Vanity Fair, June 1920
The Season-End Productions
With Special Reference to The Florodora Sextettes of 1900, 1920 and 1940
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
MUSICAL comedy is the only branch of the drama where the part is greater than the whole. Five minutes’ superb acting in the middle of the second act of a comedy will not turn a poor piece into a success, but there must have been dozens of musical plays which have made fortunes instead of deficits purely owing to a single song-hit. The classic instance is the ancient Dorothy, back in the seventies or eighties, which was at death’s door when “You’re Queen of My Heart Tonight” was interpolated, after which it ran for decades. Florodora, lavishly revived at the Century, was a success from its opening night; but would it have been without the Sextette? It seems unlikely. The score of Florodora is bright, and seemed brighter twenty years ago, but it could hardly have carried the worst book Jimmy Davis ever wrote if it had not been for the terrific smash of the sextette at the exact point in the second act where a big number was needed. I saw Florodora at the Lyric Theatre in London in 1899, and I saw it again at the Century last week, and I have not revised my original opinion one iota—or, putting it another way, one scintilla, or jot. How Davis, who, as he showed in Sergeant Brue and The Girl from Kay’s, was the cleverest of all musical comedy librettists, came to write such a bad book, is a mystery. Did even he know what it was all about? I doubt it. Florodora is the sextette, and the Sextette is Florodora, and it is good enough to be worth the trouble of reviving every twenty years, indefinitely. It is the only musical comedy melody that is pure magic. It has the quality of eternal youth. It has—well, what I mean to say is, it’s darned hot stuff, and I shall be glad to buy a seat, if I can’t edge in on my face, when it comes round again in 1940.
The Truth About the Sextette
THERE has been so much confusion about the personnel of the sextette that for goodness sake let’s get it right this time. Clip this out and pin it over your shaving-mirror and you won’t have to spend all your time fifteen years from now writing to the papers about it. The 1920 sextette consists of Madelene Richers, Marcella Swanson, Beatrice Swanson, Dorothy Leeds, Fay Evelyn, Muriel Lodge, and Dama Sykes. Miss Richers graduated at the Washington Irving High School and is a member of the Art Students’ League, where she swings a wicked brush when not sextetting. Marcella Swanson comes from Worcester, The North High School of which city points to her with pride. You’ll never guess what Beatrice Swanson used to do. What? I’ll tell you. She was one of the models for Phoebe Snow, who used to go to Buffalo, a pleasing sight all dressed in white, upon the Road of Anthracite. Absolutely! She is eighteen, and Marcella’s sister.
Dorothy Leeds comes from New Haven. Like Fay Evelyn, who was born at Oxford in England, she was once in a movie of mine, a fact which, I foresee, is going to make me a shocking bore round about 1935, when we are all gathered round the club fire-place exchanging reminiscences. Muriel Lodge is Canadian. The faculty of the Villa Maria Seminary in Montreal are having a brass plate let into the front door to commemorate the fact that Miss Lodge ran away from there to go on the stage. It is the headquarters of the Montreal “I-Remember-Her-When” society. Dama Sykes was born in Chicago, but raised in Kansas. Blonde. Was in Watch Your Step. Now, if there is anything else you want to know, write and ask. It is one’s duty to the public to get this sextette business absolutely clear from the start.
Apart from the sextette, the honors of the Florodora revival go principally to Eleanor Painter and the Shuberts. The latter do not appear in the piece, but they have given it a gorgeous production, especially in the second scene of the second act. John T. Murray plays Gilfain excellently, and makes a big hit with his Phrenology song. A lyric to many artists is just a meal. Mr. Murray pronounces his words instead of swallowing them.
Three Showers Bring a Dark Evening
ANNA WHEATON, one of the two best soubrettes in modern musical comedy, has chosen a terrible piece to make her first appearance since Oh, Boy. I fear that, in spite of all her energy and artistry, there is no hope for Three Showers, a dull little play by William Cary Duncan, with music by Creamer and Layton. Miss Wheaton’s name may enable it to do something on the road, but for Broadway it is impossible. I do not know why the atmosphere of the South should seem so stuffy on the stage, but it always does. If I had a son who contemplated writing musical comedy, I should say to him “Rupert (or Cecil), whatever you do, don’t set your action in Ole Virginny, or I’ll bean you with a brick.” There is a colored quartette in Three Showers to whom I can only repeat the words of one of their own songs: “You may be the world to your mothers, but you’re a pain in the neck to me.” On the other hand, Edna Morn, as the sister of the heroine, is very good, and ought to be in a better piece.
Musical comedy is gradually coming to divide itself into pieces which are produced by Edward Royce and those which are not. The former class have an indefinable polish which the latter never seem able to achieve. It was just the same in London a dozen years ago. There were successes at other theatres besides the Gaiety, but the Royce touch was just as noticeable as it is in New York today. It will be interesting to see what Royce, whose work over here has hitherto been on the more intimate style, will do with the 1920 Follies, which he is going to put on. Probably he well make just as good a job of it as he did of Irene at the beginning of the season and of Lassie, the musicalized version of Kitty McKay, just produced. Lassie is not likely to be another Irene, but it is a pleasant, attractive trifle, quaint and dainty, with an excellent score by Hugo Felix. The low-browed may find it a little short of comedy, but many will consider that, as was the case with Maytime, which—atmospherically—it resembles, its charm makes up for this. And it has the greatest asset any musical piece can have, the dancing of Dorothy Dickson and Carl Hyson, who have never been better. Tessa Kosta and Molly Pearson are both admirable.
At the New Amsterdam, opening on the same night as Florodora and Three Showers, Ed Wynn appeared with his Carnival and, as he did last year with Sometime, showed himself capable of carrying an entire evening’s entertainment on his own shoulders. Lillian Fitzgerald contributed a number of good things to the performance, but for all practical purposes Wynn is the whole show. To those who, like myself, get elephantiasis in the hands and feet and can do nothing but gargle when called upon to utter three words in public, an exhibition like Ed Wynn’s is the greatest of miracles. Personality is an amazing thing. Just why is it that Wynn is funnier that anybody else it is difficult to say, but he undoubtedly is.
The Spiritualist Drama
TWO melodramas have come as a change from the flood of musical comedy, the Hole in the Wall at the Punch and Judy and The Ouija Board at the Bijou. In genre, if you know what I mean, the two pieces are very much alike, and there was a stirring race between them to reach Broadway first. As a matter of fact, the winner of the race seems likely to lose the subsequent contest, for there is no doubt that The Ouija Board, which got to New York three days later than its rival, is the better play. Among a number of ingenious ideas, Crane Wilbur, the author, has hit on a capital scheme for taking the sting out of the family phonograph. You know how it is with the phonograph. You put on the Dardanella record till you feel you can’t bear another repetition of it. Then your wife’s sister comes to stay, discovers the Dardanella record, and gives it a new lease of life. And after that, people drop in for the evening and ask if you have Dardanella, as they would like to hear it again. Well, Crane Wilbur’s solution of this tense situation is to keep a pistol concealed in the phonograph, and the last note of the record fires it and puts you out of your misery. There is a lot to be said for this, and it should become popular in the home.