Vanity Fair, March 1916
A REVIEW OF REVUES
Some Points of Interest on the Musical Comedy Map
By P. Brooke-Haven
THE producers of musical comedy seem still to be in a state of hesitation as to what it is that the public really wants. The tradition of “Watch Your Step” still lingers, and with it the idea that it is the best thing to spend your money on costumes and salaries and to pay no attention to the book. Even “Watch Your Step” was not more gorgeous and expensive than “Around the Map,” at the New Amsterdam, and “Stop! Look! Listen!” which has at last ousted “Chin-Chin” from the Globe. Between these last two and the first-named, however, there is one substantial difference. “Watch Your Step” had Frank Tinney in it. Given Frank Tinney, you can dress your chorus in overalls and still have a success. Without him, it avails not if they are arrayed like the Queen of Sheba in her glory, unless you have the support of a good book.
IN “Around the Map” Mr. C. M. S. MacLellan has the nucleus of a good book, but an avalanche of dress descends on him before he can make anything of it and blots him out of existence. The central idea, that a homely woman can be made fascinating if taken in hand by an expert on dress, has possibilities, but it delivers the author over bound into the hands of the costumier. It is the sort of idea that unsettles a costumier. It goes to his head. He acquires what, if I were vulgar enough, I might call a clothes-jag. He spills clothes in one vast shower over everything, until the piece becomes a mere pile of silks and satins, from beneath which comes the voice of the author, bleating faintly: “Here! What about me?” That is what has happened to “Around the Map.” It is like the sort of nightmare you get after spending the day at a fashion-show. From time to time Mr. MacLellan struggles to the surface, gasps for air, emits a line or two, or a lyric, and then goes under again, while the costumier with a complacent smile dumps a few more bales of clothes on his head. After awhile the author gives up the unequal contest.
“Around the Map” introduces to Broadway a new star, in the person of Else Alder, who is excellent, and will be better when she is given more to say and less to wear. At present one sees her, as through a glass darkly, through a jungle of costumes, and deduces from the indications she gives rather than from any complete exposition of those qualities, that she has humor and a sense of character. Fortunately, even the costumier cannot obliterate her voice.
THERE are a few minutes at the beginning of the piece, before the tidal wave of dress begins its deadly and irresistible progress, when Miss Georgia O’Ramey has a chance to be funny. She makes the most of it, in a curious role labeled Discontented Lulu. There are several catchy numbers, supplied by Herman Finck of London, England, the ones which I have whistled most frequently in my bath being “Here Comes Tootsi” and “When the Right Girl Comes Along.” I am fond also of “Billy the Bubbler,” but it goes less smoothly than the other two with the way I use my sponge.
It is my experience, based on a long and careful examination of this type of production, that, when a dancer or a pair of dancers is (or are) the hit of an all-star musical piece, all is not well with the piece. Dancers should be agreeable incidents in the evening’s entertainment. When they run away with the show and get half-a-dozen frantic encores every time they appear, there always seems to be an element of the pathetic in the public’s applause. It is as if the audience were pleading with them for goodness’ sake to stay on as long as they can, because experience has taught them that, once the dancers have finished their bit, there is nothing to prevent the piece being resumed—a thought from which they naturally wince.
SUCH is the impression created by the reception of Doyle and Dixon in “Stop! Look! Listen!” The audience would fain have these rubber-jointed prancers stay with them till eleven-fifteen. At the conclusion of their “Constable Dance,” the performance is only enabled to proceed by the employment of a shabby trick. They give half a dozen encores, but the audience still cry out for more and will not be appeased. With an air of kindly submission the conductor signals to the orchestra, and the melody starts again. Then, while the house is silent in pleased anticipation, someone else comes on and goes ahead with the show before the audience realize what is happening. But for this, the rest of the plot would never be revealed and the final curtain would fall on Doyle and Dixon, in a state of advanced exhaustion, giving their two hundred and fifteenth encore.
The plot of “Stop! Look! Listen!” has to do with one Gaby, a chorus-girl with, as far as one can ascertain, no ability for anything better than chorus work, who, entirely owing to the energy of an indefatigable press-agent, is boomed into the position of a star. How do authors get these ideas?
THE trouble with mammoth productions of this kind is that their promoters, under the impression that what the public wants is names, gather together a horde of stars and then give them nothing to do. Frank Lalor, one of the best comedians on the stage, is in “Stop! Look! Listen!” playing a part which, for all the opportunities it presents, might just us well be played by a forty-dollar-a-week man. The only person who has any reason to experience a thrill of gratitude when he thinks of the management is Harry Fox, who has plenty to do and does it amazingly well. He can and does get a laugh out of practically nothing; but, in addition to that, he has a number of clever lines.
DID you ever read, back in the days of your childhood, those instructive little fables in which the dialogue is sustained by the flowers of the garden? They start with the gorgeous tulips and roses, extolling their own magnificence and disparaging the modest little violet which nestles under whatever it is that this species of shrub does nestle under; and end with the violet scoring tremendously with a few simple words to the effect that it (the violet) may not be an expensive production but all the same it is playing to capacity—or something like that. Well, “Very Good Eddie” fills the role of violet in New York’s musical comedy flower-garden. It crept shyly into being, almost unobserved, nestling in the mossy banks of Thirty-ninth Street; and now Miss Marbury has to stand at one door of the Princess Theater and Mr. Comstock at the other, breaking it as gently as they can to the surging crowds that, until 1920 or thereabouts, there will only be standing-room.
THE reasons for its success are many and obvious. It has a good story, which Guy Bolton has peppered with funny lines, throwing in for good measure a wonderful burlesque of a problem play. The cast is good. Nearly every number is a song-hit. And Miss Helen Bond of the chorus is so like Mrs. Vernon Castle that even the possessors of several hundred photographs of the latter are deceived. What more could a show need?
Ernest Truex, with a moustache and a lisp, is not only delightfully funny in the principal part, but sings a song all by himself, and sings it well. He has aged since the days of “The Dummy” and is now a fine, strapping, up-standing figure of a man—a regular massive brute of a fellow who will stand no nonsense from anybody.
ALICE DOVEY, who really only wants half a chance to show herself a really good comedienne, has, for the first time since “The Pink Lady,” something more to do than merely to look pretty. Oscar Shaw makes a big hit as the juvenile. And Ada Lewis and John F. Hazzard shine in low comedy parts.