Every semester, my students are typically surprised to discover that, for much of musical-theater history, shows weren't very integrated or cohesive. In other words, the songs and dances often had nothing to do with the plot of the show, if there even was a plot.
The example I always like to give is the original Broadway production of The Wizard of Oz in 1903. Fans of the 1939 movie are frequently unaware that there was a previous musical version, one with a book by L. Frank Baum himself, and which at various points throughout its run contained such irrelevant ditties as "Budweiser's a Friend of Mine" and such racist gems as "The Bullfrog and the Coon." The songs and scenes changed to accommodate a succession of stars, many of whom would bring along random "specialties" from their vaudeville routines.
And that's really what American musical theater was like, at least until the beginning of the 20th century. It wasn't until George M. Cohan came along with Little Johnny Jones (1905) that the long, slow slog toward integration really began. When I decided to add staged readings of important but obscure shows to my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory, I knew that I wanted to start with a Cohan show. So, last semester, my students put on a rousing production of the aforementioned Little Johnny Jones. Many history books point to the "Princess musicals" as the start of the evolution of the modern American musical, when in fact Cohan was making strides towards integration about a decade prior.
What's that, you say? "Princess musicals? What are the 'Princess musicals?'" Yeah, they're not very well known, and truth be told they're actually not very good. But in historical context, they were a significant step in the development of the musical form, and served as both training ground and inspiration for some of the most influential people in the history of musical theater.
The "Princess musicals" are so named because most of them appeared at the now-defunct Princess Theatre, a 299-seat house with a mere 14 rows, plus two in the balcony. The theater's manager brought in composer Jerome Kern and librettist Guy Bolton, who were later joined by lyricist P. G. Wodehouse, to create a series of intimate musicals for this diminutive space. The shows needed to compete with the overblown, star-laden spectacles that the rest of Broadway was putting on, but there was neither the money nor the physical space to vie on those levels. Bolton referred to the shows as "midget musical comedy," and by
comparison the shows were indeed minuscule: there was one unit set for
each act, a comparatively minimal supporting cast, and very little in the way of dancing or production values.
Because the Princess productions couldn't afford flashy sets or big-named stars, the shows themselves had to make sense. The series represented one of the first genuine attempts to offer musicals with modern, cohesive stories, and with songs that grew out of the story and fit the characters and situations. The story lines, while slight, represented a transition from European operetta to the more contemporary, realistic stories to come. (See Show Boat.) The first hit of the series was Very Good Eddie (1915), which featured two physically mismatched couples are on their honeymoon cruise. The tall ones get left behind on the dock, and the short ones predictably wind up falling for each other on the cruise. Mayhem and hilarity ensue. Very Good Eddie was a palpable hit, indeed, and was quickly followed by Oh, Boy! (1917), Leave It to Jane! (1917), and Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918), although Leave It to Jane! didn't actually play the Princess Theatre, but rather the venerable Longacre.
The Princess trio would each go on to even greater things: Jerome Kern would join up with Oscar Hammerstein to create one of the most important musicals of all time, Show Boat. Guy Bolton would continue to write musicals for another half century, including more shows with Kern (Sally), as well as Cole Porter (Anything Goes), and George Gershwin (Lady Be Good, Tip-Toes, Oh, Kay!). P.G. Wodehouse would enjoy a prolonged and prolific career as a novelist, including a famed series involving the now iconic butler Jeeves.
But, as I mentioned, the Princess series also served as inspiration for quite a few future heavyweights: Richard Rodgers saw Very Good Eddie a dozen times in order to study this invigorating new style of writing shows. Larry Hart was also quite taken with the Princess shows, and later himself elevated the breezy, charming style that they embodied to even greater heights. And a 16-year-old George Gershwin heard one of the Jerome Kern's Princess melodies and resolved to emulate Kern's career path.
When I was planning the staged-reading series for my history course, the Princess shows were of course high on the list of production possibilities. And the Princess show to start with seemed pretty clear: Very Good Eddie, which is the only one of the Princess series to have made it back to Broadway, albeit in significantly revised form. After a successful run at the Goodspeed Opera House, a revamped Very Good Eddie played the better part of 1976 at the Booth Theatre. Our run at the BoCo will be decidedly more modest: two performances at the beginning of April. If you're in the Boston area, you're more than welcome to drop by. Watch this space for details.