By Peter Filichia
Just spent a delightful week at The College of Wooster (Ohio) where Ohio Light Opera presented three operettas and four musicals. The latter category included one of 1926’s biggest hits: Oh, Kay!
It has a book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, but much more significantly, music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin.
(And Howard Dietz. More on him later.)
As soon as I returned home, I started playing the Oh, Kay! that was one entry of Goddard Lieberson’s pet project of the ’50s. The Columbia cast album guru created recordings of scores that were too early for the original cast album era that officially began in 1943 with Oklahoma! Oh, Kay! was the earliest show of Lieberson’s selections, for it opened at the Imperial on Nov. 8, 1926.
Today, a producer whose show runs 256 performances must gloomily tell investors that they’ve lost every penny. In those days, seven months was the type of run that hits had: Oh, Kay! cost $100,000 to mount and paid back in a mere ten weeks.
If that sounds fast, how about this? One of the score’s standards — “Do Do Do (what you’ve done, done, done to me)” was written in ninety minutes by the Gershwins working together in the same room. That means that in approximately the same amount of time you’d need to play the excellent studio cast album twice, the brothers wrote, finished and polished one of their most famous songs.
The plot seems as if it had been cooked up in less time than that. Jimmy is married and yet engaged to Constance, figuring that he’ll soon get out of his wedlock and marry her. Shortly after, Kay – in cahoots with bootleggers who are using Jimmy’s home for storage — enters and Jimmy falls for her, too. If you don’t know which of the three winds up happily married to him, you don’t know early twentieth century musical comedy.
It was all conceived as a vehicle for rising star Gertrude Lawrence. Bolton had seen her in a London revue called — believe it or not — Rats. She came to America in a different revue — was everyone saying “It’s better than Rats!?” — and did yet another before Bolton interested the Gershwins, with whom he’d already collaborated on Tip-Toes and Lady, Be Good!
All started writing with Lawrence in mind, although Bolton decided he could use some help and had Wodehouse join the project. Although they had such working titles as Mayfair, Miss Mayfair and Cheerio, they eventually settled on Oh, Kay!
Today we often complain about musicals that rely on brand names, but matters weren’t so different then. Because Bolton had already had hits with Oh, Boy (1917), Oh, Lady! Lady! and Oh, My Dear! (both 1918), he felt Oh, Kay! would baldly or subliminally make the public associate the new musical with the previous smashes.
During the Philadelphia tryout, most everyone agreed that the second act needed some new songs. Wouldn’t you know that that’s when Ira Gershwin was suddenly hospitalized with an attack of appendicitis? The thirty-year-old Howard Dietz, who’d contributed lyrics to three minor Broadway productions, was brought in to do the new ones.
Given that Wodehouse was an acclaimed lyricist, why didn’t he just step up to the plate? He might have, but he would have demanded co-credit as lyricist. Ira Gershwin was too far along in his career to accept a window card that would have revealed “Lyrics by Ira Gershwin and P.G. Wodehouse” or, God forbid, “Lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and Ira Gershwin.” Would all of Broadway or even the public read into the billing that Ira just didn’t have the stuff to do the lyrics by himself and needed help from a more established pro?
Dietz was still a relative neophyte who’d do the job and keep his mouth shut. Little did Broadway know that he’d become a major lyricist himself, with such shows as The Band Wagon and such songs as “Alone Together,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” and arguably the best (or at least the most fun-filled) of them all, “That’s Entertainment.” In his 1974 memoir, Dietz said he wrote a verse for “Clap Yo’ Hands,” which George Gershwin liked to call his “modern dance spiritual.” Dietz also claims to have provided “Heaven on Earth,” a definite rouser, and “That Certain Something You’ve Got” which Ira didn’t like once he was released from the hospital. He turned it into a title song: “Oh, Kay (you’re okay with me).”
For his trouble and effort, Dietz wrote in his memoir that he was paid “next to nothing” and was no more specific than that. He did note that Ira agreed to pay him a penny for every piece of sheet music sold. His first check amounted to ninety-six cents. And, to quote a renamed biopic of Lawrence, those were the happy times. “Some time shortly thereafter,” he recounted, “Ira wrote asking me if I minded canceling the arrangement which involved a lot of bookkeeping for such small sums. I said no, I didn’t mind.” But he sounds as if he did – probably because, as he tells the tale, he’s the one who provided Gershwin with the title (albeit not the lyric) to the show’s most enduring hit: “Someone to Watch over Me.”
That brings us to a marvelous Oh, Kay! legend. When the show began its Philadelphia tryout, its action commenced on a Southampton beach. Kay made her entrance and told her cronies about the man she’d met on this very spot the previous summer – one whom she wished she could see again. She had a feeling that he’d be the “Someone to Watch over Me.” Unfortunately, what followed was three hours of dialogue, song and dance. Something – nay, many things — had to go. The collaborators and director John Harwood decided that if they cut the opening scene on the beach – one that encompassed bootleggers and a lawman (not to mention a bevy of bathing beauties) — they’d save a good fifteen minutes. Besides, to whom was Kay singing “Someone to Watch over Me?” None of the assembled characters seemed to be people to whom she’d pour out her heart.
However, the Gershwin brothers weren’t keen on losing what they thought was (as the nation soon would, too) a glorious song. So it was moved to Act Two where Kay would simply sing it to – well, nobody. Cutting the scene posed another problem. The next time Kay appeared would not occur for a half hour, meaning that star Lawrence would get a very late entrance. She grumbled a bit, figuring that they wanted her as their star and now the show might not display her as one.
George Gershwin wasn’t happy that his star wasn’t happy. While walking along the streets of Philadelphia, he passed by a toy store that had a doll in its window. He immediately bought it and then gave it to Lawrence, figuring that having something in her hands would help her put over the number. Indeed it did, and the doll stayed in for the rest of the Philly and Broadway runs while Lawrence sang “Someone to Watch over Me.”
I’d like to see Toy Story 4, which would start with that doll sitting in that window and fearing for her prime location in the store. She’s been there a while and knows she’s no kid anymore, so she worries that she’ll soon be relegated to some obscure and dusty shelf while some shiny new bauble will take her desirable spot. But lo and behold, along comes no less that then esteemed George Gershwin whose music she’s heard on the store’s radio. And he chooses her above all other dolls in the store to be in his Great Big Broadway Show. The end!
Oh – but Disney must have a tremendous hold on the Toy Story brand name. We’ll have to find a new title. Is Hello, Dolly! still available?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.