The Lost Musicals – Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers

“The New Yorkers”
A musical satire by Herbert Fields, suggested by Peter Arno and E. Ray Goetz, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and additional songs by Jimmy Durante, Chas Henderson and Fred Waring

Alice Wentworth – Anna Francolini
Gloria Wentworth – Ursula Smith
Hillary Trask – Grant Neal
Dr Wentworth – Brian Greene
Lola McGee – Sandra Marvin
James Livingston – Jon Robyns
Mona Low – Dawn Spence
Al Spanish – Craige Els
Jimmy Deegan – Michael Roberts
Cyril Gregory – Chris Stanton
Ronald Monahan – Jud Charlton
Feet McGeehan – Matthew Gould
Nurse – Corrie Mac
Dr Courtlandt Jenks / Felix / Policeman / Warden / Attendant at Sing Sing / Hospital Medical Intern – Andrew P. Stephen

Ian Marshall Fisher – Director
Steven Edis – Music Director & Piano

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 29 March, 2009
Venue: Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

In 1930 America (and the rest of the world) was going through the Great Depression, caused by the Stock Market crash a year earlier. It was much like our current financial recession. In an unsure climate, the shortage of money through unemployment, the breadlines and general poverty that took over everyday life, there was a great deal of disenchantment. This led to a boom in public entertainment, which is why the cinema – both the buildings and the movies themselves – became so popular, a form of escapism. Vast, ornate picture-palaces offered respite from the grind of daily life through comedy, drama, music and spectacle. Going to the pictures was cheap then and the most available form of entertainment that everybody could enjoy.

The theatre of the 1930s also provided a panacea, a cushion for the fact that life is not a bed of roses. Musical comedies were the order of the day with songs by the likes of the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart, Schwartz & Dietz, and Cole Porter. If the musicals of the time produced some of the most lasting songs of all time, it has to be said that some of the plots were pretty skeletal. However, with the Depression came a new vein of social satire sending up the bad times through topical comments on current affairs. For every “Funny Face”, “Rosalie” or “Girl Crazy” the Gershwins produced the more satirical “Strike up the band”, “Of thee I sing” and “Let ’em eat cake”. For every “Cocoanuts” Irving Berlin had “Face the music” and “As thousands cheer”. Yet even in such terrible times Cole Porter continued to write his sophisticated music and those witty and often satirical lyrics about smart Manhattan or Paris society, but then he always did keep his tongue firmly in his cheek, whatever he wrote.

Porter’s first Broadway hit was “Fifty million Frenchmen” (called a musical comedy tour of Paris) in 1929. The following year “The New Yorkers” was more of a revue disguised as musical comedy. The threadbare plot is hardly worth our consideration. New York socialite Alice Wentworth hooks up with bootlegging gangster Al Spanish and gets into scrapes such as fleeing from the police, visiting a bootleg factory, having her own speakeasy party raided and arranging a jail break. The book is a little risqué, but blasé too, about allowing Alice’s father, Doctor Wentworth, to openly flaunt his mistress while his wife Gloria keeps a gigolo. In between events the cast stand around being entertained by Cole Porter’s songs which appear to be the only raison d’être for the whole silly story.

However, it’s still good to see in context such standards as ‘Love for sale’, then banished from radio broadcasts as it is sung by a woman walking the streets and is reprised by a trio of ‘working’ girls. It actually has little to do with anything here, but it is a great song and could have been written (allegedly) with a rent-boy in mind but that would have been just one step too far. Kathryn Crawford first sang it in 1930 but Elizabeth Welch took over after a few weeks. A huge hit for Libby Holman, as well as in versions by many popular bands including Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians who played in the original show, ‘Love for sale’ was, it is said, to be Porter’s favourite song from his output.

Another famous song introduced in “The New Yorkers” was ‘I happen to like New York’, although it wasn’t added to the show until several weeks into the run when Porter wired it to the producers from a mid-ocean liner en route for Monte Carlo. Ian Marshall Fisher’s concert staging for “The Lost Musicals” series has the song sung quite forcibly by Sandra Marvin, playing Lola McGee, the doctor’s floosie, although it was originally sung by Oscar Ragland playing a character called Mildew. Other Porter songs appearing here for the first time include ‘Go into your dance’, ‘Where have you been?’, ‘Say it with gin’, ‘I’m getting myself ready for you’, ‘The great indoors’, ‘Let’s fly away’ and ‘Take me back to Manhattan’.

What is odd about this Porter show is that comedian Jimmy Durante, who was in the original 1930 production, was asked by Porter to write his own comic songs. Durante was then part of a triple act with Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson (here identified as Deegan, Gregory and Monahan) and so at intervals they do their own vaudeville shtick which is actually the funniest part of the show, using play on words, physical comedy and general mucking about like the Marx Brothers. Durante’s songs, such as ‘Hot potata’, ‘Wood’ and ‘Data’, are almost as clever as Porter’s contributions and enliven an otherwise rather weak script. Michael Roberts is hilarious as Jimmy, complete with such Duranteisms as “What an imbroglio!” and “I’m aghast!” He gets good support from his fellow clowns Chris Stanton and Jud Charlton. Incidentally, Steven Edis, Music Director for this production, has composed music for Durante’s ‘Data’ number as the original score no longer seems to exist.

Elsewhere the occasional smart lines pop up: “Park Avenue, where bad women walk with good dogs”, “She’d be beautiful and dumb if she were beautiful…”, “She never goes anywhere without her mother, but then her mother will go anywhere”, “There are two types of girl, those who do and those who say they don’t”. Anna Francolini as Alice, Ursula Smith as her mother Gloria, and Dawn Spence as Mona Low are good at delivering the snappy one-liners, Craige Els is just fine as the comic villain hood Al Spanish and Brian Greene as the vague Dr Wentworth puts one in mind of Stanley Baxter at his best. Matthew Gould as Feet McGeehan, a crook who gets repeatedly shot at by Mr Spanish deserves extra points for his stamina – we mostly see only his feet as he once again hits the deck. And Andrew P. Stephen as an assortment of medicos, policemen, waiters and wardens works above and beyond the call of duty.

This Lost Musical is now mainly only of historical interest. It was of its time and even in its time it was not a great success. Three days after the show opened in 1930 the Bank of the United States closed and the Depression was upon them. Ticket prices went down, salaries were cut but the show closed after just five months, losing all its money.

  • The New Yorkers is at the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1 on Sundays April 5, 12 & 19 2009 at 4 p.m. and on Sunday April 26 at 2 p.m. and 6.15
  • Tickets on 0844 412 4300
  • The Lost Musicals

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