Princess Theatre Shows–The Team of Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern

In the featured image, Wodehouse and Bolton are in lighter colored suits (second and third from the left; Kern is on the far right). On February 20, 1917, Kern’s third musical opened on Broadway. It was called Oh, Boy! and was the second collaboration between Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome Kern, the first having been the January show, Have a Heart. Generally, Broadway historians refer to the Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern shows as being part of the Princess Theatre shows, even though technically not all of the B-W-K shows were actually produced in the Princess Theatre. We know about Kern, but who were Bolton and Wodehouse?

According to Wikipedia, Guy Reginald Bolton was born in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire (England) to an American engineer, Reginald Pelham Bolton and his wife, Kate, on November 23, 1884. The family moved to New York City, and Guy was educated in America, getting his degree in architecture from the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and the Atelier Masqueray in New York. He also studied in Paris at Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Guy actually worked as an architect on the rebuilding of West Point and helped to design the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and The Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side.

By 1910, he started writing his first stage play; and by 1915 he collaborated for the first time with Jerome Kern. By the time of his death in 1979, he had written or co-written books for musicals composed by Kern, George Gershwin and Cole Porter. His early shows “moved the American musical away from the traditions of European operetta to small scale, intimate productions.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Popular Music calls the shows “smart and witty integrated books and lyrics, considered to be a watershed in the evolution of the American musical.”

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G. Wodehouse, was born in Guildford, Surrey, the son of a magistrate, Henry Ernest Wodehouse, in October 1881. A reversal of family fortune caused Wodehouse to skip university. He tried banking but was not adept at it; then he started to write. According to Wikipedia, he started writing for the stage in 1904. A librettist, named Owen Hall, invited him to contribute an additional lyric for a musical comedy Sergeant Brue. “His lyric for Hall, ‘Put Me in My Little Cell,’ was a Gilbertian number for a trio of comic crooks, with music by Frederick Rosse; it was well received and launched Wodehouse on a career as a theatre writer that spanned three decades.”

Still in London, Seymour Hicks recruited Wodehouse in 1906 to write lyrics for Hicks’ theatre; one of the composers also hired by Hicks was a young man named Jerome Kern. Together, Wodehouse and Kern wrote the comic number, “Mr. Joseph Chamberlain,” which was a show-stopper and briefly the most popular song in London. While Wodehouse had made many trips to New York, it was not until 1914 that he settled down in the city.

The story is not over yet. It is time to introduce a third character into our story, Elizabeth Marbury, the first woman to become a play agent. Marbury also ran the Princess Theatre along with Ray Comstock. It was a small theatre with only 299 seats, and it was having difficulty finding an audience for its shows. Marbury came up with the idea of staging small-cast musicals and introduced one of her clients, Bolton, to Kern. Their first critical success was Nobody Home, which opened at the Princess Theatre in April 1915; however, show did not run long enough to pay back the investors. Their second outing, Very Good Eddie, opened in December 1915 and was a much bigger success, running for 341 performances. Bolton and Kern thought that the lyrics were weak; Kern remembered his collaboration with Wodehouse; and toward the end of 1915, Kern introduced Wodehouse to Bolton.

We have just finished enjoying the songs from Have a Heart, and on Monday, we are going to start our examination of Oh, Boy!

As a postscript, Bolton and Wodehouse became good friends and eventually moved to the Hamptons on Long Island. Wodehouse passed away in 1975 and Bolton passed four years later.