Alex Aarons (1891-1943) and Vinton Freedley (1891-1969)
Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley, both born in Philadelphia in the same year, formed a partnership and started to produce shows in what might later be called the “jazz era.” It was an era that produced as diverse a collection of musicals as the ones that preceded it; yet, it also introduced an infectious form of popular music into Broadway scores that would have a profound effect on all music that followed. The two producers tended to concentrate on composers, such as George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, three composers who readily incorporated the syncopated sound into their Broadway scores, but these composers were not the first to do so.
Jerome Kern’s use of ragtime music shows up early in his career; “The Ragtime Restaurant” is found in Act 2 of The Red Petticoat (1912.41).
While Gershwin perfected the form of his musical composition over time, one thing that remained a constant from beginning to end was the joyous, synocated outburst from his mind and pen. All we have to do is listen to the verse introduction to “Swanee” (written with Irving Caesar in 1919) to hear and feel the electric rhythms. Al Jolson was the perfect man to sing this song, because he could not restrain the music from bursting out of him. As we have mentioned elsewhere, “blackface” was historically accurate for the 1919 time period, and cork was used by all minstrel performers to darken their faces. Even the great African-American performer, Bert Williams, followed this custom.
Although the new “jazz era” may have started with individual songs, it quickly developed into a new form of musical score, light-hearted and filled with jazzy orchestrations and dance sequences. This era is epitomized by the Gershwin musicals produced by Aarons and Freedley from 1924 to 1933.
Aarons and Freedley, alone or in collaboration with others, were clearly the major, producing force behind Gershwin’s Broadway shows. If we exclude the shows that Gershwin wrote with other composers, such as Rosalie or Song of the Flame, the only major show not produced by Aarons and Freedley was Strike Up the Band (1930.02), a show produced by Edgar Selwyn.
Porgy and Bess (1935.13) was produced as an opera by The Theatre Guild, so it is not included in the Broadway show category; however, it was produced in the Alvin Theatre, the building owned by Aarons and Freedley and the name of which is derived from the first names of the two men.
Here are the Gershwin shows Aarons and Freedley produced:
La-La-Lucille (1919.12), Gershwin’s first Broadway score, with Charles Previn as music director;
Lady, Be Good (1924.43), with orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and his T.B. Harms’ colleagues, dual pianos by Ohman and Arden, with a cast that included Fred and Adele Astaire, Walter Catlett and Cliff Edwards;
Tip-Toes (1925.49), a little known but wonderful show that included Jeannette MacDonald in its cast;
Oh, Kay! (1926.36), a Gershwin classic with the first British actress to star in a Broadway show (Gertrude Lawrence);
Funny Face (1927.59), with Betty Compton and The Astaires;
Treasure Girl (1928.43);
Girl Crazy (1930.31), with Bennett orchestrations, starring Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers (the pit orchestra was provided by Red Nichols and included Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey);
Pardon My English (1933.01).
Moving on to the second composer, Rodgers also had distinct periods in his work, which was characterized by his choice of partners. His first collaborator was Larry Hart, and Rodgers worked with him until his death. Initially, Rodgers and Hart teamed up with Herbert Fields (librettist) to create their first major show, Dearest Enemy (1925.31), a show funded by George Ford, husband of the female star, Helen Ford. This first Rodgers’ score has a distinct Gilbert and Sullivan sound to it.
The trio then worked together on The Girl Friend (1926.07), Peggy-Ann (1926.50), A Connecticut Yankee (1927.56), Present Arms (1928.16) and Chee-Chee (1928.30). It should come as no surprise that Herb’s father, Lew Fields, produced all five of these shows.
One of the songs from A Connecticut Yankee has been sung by male and female vocalists, since the show was first produced. We think you will enjoy the clear, tender artistry of Jeanette MacDonald as she sings “My Heart Stood Still.”
In 1929, both of Rodgers’ shows were produced by Aarons and Freedley, Spring Is Here (1929.12) and Heads Up! (1929.42).
The next big period for Rodgers would come in the mid-1930’s with a different set of producers.
The third major composer that Aarons and Freedley worked with was Porter. Before 1934, the only major shows with an entire score by Porter were Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929.45, produced by E. Ray Goetz) and Gay Divorce (1932.27, produced by Dwight Deere Wiman). Starting in 1934 and stretching to 1943, Porter would write nine shows for Broadway; of these, four would be produced by Freedley (now on his own): the wonderful Anything Goes (1934.36), Red, Hot and Blue (1936.26); Leave It to Me (1938.13) and Let’s Face It (1941.08).
These shows are notable for a number of reasons: Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote the books for Anything Goes and Red, Hot and Blue; Sam and Bella Spewack wrote the book for Leave It to Me; and Herb and Dorothy Fields wrote the book for Let’s Face It. Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante and Vivian Vance starred in Red, Hot and Blue; William Gaxton, Victor Moore, Tamara, Mary Martin and Sophie Tucker starred in Leave It to Me; and Edith Meiser, Vivian Vance, Eve Arden, Nanette Fabray and Danny Kaye starred in Let’s Face It.
While we are on the subject of Porter shows, we should also note that Sam Harris and Max Gordon produced Jubilee (1935.14), and the Shuberts produced You Never Know (1938.07).
Buddy DeSylva produced DuBarry Was a Lady (1939.30) and Panama Hattie (1940.19), while Mike Todd produced Something for the Boys (1943.01).
Going back to Aarons and Freedley, while they concentrated their energy on the three major composers, they also produced the occasional show from Ray Henderson (Hold Everything, 1928.36), Jimmy McHugh (Singin’ the Blues, 1931.32) and Vernon Duke (Cabin in the Sky, 1940.17).
As a footnote, Alfred Aarons, Alex’s father, produced Sigmund Romberg’s My Princess (1927.50) at the tail end of the operetta era.