Vanity Fair, March 1917
THE AGONIES OF WRITING A MUSICAL COMEDY
Which Shows Why Librettists Pick at the Coverlet
By P. G. Wodehouse
MR. LOUIS SHERWIN, a lad of the keenest insight, than whom in the critical profession there are few than-whomer, wrote, when reviewing “Miss Springtime” at the New Amsterdam Theatre, as follows: “There are those who deplore the fact that musical comedy is the most popular form of entertainment. The plain fact is that musical comedy is so much more frequently good of its kind than the dreary routine of farces, melodramas with a crippled punch, and comedy dramas of a sickly jejuniority, that it is usually a symptom of good common sense to prefer musical comedy.” I thank Mr. Sherwin for those kind words. There can be little doubt in the mind of any unprejudiced person that he has said a mouthful.
THE trouble about musical comedy, and the reason why a great many otherwise kindly and broad-minded persons lie in wait round the corner with sullen scowls, their whole being intent on beating it with a brick the moment it shows its head, is that, from outside, it looks too easy.
You come into the crowded theatre and consider that each occupant of an orchestra chair is contributing three or four cents to the up-keep of a fellow who did nothing but dash off the stuff that keeps the numbers apart, and your blood boils. A glow of honest resentment fills you at the thought of any one having such an absolute snap; and you reel out muttering bitter things about the Tired Business Man and the Decadence of the Drama. You little know what the poor bird has suffered, and how inadequate a reward are his few pitiful yens per week for what he has been through. Musical comedy is not dashed off. It grows—slowly and painfully, and each step in its growth either bleaches another tuft of the author’s hair or removes it from the parent skull altogether.
Most musical comedy authors are left behind in rest-cure places towards the end of the trying-it-on-the-dog tour through the pleasant hamlets of New England or the minor manufacturing towns of Pa. or O.
The average musical comedy comes into being because somebody—not the public, but a manager—wants one. We will say that Mr. and Mrs. Whoosis, the eminent ball-room dancers, have decided that they require a different sphere for the exhibition of their talents. They do not demand a drama. They commission somebody to write them a musical comedy. Some poor, misguided creature is wheedled into signing a contract: and, from that moment, his troubles begin.
An inspiration gives him a pleasing and ingenious plot. Full of optimism, he starts to write it. By the time he has finished an excellent first act, he is informed that Mr. and Mrs. Whoosis propose to sing three solos and two duets in the first act and five in the second, and will he kindly build his script accordingly? This baffles the author a little. He is aware that both artistes, though extremely gifted northward as far as the ankle-bone, go all to pieces above that level, with the result that by the time you reach the zone where the brains and voice are located, there is nothing stirring whatever. And he had allowed for this in his original conception of the play,—by making Mrs. Whoosis a deaf-mute and Mr. Whoosis a Trappist monk, under a perpetual vow of silence. The unfolding of the plot he had left to the other characters, with a few ingenious gaps where the two stars could come on and dance.
HE takes a stiff bracer, ties a vinegar-soaked handkerchief round his forehead, and sets to work to remodel his piece. He is a trifle discouraged, but he perseveres. With almost superhuman toil he contrives the only possible story which will fit the necessities of the case. He has wrapped up the script and is about to stroll round the corner to mail it, when he learns from the manager who is acting as intermediary between the parties concerned in the production that there is a slight hitch. Instead of having fifty thousand dollars deposited in the bank to back the play, it seems that the artistes merely said in their conversation of the twentieth ult that it would be awfully jolly if they did have that sum, or words to that effect.
This concludes reel one. There is a short interval for rest and relaxation, and we begin reel two.
By this time our author has got the thing into his system: or, rather, he has worked so hard that he feels he cannot abandon the venture now. He hunts around for another manager who wants something musical, and at length finds one. The only proviso is that this manager does not need a piece built round two stars, but one suited to the needs of Jasper Cutup, the well-known comedian, whom he has under contract. The personality of Jasper is familiar to the author, so he works for a month or two and remoulds the play to fit him. With the script under his arm, he staggers to the manager’s office. The manager reads the script—smiles—chuckles—thoroughly enjoys it. Then a cloud passes athwart his brow. “There’s only just one thing the matter with this piece,” he says. “You seem to have written it to star a comedian.” “But you said you wanted it for Jasper Cutup!” gasps the author, supporting himself against the water-cooler. “Well, yes, that is so,” replies the manager. “I remember I did want a piece for him then, but he’s gone and signed up with K. and Lee. What I wish you would do is to take this script and twist it to be a vehicle for Pansy Glucose.”
“Pansy Glucose!” moans the author. “The ingenue?” “Yes,” says the manager. “It won’t take you long. Just turn your Milwaukee pickle-manufacturer into a débutante, and the thing is done. Get to work as soon as you can. I want this thing rushed.”
ALL this is but a portion of the musical comedy author’s troubles. We will assume that he eventually finds a manager who really does put the piece into rehearsal. We will even assume that he encounters none of the trials to which I have alluded. We will even go further and assume that he is commissioned to write a musical comedy without any definite stellar personality in mind, and that when he has finished it the manager will do his share by providing a suitable cast. Is he in soft? No, Rollo, dear, he is not in soft. You have forgotten the “Gurls.” Critics are inclined to reproach, deride, blame, and generally hammer the author of a musical comedy because his plot is not consecutive and unbroken as the plot of a farce or a comedy. They do not realize the conditions under which he is working. It is one of the immutable laws governing musical plays that at certain fixed intervals during the evening the audience demand to see the chorus. They may not be aware that they so demand, but it is nevertheless a fact that, unless the chorus come on at these intervals, the audience’s interest sags. The raciest farce-scenes cannot hold them, nor the most tender love-passages. The want the gurls, the whole gurls, and nothing but the gurls.
THUS it comes about that the author, having at last finished his first act, is roused from his dream of content by a horrid fear. He turns to the script, and discovers that his panic was well-grounded. He has carelessly allowed fully twenty pages to pass without once bringing on the chorus.
THIS is where he begins to clutch his forehead and to grow gray at the temples. He cannot possibly shift musical number four, which is a chorus number, into the spot now occupied by musical number three, which is a duet, because three is a “situation” number, rooted to its place by the exigencies of the story. The only thing to do is to pull the act to pieces and start afresh. And when you consider that this sort of thing happens not once but a dozen times between the start of a musical comedy book and its completion, can you wonder that this branch of writing is included among the dangerous trades and that librettists always end by picking at the coverlet?
Then there is the question of the cast. The author builds his hero in such a manner that he requires an actor who can sing, dance, be funny, and carry a love interest. When the time comes to cast the piece, he finds that the only possible man in sight wants fifteen hundred a week and, anyway, is signed up for the next five years with the rival syndicate. He is then faced with the alternative of revising his play to suit either (a) Jones, who can sing and dance, but is not funny (b) Smith, who is funny, but cannot sing and dance, (c) Brown, who is funny and can sing and dance, but who cannot carry a love-interest and, through working in revue, has developed a habit of wandering down to the footlights and chatting with his audience. Whichever actor is given to him, it means more rewriting.
Overcome this difficulty, and another arises. Certain scenes are constructed so that A gets a laugh at the expense of B; but B is a five-hundred-a-week comedian and A is a two-hundred-a-week juvenile, and B refuses to “play straight” even for an instant for a social inferior. The original line is such that it cannot be simply switched from one to the other. The scene has to be entirely reconstructed and further laugh-lines thought of. Multiply this by a hundred, and you will begin to understand why, when you see a librettist, he is generally lying on his back on the sidewalk with a crowd standing round, and saying, “Give him air!”
THE conditions governing musical comedy are a fiery furnace from which as a rule only what—of its kind—is good emerges. That is why the percentage of successes in musical comedy is larger than in any other branch of dramatic work. Mr. Sherwin has the right idea. Every year the public becomes more blasé and harder to satisfy, and what is presented to it in the line of musical comedy is stuff that has been tested in every possible way. In a modern musical piece there is not a single line that has not been discussed and rediscussed into the small hours by the manager, the manager’s right-hand man, the authors, the composer, the stage-director, and every possible variety of friend. The labor expended over the perfecting of a musical comedy would make a dozen straight farce-comedies.
So, do not grudge the librettist his thousand a week or whatever it is. Remember what he has suffered, and consider his emotions on the morning after the production when he sees lines which he invented at the cost of permanently straining his brain, attributed by the critics to the impromptu invention of the leading comedian. Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest—to a musical comedy author—are these, in the morning paper: “The bulk of the humor was sustained by Walter Whiffle, who gagged his way merrily through the piece.”