Pre-‘Show Boat’ Broadway Threads

It Took 30 Years But The Once Unsinkable Operetta Sinks

The three great composers of the operetta form (Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg) had their great successes from 1898 to 1928, starting with Herbert’s The Fortune Teller (1898.60) and ending with Romberg’s The New Moon (1928.29). It was a great run; the songs were glorious and are still performed in concert.  

GeorgeM. Cohan, the Man Who Owned Broadway

George M. Cohan

However, even during the 1903-1906 period, while Herbert was having a great run with his operettas, a newcomer was creating music that hinted at the fall of the operetta.  His name was George M. Cohan; and, in 1904, he started to produce, write and direct brassy, patriotic shows, such as Little Johnny Jones (1904.42), Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, (1906.02) and George Washington, Jr. (1906.11).

In Little Johnny Jones, Cohan gave us “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway;” in George Washington, Jr. the score included “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Now, we would like to share a video clip from the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), featuring a medley of two songs, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” and “So Long Mary,” both of which come from the show Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906.02).

Herbert’s Babes in Toyland (1903.31) ran for 192 performances and his even more successful Mlle. Modiste (1905.57) ran for 224 performances, but these shows were being challenged by Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones, in 1904 with its 205 performances.  Herbert’s very successful The Red Mill which opened in September 1906 ran for 318 performances; the two Cohan shows (Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway and George Washington, Jr.) opened in January and February of the same year.

While Herbert’s Sweethearts (1913.24) was enjoying its place in operetta heaven in 1913, Jerome Kern was interpolating a song into an import from England, titled The Girl from Utah (1914.18) that would change the face of Broadway and American popular music.  The name of the song is “They Didn’t Believe Me.”  It not only provides a lovely melody that fits within Kern’s Songbook, its Broadway orchestration is as fresh sounding today as it was in 1914.  The Broadway orchestration was restored and used by guest conductor John McGlinn in 1993 (Evening at the Pops, Broadway Originals, with the Boston Pops orchestra).

By way of explanation, the easiest way to include the YouTube upload was to include all 57 minutes.  “They Didn’t Believe Me” can be found at 13:50 on the video clip.

The full index to the songs on the video is:

  1.   Tea For Two 2:30
  2.   Cat and the Fiddle 8:30    
  3.   They Didn’t Believe Me 13:50
  4.   Who?     18:40
  5.   I Got Rhythm 21:40
  6.   The Man I Love 24:30
  7.   Our Love Is Here to Stay 29:15
  8.   I Get a Kick Out of You 32:33
  9.   Night and Day 36:35
  10.   Falling in Love with Love 42:00
  11.   Johnny One Note     46:20
  12.   All the Things You Are    48:50

Just as we saw with Cohan, the fresh originality of this Kern song foreshadowed the end of the operetta era, even while the golden age of operettas was still going strong. By the time that Herbert had written his finest score (Eileen, 1917.07), Kern was coming center stage with four shows in 1917 (Have a Heart, 1917.01; Love O’ Mike, 1917.02; Oh, Boy!, 1917.06; and Leave It to Jane, 1917.17) and one in early 1918 (Oh, Lady, Lady!, 1918.03).  The five shows were colloquially American but more sophisticated in lyric and libretto than the boisterous Cohan favorites seen at the turn of the 20th Century.  This new music represented a wave of many shows; while the operetta successes were singular.

Kern followed with The Night Boat (1920.04), Sally (1920.44), Sitting Pretty (1924.08 and Sunny (1925.33).  Certainly, they came to Broadway as more modern shows, with more realistic settings and dialogue; but they were evolutionary in nature and did not truly break any new ground.

George Gershwin1937, American Composer

George Gershwin

The same thing could be said for George Gershwin’s Broadway efforts, jazz-laced scores for La La Lucille (1919.12), Lady, Be Good! (1924.43), Tell Me More (1925.14), Tip-Toes (1925.49), Oh, Kay! (1926.36) and Funny Face (1927.59).  During this period, Gershwin’s most innovative work was done in the concert hall–135th Street in 1922, Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, Concerto in F in 1925 and An American in Paris in 1928.

Richard Rodgers was just starting to compose his music for the stage in the mid-1920’s and wrote good but not remarkable scores for such shows as Dearest Enemy (1925.31), The Girl Friend (1926.07), Peggy Ann (1926.50) and Connecticut Yankee (1927.56).

Vincent Youmans, Broadway Composer

Vincent Youmans

A newcomer, Vincent Youmans, co-wrote Wildflower in 1923.05 with Herbert Stothart but then worked as sole composer for two great hits, No, No Nanette (1925.30) and Hit the Deck (1927.16).  Again, the work is fresh and invigorating but hardly revolutionary.

Cole Porter had written none of his many musical hits by the end of 1927, the year of Show Boat.

All of which brings us to Show Boat–the show that changed the musical theatre in America and set it on a new course.