Music

The Gershwin Musical That Flopped

George Gershwin (Bain Collection / Library of Congress)
Their sequel to Of Thee I Sing was too edgy for 1933.

In 1932, Of Thee I Sing became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. In making the award to George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind (who 23 years later would contribute an article to the first-ever issue of National Review), and Ira Gershwin, the Prize Committee said: “Of Thee I Sing is not only coherent and well-knit enough to class as a play, but it is a biting and true satire on American politics and the public attitude towards them.” George Gershwin was not cited in the award, inasmuch as he had only contributed the music.

But just as the Pulitzer committee was laughably off the mark in neglecting George Gershwin (a mistake posthumously rectified in 1998), it also completely misunderstood what made the show a success. Of Thee I Sing is not a political satire: It is a romantic comedy about the triumph of love over ambition — which just happens to make fun of politics on the side.

Unfortunately, the writers seem to have accepted the Pulitzer Prize Committee’s interpretation. They teamed up again in 1933 to produce a sequel, and this time they actually did write a political satire. The result was Let ’Em Eat Cake — a tremendous flop. The show ran just 89 performances (compared to Of Thee I Sing’s 441) and is largely forgotten today.

It would be tempting to blame the failure on George Gershwin’s being in a sulk. Understandable as this would have been, it wasn’t the case. It may contain only one timeless masterpiece hit (“Mine”), compared with Of Thee I Sing’s two (the title song and “Who Cares”). But the score is lively and vivacious and rippling with little musical jokes drawn out of everything from Schubert to Sousa to The Pirates of Penzance. The overture makes clear just how much all subsequent musicals owe to Gershwin, who invented the gestures and orchestrational techniques that modern composers copy, perhaps unawares, when trying to conjure up the “Broadway sound.” At the same time, the construction is more intricate and deeply contrapuntal than any of Gershwin’s previous endeavors, and it was this work, rather than his next — Porgy and Bess — that Gershwin called his “claim to legitimacy.”

The problem with the show was that there was too much real and impending disaster in the topic the authors chose to satirize. In Let ’Em Eat Cake, the American president loses reelection, goes into the shirt business, and then — when his shirts aren’t selling — decides to found a revolutionary army called the “Blue Shirts” and stage a coup. The show is still very funny: The now-dictator paints the White House blue and turns the Supreme Court into a baseball team. But even though Mussolini’s Blackshirts and Hitler’s Brownshirts were still little-understood foreign curiosities in ’33, American audiences simply didn’t like a story about America being taken over by fascists. The jokes were funny, but the idea wasn’t — it made Americans uneasy.

As well it should have. But if your objective is to get people worried about the dangers and vicissitudes that threaten global order, musical comedy is a poor choice of medium.

Still, that does not make Let ’Em Eat Cake a bad show, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be banished from American theater. Until recently, it had not been performed in New York since 1987. But, last week, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s teamed up with the MasterVoices chorus and a wonderful combination of Broadway and opera performers to bring the show to Carnegie Hall for one night only.

The performance was more than a dramatic reading — the actors were in costume and pranced about energetically in the limited space available in front of the onstage orchestra. In particular, Bryce Pinkham was superb in the role of President Wintergreen. His credits include the lead in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway — probably the best actor in the best new musical I’ve seen. Mikaela Bennett, as Mrs. Wintergreen, paired as perfectly with Pinkham, and it would really be something to see them together in the “prequel” Of Thee I Sing.

But the best thing about this performance was that it happened at all. Carnegie Hall is ideal for shows that contain delightful and beautiful music but that can’t sustain a run on Broadway. And, as a bonus, we get real musicianship a hundred times better than any pit orchestra. The experience lacked nothing of the excitement of a fully staged production, and, with tickets costing half what you’d pay on Broadway, it’s the best deal in town.

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