Elisabeth Marbury / Ray Comstock / William Elliott / Morris Gest
During a brief period, Elisabeth Marley, Ray Comstock, William Elliott and Morris Gest were instrumental in bringing a talented composer Jerome Kern from obscurity into national prominence. It all started because of a mistake in judgment. In 1912, the Shuberts, William A. Brady and Arch Selwyn joined forces to build a small theatre on the south side of 39th Street. It was to be called the Princess Theatre and was designed by William A. Swasey to have a capacity of 299 seats. Although it was described as a gem of a theatre, it was never determined how it would best be used. Ultimately, it was decided to use it for one-act plays, primarily those written by aspiring dramatists; and Comstock was hired as manager.
As might be expected, by 1913, the public had failed to appreciate the golden opportunity to see a playwright still in the cocoon of adolescence; Brady and Selwyn grew weary of the investment and sold to Comstock; and Comstock started looking feverishly for a suitable Plan B. One of the people Comstock turned to for advice was Elisabeth (“Bessie”) Marbury, an agent who had guided Vernon and Irene Castle to fame. Generally, people seemed to agree that the Princess Theatre ought to showcase “intimate” musicals, with a smaller cast and orchestra. In order to keep costs down, they chose to use Jerome Kern, still a lesser known composer. Kern suggested using librettist Guy Bolton, with whom he had worked on 90 in the Shade.
After a number of false starts, Marbury and Comstock collaborated on the production of Nobody Home (1915.07), which opened at the Princess Theatre with music by Kern with Frank Saddler orchestrations to mixed reviews. However, audiences liked the show. It ran for 135 performances in New York and subsequently supported three road companies through the 1917-1918 time period.
Their second project took a popular play by Philip Bartholomae and added music by Kern and lyrics by Schuyler Greene. The show (Very Good Eddie, 1915.30) opened at the Princess Theatre and ran for 341 performances. The night of the opening, P.G. Wodehouse was in the audience; Kern introduced him to Bolton; and for a few brief years, the trio became a powerful team.
Because of contractual complications, Marbury permitted production of Have a Heart (1917.01) to be transferred to the insistent Henry Savage who opened the show at the Liberty Theatre. It ran for seventy-six performances. The show was not appreciated by the critics nor the audience at the time; however, it contains one of Kern’s most beautiful scores.
Love o’ Mike (1917.02) was produced by Marbury and Lee Shubert and opened at the Shubert Theatre, with a book by Thomas Sydney and lyrics by Harry B. Smith. Although it did not have one of Kern’s better scores, it ran for 233 performances.
Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse collaborated on the show Oh, Boy! (1917.06), which was produced by Comstock and a partner, William Elliott, ; it ran for 463 performances.
Comstock, Elliott and Morris Gest opened their next Kern show at the Longacre Theatre. Leave It to Jane (1917.17) ran for 167 performances.
Returning their attention to the Princess Theatre, Comstock and Elliott produced another hit from the Kern collaboration with Bolton and Wodehouse (Oh, Lady! Lady!, 1918.03). It ran for 219 performances. One of the numbers cut from this show was a scathing analysis of the man the heroine is about to marry. The lyrics were meant to be witty and satirical (“Whenever he dances, his partner takes chances”); in fact, after listening to the lyrics, one has to wonder whether the heroine had lost her mind. The number was cut; but with a bit of re-writing of the Wodehouse lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, “Bill” became a torrid torch song for Helen Morgan in Show Boat, nine years later.
With the suddenness of a summer shower, the team of Kern,Wodehouse and Bolton was dissolved; their Princess Theatre collaboration had ended. Nevertheless, Comstock and Gest got the old team back together for one last hurrah (Sitting Pretty, 1924.08). It was a good score, but the public did not respond, and it closed after only ninety-five performances.
However, the score’s value has been appreciated, and it was restored and recorded in 1989 by John McGlinn (New World Records catalog 80387-2). From the standpoint of the book and lyrics, perhaps the frivolity that was attractive to a pre-WWI American audience was no longer meaningful in 1924. This pattern reoccurred in movies after WWII.
1917 was a remarkable year on Broadway for Kern shows; however, it was also a good year for other American composers, such as Victor Herbert and his immortal Eileen (1917.07).