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Oh, Kay! – Studio Cast Recording 1957

Oh, Kay! – Studio Cast Recording 1957



It was in 1924, about mid-Jazz Age, that the Gershwin brothers truly arrived upon the American musical comedy scene. Both had, of course, been making their individual contributions long before the Astaires’s Lady Be Good, but this was the first musical graced with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Actually they had composed their first full score in 1921 for A Dangerous Maid, which had expired in the try-out stage in Pittsburgh. But according to the program the lyrics were supplied by one “Arthur Francis,” who was actually Ira Gershwin under a nom de guerre devised from the names of his youngest brother and sister. The self-effacing lyricist wanted to make his own reputation in Tin Pan Alley without being subjected to the usual accusations of nepotism, or of working his way into songwriting on the strength of his already famous brother’s name. Arthur Francis in fact, was first associated with a successful musical when he collaborated with Vincent Youmans on the songs for Two Little Girls In Blue (1921). With Lady Be Good, Arthur Francis went into retirement, thus beginning one of the most productive – and one of the most unique – collaborations in musical comedy history. Each of the remaining years of the twenties was made more memorable by the Gershwin musicals, the songs of which have since proved immortal. The twenties were years of furious activity in literature, in art, in music, in the theater – and in just about every other art and industry. One of the latter, for example, was doing a business in excess of three billion dollars a year. Not bad for an infant which in 1926 was just in its sixth year. This was, of course, the Prohibition-inspired industry – or was it an art? – of bootlegging. It was inevitable that this new and apparently quite honored trade would be immortalized on the lyric stage. Though not the first nor the last, the most fondly remembered of the bootlegging operas was the frothy delight, Oh, Kay!, brewed up by those master plot mixers, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. That the story line went somewhat astray before the first act curtain made little difference. Oh, Kay! had been specially contrived for the enchanting Gertrude Lawrence who had made so unforgettable an impression in her American debut in Charlot’s Revue, an English import of 1924. Opposite her were Oscar Shaw as “Jimmy,” and Victor Moore as “Shorty McGee,” a wistful bootlegger. In a minor part was the beauteous Betty Compton who was to catch Mayor Jimmy Walker’s eye on one of his backstage visits. Their ensuing romance is, of course, another story – but typically twenties. Oh, Kay! was produced by the young team of Alex A. Aarons and Vinton Freedley, who had presented several Gershwin musicals, among them the historical Lady Be Good. William Daly, an old friend, conducted the Oh, Kay! orchestra which included the duo-piano team of Ohman and Arden to give the score a characteristic Gershwin flavor (happily recreated in this recording). After undergoing title changes on the road (Mayfair, Miss Mayfair, Cheerio), Oh, Kay! opened at the Imperial Theatre on November 8, 1926, for a run of more than 250 performances (excellent for those days and the longest run for a Gershwin musical up to that time). Oh, Kay! was one of those rare but happy combinations of the right story, a perfect cast given a wonderful production, and further endowed with one of the finest Gershwin scores. The book had something to do with a titled Englishman who took up bootlegging with the family yacht to improve the noble exchequer. Assisting in the enterprise are his sister Kay and Shorty McGee. This little mob is using the Long Island home of wealthy Jimmy Winter as cache for the “stuff.” Jimmy has a decided affinity for girls and attendant nuptial complexities: he seems to have got married on a bet to a lady already married and also has engaged himself to a judge’s daughter. To complicate matters further, Jimmy also proposes to Kay after she has rescued him from the waters of Long Island Sound. In Jimmy’s home, Kay alternately poses as his wife and also as the wife of Shorty McGee, who is himself posing as the butler (to keep an eye on the “stuff”). The revenue agent commissioned to investigate the shenanigans at the Winter estate is properly confused by the whole thing. Somehow, before the finale ultimo, all of this is properly resolved. But the audiences found little in the plot intricacies to give them pause, for they had come to delight in a Gershwin musical and not to be concerned with dramatic logic except the rule-of-thumb twenties dictum: “When in doubt, bring on the girls.” Or a Gershwin song. The songs written for Oh, Kay! rank with the Gershwins’s best, yet when they did them neither of the brothers had yet reached the age of thirty. Such songs as “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “Maybe,” “Do, Do, Do,” and “Clap Yo’ Hands,” are still heard today. The first is undoubtedly one of the classics of our popular music. Its verse (that is, the introductory section leading into the main part, or chorus, of the song) is as lovely as the chorus itself. The Gershwins labored as hard over their verses as their choruses (in fact what is now the chorus of “The Man I Love” was once the verse of a proposed song), and merely singing the latter is presenting only one half of the song. In the lesser-known songs, the Gershwins were no less inventive and adept; they might even tend to be more daring in the out-and-out “production numbers,” which were planned to further the plot, rather than standard popular songs. The production numbers afforded the Gershwins room for offbeat song construction and brighter lines in the lyrics – one of the reasons the Gershwins preferred working on shows and never attempted to write “popular songs.” The opening number, “The Woman’s Touch,” called the “icebreaker,” gets the show off to a lively start – and brings on the girls in the very first scene. Also, points of exposition – that Jimmy has been away, that he is a favorite of the girls, that there is to be a party – may come as a revelation to those who believe that the “integrated” song is a recent innovation. Notable, too, is lyricist Gershwin’s penchant for adapting expressions of everyday speech to his own personal turn of phrase. In “The Woman’s Touch” there is “Be yourself, don’t be silly” two typical idioms of the time. Another may have begun with Ira Gershwin himself. “George liked my presentation,” he later recalled, “of the jingly possibilities of the words ‘do, do, do’ and ‘done, done, done.’ He sat down and wrote the first line, and in half an hour we had completed the chorus.” “Dear Little Girl” is an unusually sweet song for the traditionally unsentimental Gershwins. It is one of George Gershwin’s loveliest melodies; the satiric point is made (in keeping with the Gershwins’s irreverent attitude toward the conventional ballad) in the presentation. The oft-smitten Jimmy is singing not to the “Dear Little Girl,” but to many of them. “Maybe” is similarly set up in its uncertain approach to the always definite June-Moon traditions. Even the outstanding ballad of the show, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” is remarkably free of stickiness. This is a Gershwin trademark, as much as the literate lyrics and the beautifully proportioned melodies. The songs evidence humor, intelligence and skilled craftsmanship – qualities that served to set the style for the musical flowering of the twenties. The influence of the Gershwins is still discernible in the musicals of today. George Gershwin, who was a superb pianist, often composed “pianistically.” This resulted in interesting tunes – except that it then remained for Ira Gershwin to come up with suitable, and singable, words. No easy task considering his brother’s affection for unconventional, tricky rhythmic turns, and melodies that defied the standard thirty-two-bar song form. “Fidgety Feet” is such a piano tune, with its cross rhythms and repeated triplets (on the word “fidgety”) to present formidable problems to any lyricist. It is interesting to note that only when he worked with his brother did George Gershwin go in for his more experimental songs. Actually, however, another lyricist did work on Oh, Kay! When Ira Gershwin became ill during the score’s composition, Howard Dietz (of the great Schwartz-Dietz combination) assisted on the lyrics of two songs, the title number and “Heaven On Earth.” During the writing of Oh, Kay! George Gershwin characteristically kept busy by working on his piano preludes, which were premiered after the show opened. But it was during the rehearsals of Oh, Kay! in October that a new idea came to him. He came home one evening after a strenuous rehearsal too keyed up to sleep. Hoping to relax he took up a new book to read, but soon he was keyed up again, excitedly writing to the author suggesting that they collaborate on a musical version of the book. The author was DuBose Heyward and the novel was titled Porgy. But in 1926, Porgy and Bess was still almost a decade away. Meanwhile, Oh, Kay! was but a few weeks from opening night in Philadelphia when one of the critics welcomed the hit by exclaiming in language unusual for a critic, “Hell, it’s almost perfect’” Listening to the songs now, we wonder why he used the qualifying “almost.” – Edward Jablonski, co-author The Gershwin Years


CAST Allen Case Jack Cassidy Barbara Ruick Roger White Orchestra and chorus conducted by Lehman Engel