by JAMES RALPH
Editor’s note: This weekend, The Shedd in Eugene opens the latest in its delightful series of classic American musical revivals: a new production of George and Ira Gershwin’s bubbly 1926 musical, Oh, Kay! — but not the version everyone knows. In putting together the show, the producers learned that the version that premiered on Broadway, which is what’s seen when it’s (rarely) revived, was in fact seriously compromised from the creators’ original vision. The story of how they fixed it, resulting in a made-in-Oregon premiere, is so fascinating that ArtsWatch asked Shedd executive director James Ralph for permission to follow his lead with the musical, and adapt his program notes into this post.
Oh, Kay! began as the great musical theatre playwright Guy Bolton’s effort to create a “book show” for the sparkling young English actress Gertrude Lawrence. Bolton had more or less invented the American musical comedy through a set of decidedly non-European shows written from 1915-18 at the Princess Theatre with composer Jerome Kern and his lifelong colleague and friend P. G. Wodehouse — light, believably contemporary stories involving everyday folk, with well-integrated (and well-written) songs — and by the mid-1920s he was the established master of the form, eventually working on over 50 shows.
Bolton summoned Wodehouse from England to write the book with him (the lyric writing, Wodehouse’ forte, being already claimed by the elder Gershwin). By mid-October, 1926, the original 3½ hour Oh, Kay! was previewed in Philadelphia and on November 8, after the usual heavy editing, it opened at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. Lawrence became the first English actress to star in an American musical. Which she knocked dead. Oh, Kay! was a great start for her, with a strong run both on Broadway and in the West End.
What made Oh, Kay! successful? Gershwin’s score, to begin with, is absolutely wonderful. And so is the Bolton-Wodehouse book, even if somewhat compromised in its final form. Bolton’s style has been described variously as “frothy,” fast-paced, intelligent, peppered with contemporary and literary references, and loaded with an amazing, endless assortment of “excruciating puns.” That pretty much describes Oh, Kay! to a tee, and in an age and milieux (New York and London in the 1920s) perfectly comfortable with non-serious theatrical confections so long as they were filled with wit, literacy and plenty of smart wordplay, that was perfect.
So why produce the preview version of the show when the Broadway cut was a success?
With Shedd Theatricals we have always made it our goal to re-create, to the extent possible, the original production version of classic 1920s and ‘30s musical comedies. In most cases, that is a hard enough task since so many of these shows have been heavily transformed over the years through the course of various revivals, usually, in our view, for the worse.
The greatest tendencies in these revivals are two: (1) to update the books to make them more to the taste and experience of modern audiences, and (2) to cut out a lot of the original songs from the show and replace them with the songwriters’ greatest hits. Both are time-honored techniques on Broadway and even more so in Hollywood, and the results are often quite good. The Shedd has mounted both the Guy Bolton-Fred Thompson-Gershwin 1930 classic Girl Crazy and the great 1992 jukebox recasting of the show, Crazy For You; and Oh, Kay! itself recently enjoyed a similar fate under the name Nice Work If You Can Get It. To each his poison.
Our own passion is to dig into the originals and learn from them … glory in the fabulous songs—both familiar and not—in their original context; and, through their language and literary shenanigans, explore and find the joy of the texture and colors of the age in which these masterpieces of American theatre were created. They are all like pathways into another time and place, and to our mind they are as worth walking down as are the paths offered by Shakespeare, Twain and Falkner. All equally foreign in their way, but all filled with humanity, truths and humor that transcends the ages.
We’ve managed to dig up and mount, with reasonable difficulty, the original books for a number of musical comedies: Porter’s oft-abused Anything Goes (1934, from the Wodehouse Society), 1924’s Lady, Be Good, and 1930’s Girl Crazy, both with the help of historic musical theatre historian and producer Tommy Krasker. Oh, Kay! is readily available in its original form (a rare thing for the 1920s musical comedies!) So why not accept that version and be done with it?
In this case, we were inspired by Mr. Krasker’s own thoughts of the show and the re-construction he did in 1994 as a part of his fabulous Robury Recordings project undertaken with Leonore S. Gershwin, the Gershwin Trust and the Library of Congress to reconstruct all of the early Gershwin musicals. Here is Krasker’s analysis of the problem with the final Broadway “cut” of Oh, Kay!, compared with the Philadelphia preview.
“When Roxbury Recordings decided to take on the score to Oh, Kay! in the summer of 1993 … to our surprise, the restoration of the score was not as straightforward as expected: Gershwin manuscripts and related materials at the Library of Congress revealed that the romantic element had been significantly compromised in 1926.
“When Oh, Kay! had its world premiere in Philadelphia, its first scene was a prologue set on a Southampton beach. There, the audience met a trio of bootleggers, four bathing beauties, a menacing revenue officer, and finally, the title character, who sang of a man she’d met briefly the previous summer. “Looking ev’rywhere, haven’t found him yet,” she admitted as she searched the beach in vain. “He’s the big affair I cannot forget.” By the end of “Someone To Watch Over Me,” Kay’s mission was clear: to reunite with Jimmy Winter. And the play began.
“But the Philadelphia premiere ran over three hours, and given the need for extensive cut, the authors decided to eliminate the prologue, transferring “Someone To Watch Over Me” to Act II. The result was not only lyrically incongruous (Kay now sang “looking ev’rywhere, haven’t found him yet” after playing three scenes with Jimmy), but structurally damaging. With the prologue gone, Kay’s Act I entrance now occurred a good forty minutes into the piece. Chased on by the revenue officer with no change to reveal her motives, she became merely another pawn in the Bolton-Wodehouse farce, rather than its driving force. Her ensuing reunion with Jimmy seemed guided by chance rather than design.”
Now this was very cool. Not only did Bolton and Wodehouse’s book seem to make total sense, the idea that they had put Lady Kay in the driver’s seat, so to speak, and turned the conventional formula on its head (boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl-back gets completely flip-flopped) was extremely appealing to us. So we dedicated ourselves to doing whatever we could to mount that original version.
Striking a Balance
So in a very circuitous journey, with Krasker’s help, and the generous support of Gershwin Trust archivist Michael Owen and staff at the Library of Congress (which found the boxes in some mammoth Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouse), we obtained all of the materials Roxbury Recordings had used in 1994, including a conductor’s score and all of the instrumental parts. And Tommy was certainly right: the Philadelphia version was MUCH better structurally and gave us a story that made a lot more sense and had a much better dramatic (especially romantic) arch. Veteran Shedd director and choreography Richard Jessup and I immediately realized that we simply had to mount that original version. The problem was, how could we do that and get the show back down to a reasonable length (i.e., significantly under three hours)?
We suspected we understood what happened with Oh, Kay!: Bolton always wrote long, then cut (Ira Gershwin reports that the preview version of Lady, Be Good ran almost 4 hours!). This is a common strategy, actually: both Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King And I and Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot first saw light in versions topping four hours. It is far easier, under the tight timeline of musical theatre production, to cut than it is to add. But for whatever reason, Oh, Kay! was harder to cut down; perhaps because it was so well integrated and so full of great material, it just seemed easier to lop off the opening scene. In any case, Bolton and Wodehouse, or the producers, just made an unfortunate decision.
At the same time, while we agreed with Krasker that cutting Scene 1 turned out to be a mistake, we felt that most of the small changes in the Broadway version (those that were not due to the major restructuring) were in fact for the better. Bolton and Wodehouse would of course have made improvements to the book based on their experiences in Philadelphia.
So The Shedd’s goals were: cut the book down to a manageable 2’45” running time (with intermission), as that original was well over three hours; retain the Philadelphia preview state as much as possible; and accept the substantive improvements (as opposed to the structural alterations) to the script for the Broadway run. We did this by cutting (painfully) a couple of songs from the original (“Ain’t It Romantic,” “Heaven On Earth”) and selectively trimming throughout. Fortunately, in the case of the songs, musical director Robert Ashens, who has done a superb job at reconstructing the somewhat mish-mashed Library of Congress materials, has reintroduced these songs as underscoring.
I’m very proud of this work – it is a good book that is extremely respectful of Bolton & Wodehouse’s original. We even have all their puns in there … these guys were consummate punsters!
So now, for the first time since that Philadelphia preview, Oh, Kay! will be presented in Eugene with its proper setup: still wonderfully wacky, but now a sensible, at times quite touching (if that’s ever possible in a musical comedy!) love story.
James Ralph is executive director of The Shedd and executive producer of its Theatricals series.
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