Vanity Fair, December 1916
THREE NEW MUSICAL COMEDIES
A Word About “Miss Springtime,” “Betty” and “Go To It”
By P. Brooke-Haven
THE average producer of musical comedy resembles so closely in his mental outlook the leading character in a Goldberg cartoon that the gifted Rube might well insert him in the “I Never Thought of That” series, next time he is hard up for an idea. As follows, Picture One: Theatrical Manager standing on one leg with the other wrapped round his neck, which is the way people register despair and anguish in the Goldberg world: “My latest production is a frost, and I can’t think why.” Picture Two: Manager balancing himself on one hand with both legs wrapped round his neck, indicating deeper despair: “I spent a million dollars on the costumes, two million on the scenery, and I pay Siegfried Dillpickle twenty per cent of the gross for his music.” Picture Three: Manager trying to cool his brain by hanging head downward from the Woolworth Building and resting his forehead against the stonework: “I have pawned my collar stud in order to pay my leading comedian nine hundred a week. I have engaged a chorus of six hundred and I have spent thirty million on advertising. And yet the house on Saturday night consisted of my two children and a man who came in on a pass.” Picture Four: Small bearded man in tall hat, poking his head out of window and addressing Manager: “Why don’t you get a good book?” Manager: “I never thought of that.”
WHAT it amounts to nowadays is that the last has become first, and the stone which the builders rejected has become the corner-stone of the arch. In other words, the author—known also as the writer, the book-hound, the chap who supplies the stuff that keeps the songs apart—has become the most important asset in this business of musical comedy. He who erstwhile was stood in a dark corner during rehearsals, with nobody to say a kind word to him, is now the fellow who chucks his chest out and taps the manager on the shoulder and says, “Say, let me tell ya somethin’! Lemme put ya right!” For the public has at last awakened to the fact that it is possible for the book of a musical comedy to be coherent, sensible, and legitimately amusing, and now it demands these qualities before it consents to allow the box-office man to withdraw the two-dollar bill from its grasp.
THE man who is responsible for this state of affairs, who has revolutionized musical comedy to such an extent that all the other authors will either have to improve their stuff or go back to box-stencilling, is Guy Bolton, author of “Miss Springtime,” at the New Amsterdam. I feel a slight diffidence about growing enthusiastic over “Miss Springtime,” for the fact is that, having contributed a few little lyrical bijoux to the above (just a few trifles, you know, dashed off in the intervals of more serious work), I am drawing a royalty from it which already has caused the wolf to move up a few parasangs from the Wodehouse doorstep. Far be it from me to boost—from sordid and commercial motives—a theatrical entertainment whose success means the increase of my meat-meals per week from one to two, but candor compels me to say that “Miss Springtime” is a corker. It is the best musical play in years. I don’t know who writes those advertisements in the papers—I think it must be Sam Harrison—but the man is perfectly correct. The show is a “Pippin.” And, good as the Kalmann-Kern music is, and however excellent Jack Hazzard, George MacFarlane, Sari Petrass, Georgia O’Ramey, and the rest of the cast may be, the solid rock on which its success is founded is Guy Bolton’s book. It is sane and sincere, and the humor with which it is crammed is distributed evenly instead of being laid on in isolated chunks. This Bolton, as George Jean Nathan would say, knows his job from the first spoonful of soup to the final walnut. His construction is perfect, and he has written so many good lines that at least half the reviewers, unable to grasp the fact that a musical comedy author could be capable of real humor, took it for granted that J. Hazzard, Esq., the principal comedian, had made them up himself as he went along,—the true fact being that, with the exception of three interpolated lines, the script is played exactly as Bolton handed it in to the management. There is no getting away from it—the lad swings a wicked pen.
Bolton’s secret is hard work. He is as thorough over a musical play as he would be over a legitimate comedy. If, by messing about with a pencil and a sheet of paper for two more hours, he can add one more laugh to a piece, he does not grudge those two hours. He is the nearest thing to those earnest youths on the back page of the Evening Journal (who work overtime in order to catch the boss’ eye) that our modern civilization has yet produced.
A LITTLE of this overtime-work would have made “Betty,” at the Globe, a better and brighter thing. “Betty” is one of those languid English musical comedies which succeed in England mainly because they are produced at Daly’s Theatre, which has the whole bulk of the London suburbs solidly behind it. Gladys Unger and Frederick Lonsdale, who wrote it, have simply not taken the trouble to get the best out of their story. You can see them yawning at their tasks. “Don’t you think,” Miss Unger probably said to Mr. Lonsdale, “that we ought to go back and rewrite some of that first act?” “How do you mean?” asked Mr. Lonsdale, waking with a start. “Well, wouldn’t it be better,” said Miss Unger, “if we played up the love interest a bit more? You see, at the end of act one we make the earl marry the kitchen-maid. They never meet before that, and there is nothing to show that the kitchen-maid is at all fond of the earl.” “Well, she marries him for his position, and he marries her to score off his father.” “Yes, but isn’t that (from the point of view of the audience) rather unsympathetic? Wouldn’t it be better to show early in the act that the kitchen-maid had always loved him from afar, that he was her hero, and so on? A few lines would do it. And we might show that the earl at least liked her looks or something.” For a moment Mr. Lonsdale’s eye brightened, then he sank back in his chair. “Oh, what’s the use?” he said. “It’s going to be produced at Daly’s. And, anyhow, G. P. Huntly will pull it through all right.” And so they let it go at that.
Probably Mr. Dillingham had the same faith in Raymond Hitchcock as a life-saver, that the authors had in G. P. Huntly: and his faith is more or less justified. A Hitchcock entertainment is always worth one visit. But in the present instance Hitchcock has made the mistake of sinking his own delightful personality in order to give a good, but unnecessary, imitation of Huntly, which changes at times to an equally good imitation of the English music-hall comedian, Wilkie Bard. If there is one native product in this age of adulteration which should be kept pure, undefiled and unspoiled it is the personality of Raymond Hitchcock.
He is a metallic comedian, all sharp corners and aggressiveness. He knocks laughter out of you. Huntly is gentle and dreamy and tickles you to mirth. A blend of Hitchcock and Huntly is unnatural. This is not to say that Hitchcock’s Lord Playne is not funny: but all the time one is wishing that it would be funny in a different way. Huntly probably talked to that parrot in the second act as if it were his dearest friend. You feel that between Hitchcock and the parrot there is really nothing in common, though they look rather alike. Huntly could spend hours with the parrot and never be bored. Hitchcock seems to be making conversation. The parrot is not his friend,—he seems to be just a casual acquaintance. There is an apparent sense of strain.
I MET a man the other day who said he was not a part-author of “Go to It,” at the Princess, and I am told that there is another who lives uptown: but with these two exceptions everybody seems to have had a hand in it. The result of the convention’s labors is not particularly successful. I may be hypercritical, but to my mind a musical comedy loses in charm when one of its principal characters is a corpse and the female chorus are dressed as widows. Gilbert might have treated the theme of “Go to It” so as to rob it of its unpleasantness, but that feat was beyond the powers of the present multitude. If “Go to It” attracts the mourners in any large quantity, it will be because of its musical numbers. The play itself is not so much a play as a wake, but some of the numbers are very good indeed, and Percival Knight is as excellent a comedian as ever. Even the numbers, however, are not beyond criticism. Whoever produced them made the mistake of overdoing the chorus work. Nothing can keep that chorus off the stage. They come snooping on, in the good old fashion of fifteen years ago, every minute or two. They go out at one door and trickle in at another, and then, just as you are saying to yourself “Well, thank heaven, that’s that!” they filter on again from the other side.
Even in the most intimate duets the principals are never by this overworked chorus to have a moment to themselves.