Vanity Fair, March 1916
THE MAKING OF MUSICAL COMEDIES
And Its Strange Relation to a Good Digestion
By C. P. West
HALF the world does not care how the other half lives. An apathy towards human beings is all too common a characteristic of this selfish and materialistic age. We pass a haggard-looking fellow in the street. “See that man?” says our companion, who knows his New York. “That’s Wilkins, the chap who selects the rag-time gramophone records for Sol Landay.” “Yes?” we reply, stifling a yawn. What do we care for Wilkins and the risks he runs?
And it is the same with the manufacture of musical comedy. What does the general public know or care concerning the intimate details of this dangerous trade? Nothing. I have gladly acceded to the request of the editor of Vanity Fair to write a few words which may help people to a clearer realization of the dangers cheerfully faced day in and day out by the devoted little band of workers whose task it is to provide them with their musical productions.
Few, if any, of those who yawn and look at their watches on the opening night of a new musical play are aware how that play came into existence. They know nothing of the multitude of oysters, the slabs of steak, the ocean of cocktails, and the pyramids of oeufs a la fourchette which had to be consumed in its preparation. For it is this that makes musical comedy writing the perilous occupation which it is, that no step in its manufacture can be undertaken save after a preliminary meal.
A MANAGER, we will say, wishes to produce a musical comedy. Does he call up a librettist on the telephone and ask him to become busy on a script? That would be contrary to all the etiquette of the profession. The preliminary negotiations are conducted in a series of lunches. There is the lunch at which half-a-dozen of the authors meet as many of the composers as chance to be in the city. There is the lunch at which the writers of the lyrics are introduced to each other. There is the lunch at which the authors make the acquaintance of the actor selected to play the role of leading comedian; and, on the following day, after the violent quarrel which ends in his throwing up the part, the lunch at which they meet his successor.
Gradually the production begins to assume shape. Less gradually the librettist begins to lose it. The cast is selected. Rehearsals begin. And now it is that the real strain commences. All that has gone before has been as nothing. A thousand and one points arise. Restaurants on and around Broadway cable frantically to their brothers and cousins at the front to leave the trenches and come over and help cope with the rush. In every gilded dining-room may be seen between the hours of one and seven, little groups of bulging and excited men with wild eyes and massive foreheads, now gulping down a mouthful from their heaped-up plate, now snatching up a pencil and scribbling on the table-cloth musical cues and entrance-lines. A specimen menu may be of interest:
Hors d’oeuvres variés
Sole à la Bros. Shubert
Tripe à la mode de Cohan
This was the meal which the authors of “Wow! Wow!” were obliged to consume in order to brace themselves up to the task of changing the title of that piece to “Hurrah! Hurray!” The somewhat more elaborate:—
Hors d’oeuvres variés
Consommé Julia Sanderson
Cotelettes d’agneau à la Erlanger
Salade à la Jerome D. Kern
Fromage à la Gaby Deslys
was necessary to enable them to change the title back again from “Hurrah! Hurray!” to the original “Wow! Wow!”
During the last stages of rehearsals it is only a librettist of great experience who can tell with any certainty whether he is finishing lunch or beginning dinner or just taking a snack to keep body and soul together between meals. It is the necessity of owning an iron digestive system which keeps out of the business many writers of undoubted ability, who might otherwise enrich the musical stage with the flowers of their fancy. There is no doubt that Mr. Bernard Shaw has the literary skill necessary for the composition of a musical libretto: but his unfortunate habit of subsisting entirely on cold water and excelsior definitely bars him from competing with those of more catholic tastes in the matter of food. Sir J. M. Barrie, again, might undoubtedly provide our stage with a clever and humorous book, did his physique permit of his entering the field. So he sticks to his own less exacting branch of the profession.
PSYCHOLOGISTS have tried without success to explain the inseparable connection between food and the more incoherent varieties of the musical play. The most reasonable theory would seem to be that it is only after his mental faculties have been stupefied with rich viands and their accompanying fluids that a man is capable of admitting the possession of those ideas and lines which are considered essential in a piece of this kind. A species of Dutch courage is required. There may be something in this. I have met librettists off duty, when they had recovered from the effects of their last production and had not yet begun to turn their minds to its successor, and have found them men of reasonable intelligence whom you would scarcely suspect of being capable of any real vice. It is only when their better selves have sunk beneath the weight of hors d’oeuvres variés and the other items that they begin evolving musical comedy books. A consistently vegetarian diet might lead to their producing nothing but problem plays. It would be interesting, in this connection, to enquire into the stomachic vicissitudes of Mr. George V. Hobart. Once a well-known librettist, he suddenly bobbed up as the author of a morality play. I cannot make the assertion definitely, as I am not in possession of the facts, but the explanation that suggests itself is that Mr. Hobart, after a series of musical comedy triumphs, became a martyr to acute dyspepsia, went to consult a doctor, and was placed upon a rigid diet. The writing of musical comedy being thus definitely out of the question for him, his better self assumed the upper hand, and the result was “Experience.”
THE career of C. M. S. MacLellan is also of interest. He began with musical comedy, went back to the legitimate, returned to musical comedy, took another whirl at the legitimate, and is now writing musical comedy again. Here, in all probability, we have a victim of intermittent dyspepsia. Mr. Harry B. Smith, on the other hand, possessing the digestion of an ostrich, has been able to turn out librettos year after year without suffering any ill effects. Whereas John D. Rockefeller has never written a musical comedy at all. Does this prove my point? I think so.