Vanity Fair, December 1917
Writing the Show at the Century
The Tortures of Composing Lyrics for “Miss 1917”
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
AS you were passing 62nd Street the first week in November—the week before “Miss 1917” opened at the Century Theatre, did you hear a kind of hollow, rasping sound? That was me, laughing a mirthless laugh up in the Cocoanut Grove at the Century, where we were going through the concluding spasms of the rehearsals of “Miss 1917.”
They had just come and asked me if I would mind turning that Assyrian Boat-Song of mine into a Japanese War-Song, as old Joe Urban, swinging a wicked brush at his Yonkers studio, had unfortunately turned out that sort of scenery. I said I would do it, of course,—one becomes a dumb, driven ox after a few weeks of Century rehearsals—: the mirthless laugh was merely due to the fact that I knew perfectly well that the new Japanese war-song wouldn’t suit and that somebody would decide that what was needed at that spot in the show was a comic trio for four Swedes and that I should have to convert the little thing overnight into something rollicking about good old Stockholm.
After a few more reincarnations it would be cut out altogether because the show was three hours too long.
BOY, page old Mister Job and tell him that I consider him a piker. And, while the page is wandering about the lobbies of the world, let me pause for an instant, and cast a reminiscent eye back over the reaches of the past!
When I look back on that sunny June afternoon when I was first wheedled into the grisly task of helping to concoct the annual revue for the Century, I marvel that I could have been such an easy mark. The reason I did not leap out of the window and run for safety when the thing was proposed was that I had had an experience of revue-writing in England, when I collaborated on a piece for the Empire in London, and had found it the most delightful, restful thing in the world. As far as I can remember, we did little in the way of brain-work beyond choosing the menus for lunches and suppers.
The dialogue was supplied mainly by the artists, worthy fellows who asked nothing better than to write their own stuff and used to sit up at night inventing merry wheezes; while publishers vied with one another to give us songs. It seemed to me that, if Messrs. Dillingham and Ziegfeld wished to pay me a salary for going through this sort of thing again, they should be permitted to go to it while the going was good.
I remember saying to Guy Bolton, who was a little inclined to sheer off the proposition, on the ground that we already had as much as we could manage, that it would be a nice rest after the strain of writing musical comedy. Mr. Dillingham endorsed this view. He said we could dash the thing off in a couple of weeks at rehearsals. There was a general atmosphere of genial good-will, and I came away with the impression that I was a darned good chap whom everybody loved and was being handed this gilt-embroidered sinecure by way of recognition of that fact. And then we all settled down to think of what sort of a masterpiece we should give them.
One thing we were all absolutely resolved upon from the start,—that there should be a plot. A real, coherent, consecutive plot. Not like that show last year. No, no! We were all frightfully contemptuous and superior about that last year’s show. We called it a mere vaudeville entertainment and all sorts of harsh things. This time we were going to demonstrate that what revue needed was a story.
The first jarring note was struck when we discovered that the cast, as selected to date, consisted of Lew Fields, Adolf Bolm, George White, Emma Haig, Anna Pennington, Mrs. Vernon Castle, Tortola Valencia, Van and Schenck, forty-eight buck-and-wing dancers, and two trained cows. It didn’t seem a balanced, all-round cast, somehow, for a plotty piece.
But the management urged us to go ahead. Anybody we wanted as an assistance to the unfolding of our story should be engaged. And they were! After that scarcely a day went by without some new addition to the cast; and our gallant little plot swallowed them all like a frog swallowing flies, till at last, in an heroic attempt to digest one more mouthful, it burst and died, regretted by all. It was a nice little plot while it lived, but you could push it just so far and no further.
You will find fragments of it splashed about all over “Miss 1917,”—grewsome fragments like the remains of the man who died of spontaneous combustion in “Bleak House.” Guy Bolton was at the sick-bed to the last, hoping for the best long after I had realized the inevitable end. He loved that plot like a child. I have seen him pick it up and dust it and nurse it back to consciousness after some frightful blow had stunned it; and, just as it was beginning to recover, up would come someone and jump on its chest.
There was a song popular in England some years ago, entitled “Put Me On An Island Where the Girls Are Few.” Anybody who has ever been connected with the writing of a big revue will subscribe heartily to that noble sentiment,—more especially if he has had anything to do with writing the lyrics.
A REVUE lyric is a monstrous freak with one verse and twelve refrains, each introducing a separate girl. You write it round the costumes.
The procedure is as follows:
You arrive at your office, gay and happy, and find on your desk a pile of costume-designs. One represents a snake, another the Woolworth Building, a third a fish, a fourth Times Square, a fifth a fruit-salad, and the others different species of birds, insects, and flowers—and will you please have it ready for tomorrow’s rehearsal, as the girls are threatening to walk out because they have nothing to do. (Walking out is the technical term used when a show-girl steps into her Rolls-Royce and says “Home, James!” to the chauffeur, and drives off, never to return.) When you have finished twelve refrains, cunningly introducing the snake, the Woolworth Building, the fish, the fruit-salad, the birds, the insects, and the flowers into a coherent lyric, they decide that they don’t want to use those costumes after all and send up another batch. And, when you have rewritten the lyric, the girls decide that their artistic reputation will suffer if they merely come on in a number, and demand lines to speak.
It is this phase of the matter that finally whitens the author’s hair. The stoutest admirer of feminine beauty would become a trifle soured on the sex if every woman he met for eight weeks backed him into a corner and asked him for lines. After a brief spell of this kind of thing, one takes to whizzing about the theatre like a hunted fawn. One’s views on attractiveness in Woman undergo a complete upheaval. The sort of girl that fascinates me now is the one with blue spectacles and mittens, who sits at home and reads to mother.
In a world where I am continually meeting better men than myself, I have come to the conclusion that the greatest man is Ned Wayburn. He is the one great force that makes for comparative sanity in this weird welter.
CONSIDER his position. He is right out in the open, where everybody can get at him. When the strain of life at the Century becomes too much, I know of at least three good hiding-places where I can go to earth while people with lyrics-that-want-fixing wander about the building ravening after me. But Ned Wayburn spends his whole time in the body of the theatre, a target for every principal with a grievance and for every show-girl with a complaint. I have seen him sitting there like some great rock, while kickers of both sexes break on him in wave after wave; and he doesn’t turn a hair. In situations which would have made a lesser man foam at the mouth or sob like a child, Ned Wayburn preserves a courteous impassiveness which in the end always wins.
He is the human Verdun. “They Shall Not Pass” is written all over him. And they don’t. He can quell ninety-two girls with one glance, which, if I am not mistaken, is the present world’s record for glancing.
THE great merit of a Century Show is that, if you only hang around long enough, registering energy and willingness, it gets itself done somehow. It takes shape, then becomes fluid again, then once more takes shape; until finally—how, no one knows—a definite date becomes set for the production: and then nothing more can be changed, nothing more written. And then, at last, all three of the authors go away to sanitariums in the Adirondacks, where they rest for three of four months and where, in their chill bedrooms, only the very homeliest nurses that money can engage read Arthur Schopenhauer and “The New Republic” to them;—and then—oh Joy, oh Rapture—the battle is all over till next year.