Vanity Fair, April 1916
THE NEW MUSICAL SHOWS
And the Pleasing Uniformity of Their Excellence
By P. G. Wodehouse
IT is one of life’s ironies that, in the present season, when New York has gone theater-mad and productions which in leaner years would have died the death are playing to something near capacity, the musical pieces should be of a uniform excellence which would ensure success even in a bad year. It seems like a waste of money and energy for managers to put on such good shows when the public is prepared to flock to anything. The Cherry Sisters could fill the New Amsterdam this season, and that troupe of London Follies which played here for one continuous night some summers ago would have to call out the police reserves to handle the crowds were they with us now.
This winter’s musical productions leave nothing to chance. They are armed at every point. Take the case, for instance, of “Sybil.” The management has not given itself even a sporting chance of failure to make things interesting for itself. “Sybil” has a good story, good music, and picturesque costumes; and, on top of all that, the great triangular team of stars to interpret it. There may he a few isolated individuals in this city of six millions who would think twice about turning out on a cold night to see Donald Brian, but even these degraded creatures cannot resist the opportunity to spend an evening with Joseph Cawthorn and Julia Sanderson. The possibility of there being anyone who does not want to see Julia Sanderson is too remote to be considered. If you live in New York and are not bedridden or waiting in the Tombs for your trial to come on the calendar, you have as much chance of avoiding “Sybil” as you have of not laughing at “I Can Dance with Anybody but My Wife” when you get there.
THERE has come to be something almost of a national importance in the launching of a new Cawthorn song these days. On the morning after a Julia-and-Donald-and-Joe first night anxious wives ask their husbands across the breakfast table: “What was Cawthorn’s new song?” Infants lisp the question in their cradles, and down in Wall Street the market is enabled to start firm by the news that Joseph has got another winner. A great sigh of relief seems to go up from the nation: and out in distant Michigan the lumber-jacks go about their work with a fresh zest, for a crisis has passed. This time our Joe has hit the bull’s-eye with even greater accuracy than usual. “I Can Dance with Anybody but My Wife” is the last word in comic songs. It has that irresistible appeal which belongs exclusively to songs which satirize wives. Its humor is elemental, and can be enjoyed equally by the monogamist, the Sultan of Turkey, and Ferdinand Pinney Earle. It is, to be brief, a whale of a song.
I DO not know why it is, but Al Jolson seems to exercise a sobering and purifying influence on that factory of weird and wonderful shows, the Winter Garden. When he is away, the spirit of license sneaks in at the stage door until the Messrs. Shubert are forced reluctantly to take their advertising away from morning papers because the critics of the latter offended them by blushing during the intermission. But back comes Al Jolson, and everything is changed. All is joy and peace. The book gets a cleaning, the personnel of the chorus are permitted to wear stockings, and you can hardly hear yourself think for the sound of the Messrs. Shubert and the critics patting one another on the back. It is a solemn fact that there is only one suggestive line in “Robinson Crusoe, Jr.” What is more, you can actually see the dresses with the naked eye.
I like to think of Jolson as one of those quiet, good men you read about in books, in whose presence the smoking-room raconteur changes the subject. I seem to see him at rehearsals. Somebody essays a questionable gag. There is a laugh, but it dies away as they catch sight of Al Jolson’s black, pained face. Next day the line is out.
I know a man whose dream it is to make enough money to be able to buy a yacht and engage a squad of comedians to travel about in it, entertaining him. His first choice ought to be Al Jolson. He is one of the few men who can be funny about anything.
“Robinson Crusoe, Jr.” affords what is probably a unique opportunity for parents to show their children the richly decorated interior of the Winter Garden. At the risk of giving offence to the authors, I must go on record as saying that it is full of innocent fun. What exactly it is all about, I could not say: but one laughs consumedly. Al Jolson, of course, is pretty nearly the whole show, but even when he is off the stage there are pleasant moments, for which Kitty Doner is principally responsible. There are the makings of a Winter Garden star in Rae Bowdoin, who has about three and a half lines to say and gets laughs with all of them. Frank Carter does a tremendous amount of work in a very able manner, and Barry Lupino, from London, has that ability suddenly to fall over backwards and balance himself on one ear which cannot fail to endear him to all right-minded citizens.
MIZZI HAJOS, the star of “Sari,” comes back to New York in boy’s clothes in “Pom-Pom,” Colonel Savage’s first production after two years of silence and inaction, and makes the best boy that ever was. She possesses, to the nth degree, that nebulous quality known as ginger. Whether at times she is apt to overplay the toughness of the character is a matter to be decided by her conscience and her manager: but at any rate she infuses into the performance a brightness and snap that are electrifying. She has one of those small, silver voices which, in an effortless manner, contrive to reach the ears of the ultimate standee; and Leo Felix, the composer, has given her at least two songs which nobody in New York or London could sing with the same effect. “In the Dark,” with the yodeling which is thrown in for good measure, is quite the most delightful number of the season.
“Pom-Pom” is full of humor, supplied mostly by Miss Hajos herself and Tom McNaughton, who is better than he has been since the days of “The Spring Maid.”
BUT if you want to laugh and laugh and laugh till you are blue, here’s my advice to you: see Cohan’s new Revue. It’s the best thing in the city. It’s so tuneful and so witty. The lines are so well-turned, you know, the skits so bright and skitty. (I agree with F.P.A., one has to write this way after witnessing that lyrical burlesque of “Common Clay”).
The acting’s full of zest. Richard Carle is at his best. “You have to hand it to him when he gets it off his chest.” And then Miss Valli Valli makes you laugh continu-ally. Lila Rhodes has charm and skill. Alice Harris is attractive. Boyle does dances with Brazil, which are wonderfully active. Harry Bulger and Miss Murray are a certain cure for worry (which they tell us is the curse of the age). Charles Winninger and Harry Delf will help you to forget yourself, whenever they appear upon the stage. Percy Ames as a detective is an excellent corrective for the troubles of the business man who’s tired, and Joe Santley’s brother Freddie with a song is always ready, while Miss Juliet can oblige with imitations when required. (And, of course, it would he silly, when reviewing this Revue, not to mention Little Billy and James C. Marlowe, too).
So, bo, mind you go. If you have to miss your dinner, don’t you care. It’s a bear. It’s a corker. It’s a winner.
To revert to vers libre for a moment, the Cohan Revue of 1916 is so good that it is hard to see why it should ever stop running.