big a draw. The play is simply an English Christmas pantomime and is chiefly interesting as showing what one determined man with a sense of humor and a pair of India-rubber legs can achieve when he sets himself to it. With the exception of the Clown Band and one song by Miss Belle Story, “Chin-Chin” is Fred Stone and nothing but Fred Stone. There is no Elsie Janis this time to share the White Man’s Burden: there is no “Bagdad” for Mr. Montgomery to sing. Mr. Stone has to do it all. It is a wonder that he does not crack under the strain. There are moments when he seems to feel the weight of responsibility a little, and he has perhaps been funnier in other plays: but his ventriloquism pays for all. “Eddie’s” place in the Hall of Fame will be awarded him without a dissentient voice.
OF the other musical plays, both “Tonight’s The Night” and “Ninety in the Shade” belong to the connected-story type, but the one is too old and the other too thin to have much influence on the Great Problem. “Tonight’s The Night” has been proclaimed a “typical London Gaiety show,” but it is a very poor relation of its famous family, being a warmed-up version of “Pink Dominoes”; full of erring husbands, frivolous wives, and mistaken identities. It is well played, of course. George Grossmith is always neat, and Lauri de Frece and Fay Compton have made real hits. But it is old stuff, and there is only one really good song in it.
We spoke above of optimistic managers. If Mr. Daniel V. Arthur really expected to set Broadway ablaze with “Ninety in The Shade,” he is the noblest optimist of them all. Our lawyer tells us that, as we did not pay for our seat, an action for damages against the perpetrators of “Ninety in The Shade” will not lie: so we must be content with a strongly worded protest. If Mr. Guy Bolton wrote the book as it is served up to the public at the Knickerbocker, he is to be censured: if, as from a not small acquaintance with the inner workings of musical comedy productions we are inclined to suspect, his original book was mangled and disintegrated to suit the purposes of Miss Cahill and Mr. Carle, he is to be commiserated with. Miss Cahill has some good lines which she makes the most of. Mr. Carle has an excellent song entitled “Foolishness.” He had an excellent song entitled “Foolishness” in “The Doll Girl” and an excellent song entitled “Foolishness” in “The Girl from Montmartre.”
To use one song in three successive plays on Broadway shows thrift and nerve,—both of them excellent qualities.
LOOKING over the Great Problem in all its aspects, we are inclined to think that if we had a young friend who proposed to risk all his money on the musical drama and were unable to have him placed under proper restraint, we should advise him to try his luck with the coherent-story type of production. “Watch Your Step” is all very well, but “The Only Girl” variety is safer. The trouble with most managers is that, when they get a plot, they do not get a good plot: or, if they do get a good plot, they amputate its most important joint to make room for a big number, or a scene where the principal comedian does a monologue as a frankfurter seller. Perhaps the real secret of the dangerous trade of musical-play producing is that half-measures are fatal. We can enjoy a swiftly moving story with occasional digressions into song, and we can enjoy a series of songs interspersed with vaudeville turns: what we do resent is the June-bug type of plot, which comes in, disappears, whizzes in again, whizzes off just as we are trying to focus it, and pops up once more just as we have adjusted our minds to its permanent withdrawal.
Magazine had “Elizebeth Murray”; corrected above to Elizabeth as credited at ibdb.com.
it does know what it wants when it wants it: Allusion to the song “I Want What I Want When I Want It” by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom, from Mlle. Modiste (1905). The sheet music is online.