Dear Reader: My humblest apologies for my extended absence from the blogosphere. I've been caught up in teaching, and the semester has really gone into high gear. But one of the things that has been keeping me busy might be of interest to some of you. Here's the director's note from my staged reading this semester. The shows are Thursday April 4th at 8:15 pm and Saturday April 6th at 8 pm. If you're in the Boston area and are interested in attending, drop me a line. --C.C.
Welcome to Sunny.
This is the ninth in a series of staged readings that I launched in the fall of 2009 as part of my course in the history of musical theater at the Boston Conservatory. The idea behind the series was to expose students to historically significant but underperformed musicals as part of their overall introduction to, and immersion in, the musical-theater form. In the past four years, we’ve covered a wide range of important yet forgotten musicals, and along the way the students have been able to roll up their sleeves and delve into the respective genres that the shows represent.
are the shows from the series so far: Little Johnny Jones, Very Good Eddie, As Thousands Cheer, Allegro, Bloomer Girl, The Cradle Will Rock, Something for the Boys, A Connecticut Yankee, and now Sunny.
Because we performed A Connecticut Yankee in the fall, which gave us a glimpse of Rodgers before Hammerstein, I wanted to do something in the spring that represented Hammerstein before Rodgers. And I knew that the best show to do that would be Sunny (1925), Hammerstein’s first collaboration with composer Jerome Kern, shortly before they would work together on the ground-breaking show, Show Boat (1927). Beyond that historic match-up of talent, Sunny also represents a significant subgenre of 1920s musical comedy: the rags-to-riches Cinderella story.
Sunny came to Broadway in 1925, a time when musicals were fast, fun, and forgettable. Creators usually only labored on these shows for a few months, and were frequently working on more than one show at the same time. The economics of the time allowed for producers to make a profit with as few as 100 performances, and then shows would close and make way for the next disposable musical.
Sunny ran for 507 performances, which is astonishing, at least based on the criteria of the day. But then, the show pretty much disappeared like most every other musical from the 1920s, with the exception of Show Boat, Good News, and No, No, Nanette. And even these shows have only survived after major and continuous revisions.
The era of frivolous, frothy, ephemeral musicals was undeniably fun while it lasted, particularly for fans of madcap comedy and high-toned operetta. The same week that Sunny opened in New York, Broadway also saw the debuts of the aforementioned No, No, Nanette , Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy, and Rudolph Friml’s The Vagabond King. These shows joined the already-running Rose-Marie (Friml, Hammerstein), The Student Prince (Romberg), The Cocoanuts (Irving Berlin, writing for The Marx Brothers) and Tip-Toes (The Gershwins).
Sunny itself represents a case study of sorts that illuminates how the typical show was cobbled together at the time. Frequently the shows were cast before they were written, and each of the stars would typically have his or her demands, putting the writers in the awkward position of trying to accommodate everybody and still have a workable show.
For example, the star of Sunny was the radiant Marilyn Miller, a major stage star at the time, and a favorite of Florenz Ziegfeld. Miller had scored a triumph five years earlier with Jerome Kern’s Sally (1920), and had since become Broadway’s little darling. Legend has it that, after Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein played the score to Sunny for Miller, she replied, “Never mind that, honey, when do I get to do my tap specialty?” (Miller’s dance numbers were choreographed by a young vaudeville and stage performer named Fred Astaire. Whatever happened to him?)
Miller’s contract also called for her to appear in jodhpurs (aka riding pants) at some point in the show, even before anyone involved knew what the show was going to be about. Why? Because Miller thought she looked rather fetching in a riding habit. The authors obliged by inserting a fun but gratuitous fox-hunt scene, although admittedly the scene does bring about the show’s denouement.
Even more ridiculous, another performer in Sunny, Cliff Edwards (who many of you may know as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio”) had a codicil in his contract guaranteeing that he would be alone on-stage between 10:00 and 10:15 p.m. performing his ukulele specialty. (In vaudeville, Edwards was also known as “Ukulele Ike.”) So, in the middle of act two, apropos of nothing whatsoever, Edwards would come on stage and sing “Paddlin’ Madeline Home,” which was written by Harry W. Woods rather than the Sunny team. When Edwards left the show, his bit was replaced by a harmonica specialty with Borrah Minevitch.
Somehow, the Sunny creators were able to fit everything together in workable, although uninspired, plot: an English circus performer, Sunny, encounters two American soldiers whom she befriended when she was entraining during World War I. She has fallen in love with Tom, one of the soldiers, so she stows away on the ocean liner that Tom and his friends are taking back home to America. When Sunny gets caught as a stowaway, she marries Tom’s best friend Jim for American citizenship so she won’t be deported.
And havoc ensues, as they say. In the American version of the show, Sunny divorces Jim and ends up with Tom at the end of the show. In other productions, she and Jim decide to stay with each other. (Which ending will we see tonight, I wonder…)
Sunny’s greatest and lasting significance lies in having brought about the first collaboration of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern. What’s more, the experienced Otto Harbach acted as a mentor to the fledgling Hammerstein, setting the standard for mentorship that Hammerstein would famously continue with Stephen Sondheim. In fact, Hammerstein became more than just a mentor to Sondheim. He became a sort of surrogate father. Sondheim would then continue the cycle with Jonathan Larsen, Jason Robert Brown and others. In a way, we have Otto Harbach to thank for setting this vital mentorship cycle into motion.
Kern and Hammerstein would continue to collaborate together over the years, both on full-scale Broadway productions (Sweet Adeline, The Cat and The Fiddle, Music in the Air, Very Warm for May) as well as songs for Hollywood and the hit parade (“I Won’t Dance,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” etc.).
Hearing the lyrics to the songs for Sunny, one gets the impression of a very promising but still developing young lyricist in Oscar Hammerstein. (Of course, Harbach and Hammerstein collaborated on the lyrics, so it’s difficult to discern which words belong to which man.) Some of the songs feature scansion that is slightly off. The song “D’Ye Love Me” contains a line that goes “Do you promise to love me always?” with the emphasis on the second syllable of “always.” (Actually the original lyric features the archaic word “alway,” which we have changed here for the sake of clarity.)
Similarly, in “When We Get Our Divorce,” the lyric includes the phrase “interlocutory decree” (which is simply a temporary judgment from a court of law). The rhythm of the music has the singer stressing the word as “in-TER-low-cue-TOR-ee,” whereas the actual pronunciation would be more likely to be “in-ter-LOC-you-tor-ee.” There, is however, a rather clever trick rhyme in the song, paring “testify” with “best if I,” which together with the above produces a portrait of an ambitious artist trying new things and finding his feet in the form that he would eventually revolutionize.
Yet, despite its flaws, Sunny is a delight. It’s all a bit silly, but it’s really rather fun. The show also contains some of Jerome Kern’s sprightly yet forgotten tunes, and gives us a glimpse not merely into the carefree, madcap lifestyle of the 1920s, but also into the way in which that lifestyle was reflected in the musicals of the time. We can also witness one of the masters of the form cutting his teeth and moving towards a brand of musical theater that would bring the form from mere entertainment to actual art.
In the 1920s, neither the fizzy musical comedies nor the foppish operettas had succeeded in providing relevant, credible drama beyond the admittedly appealing attributes of each genre. It would take Oscar Hammerstein, a man who had received his apprenticeship in both musical comedy and operetta, to fuse the two together and thereby create the modern, integrated musical play.Welcome. And please enjoy Sunny.