Vanity Fair, September 1917
The Coming Theatrical Season
Which Is Likely to Be a Riot of Musical Comedy
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
DOES the gentle reader of this family magazine, as he lolls in his hammock and scans the four words at the head of this article, ever think what it means to prepare material for a new theatrical season? Does he sigh a little pitifully (before reaching out for the pitcher of iced sarsaparilla), as he muses on the plight of those whose fate it is to slosh in a liquid condition about the streets of New York in mid-August, attending rehearsals, interviewing managers, re-writing scenes, and explaining tactfully to the small-part man that the reason he has not got a song to sing is because he is too infinitesimal a part of the show to deserve one? No. Reason compels me to admit that the gentle reader does not care a whoop about it. He doesn’t give a thought to the perspiring human beavers who are toiling so earnestly on his behalf.
But let us hurry past this aspect of the matter. To think about people lolling in hammocks merely breeds envious and uncharitable thoughts; for we theatre-hounds, we lads of the coulisses, get no Summer vacation.
Not for us the joys of Ye Olde Mountain Reste or Lake Wissahockepecaw,—the inn on the lake, the porch on the inn, the summer-boarders on the porch, the mosquitoes on the summer-boarders,—the new New England dinner, the old New England eggs. When we want a breath of the country, we go to our bedroom window-sill and take a sniff at the mustard-and-cress which we are growing to alleviate the coming food-famine.
THE theatrical season begins earlier and earlier every year. Productions are due to break out all over the city this August like some horrible scourge. The sheep-like disposition of the average manager causes him to imitate his fellows; and ever since Mr. Belasco put on “The Boomerang” in August and scored a sensational success, managers have felt that the earlier they get action, the quicker they will become rich.
Nor is this such a bad scheme: for in August the city is overrun by those mainstays of the summer drama, the Buyers. I have never met a buyer, nor have I met anyone who has had that privilege; but I understand that there are thousands of them scuttering around in the dog days. Why the chumps come to New York when it is red-hot, I cannot say; but they do: and managers need their money. The consequence is that we stage-lizards, we drama-snakes, are obliged to be on the spot from early in July,—which is no sort of job for a refined and delicately-nurtured person, whose only fault is that he wished to elevate the American drama by contributing a few chunks of musical comedy to it. It’s vacation for other people, but it’s just July and August for committers of musical comedy.
I SPECIFY musical comedy, for—as far as it is possible to ascertain—no manager is putting on anything else next season. I have compared managers to sheep, but it would be more exact to picture them as fowls in a fowl-run. You have probably, when on your country estate, observed a solitary fowl start pecking at something nutritious which he has discovered in a neglected corner of the run. Instantly there is a commotion and excitement. “Old Bill’s onto something good!” cries one. “Look at Bill! He’s found something!” whoops another. “Are you going to let him get away with it?” And then they all swoop down, to get into the thing themselves.
So with theatrical managers. Last season the public showed a disposition to attend musical comedy productions, to the exclusion of the straighter drama; and now word has gone round that only musical comedy is required by the enlightened citizens of this metropolis. What is going to happen in September and early October can only be compared to a panic in the subway during the rush-hour. Musical comedies are going to jostle and push and fight one another till the town will become a shambles, littered everywhere with the corpses of the weaker who have gone under in the struggle. Managers who have never before gone beyond farce and comedy are rolling up their sleeves and pumping oxygen into the moribund remains of old failures, in the hope that, when presented again with the addition of a little music, they will become successes.
Last summer, for instance, Mr. Arthur Hammerstein put on a piece called “Coat-Tales,” a farce which trickled along for a week or two and then expired with a gurgle. This summer you will get it again as a musical piece under the title of “Furs and Frills.” Selwyn and Co. are grimly threatening to make us sit through “Our Little Wife” once more, with musical additions. That archaic farce, “Billy,” the plot of which hinges on the hero losing his false teeth, will come forth from the Morgue with the new title “Good-by, Girls.” Julia Sanderson and Joseph Cawthorn will star in “Rambler Rose,” which was once an unsuccessful comedy called—I think—“The Runaway”; and Mizzi Hajos returns to town in a musical version of a curious piece which used to be called “The Baby of the Family.” Add to these the musical versions of: “Sweet Kitty Bellairs,” “The College Widow,” “The Girl From Rector’s,” “The Living Safe,” “Madame and Her Godson,” the new Fred Stone piece, “Her Regiment,” “The Riviera Girl,” and perhaps a dozen more which have been announced and have slipped from my memory, and it will readily be perceived that the public is up against it.
AND there is “Oh, Justine!” the review in which Justine Johnstone is to star,—to be followed, it is hardly possible to doubt, by “Wow, Marion!” (for Marion Davies), and “Golly, Ollie!” in which Olive Thomas is sure to make a hit. Gentle reader,—yes, you, lying back there in that hammock with the infernally smug, contented smile on your face!—you may be a bit ahead of me in the way of comfort at present; but wait! I say, wait!
Round about October the First you are going to get yours.
Writing musical comedies is like eating cherries: you can always manage just one more. No matter how many commissions you may have on hand, and no matter how definitely you may resolve that nothing will induce you to touch another, when the moment arrives, you always fall.
It is like dram-drinking.
The Evening Journal artist could base one of his powerful cartoons on it,—one of those pictures entitled “Are You Like This Young Man?”, showing the awful fate of the fellow who thought ‘one wouldn’t hurt him.’ Every time I meet Guy Bolton, we vow that we will go on the musical-comedy wagon, but our resolutions never come to anything. Somehow we find ourselves in Mr. Dillingham’s office, and there is the box of cigars on the table and Mr. Ziegfeld in his chair by the window and everything jolly and homelike and innocent; and then Mr. Dillingham says casually ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we were to get up some theatricals just for a lark?’, and Mr. Ziegfeld says ‘Yes, wouldn’t it,’ and Mr. Dillingham says he knows a place round the corner which he could hire for an evening or two, and Mr. Ziegfeld says that there’s nothing like getting something to do in your spare time, as it keeps you out of the saloons and bowling-alleys; and you get the general impression that you’re all going to dress up and act charades for the children some evening later on; and then a voice through the smoke coos, ‘Sign here, boys!’; and you wake up on Broadway and find that you’re going to do the next show for the Century.
TO turn from personal matters to the general aspect of the coming season, things in the theatre will go on much as they have always done. You will bolt your dinner and race for the down-town express in order to be at the theatre at eight-fifteen, in order to see the curtain rise on your selected piece, and you will wait in your seat watching the play of expression on the faces of the gentlemanly ushers (which will be all the play that there will be to watch) till ten minutes to nine, when—a quorum having assembled—the rag will rise on Jukes, the butler, talking into the telephone.
But never mind. If you come early, you will be late enough getting away, for there will be the usual dense mob waiting in single file in front of you at the coat-room cavern for the raiment which they were rash enough to deposit there. Not that arriving too early for a play has not its compensations. It will be great fun next season to stand outside practically any theatre in the city and watch the taxi-cabs dropping into the pits which the kindly city authorities have dug—to the depth of some fifty feet—immediately in front of all the places of entertainment.
The better class of theatre, such as the Casino and the Empire, will provide aeroplanes for their patrons.