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The Princess Theater Musicals: 1915-1918
by David for group historicalziegfeld Nov 25, 2011

Given their profound influence on the evolution of American musical theater, the Princess Theater musicals generated surprisingly little in the way of a photographic record. Created by librettist Guy Bolton and composer Jerome Kern (later lyricist P. G. Wodehouse would join the team) for the 299 seat Princess theater, this series of entertainments embraced the intimacy of the setting, stripping away spectacle, variety show song and dance interpolations, and telegraphic acting. Action on stage hewed strictly to the plot. The characters were drawn from the middling orders of urban and suburban life. The humor depended upon situation rather than jest. The drunks, rubes, randy uncles, puritanic vicars, eccentric millionaires, and physical culture fiends who peopled so many of the productions of the era found little welcome in the Princess plots. While the musicals retained the standard girl chorus, their numbers were held to a dozen or under chorines. The stories invariably presented the travails of young romance, and employed the mistaken identity, mixed partner arrangements, and inheritance formulae of popular romantic comedy, but did so in an understated way that made scenes absurdly probable rather than ludicrous. The closeness of the audience to the stage gave spectators an intimate connection with the characters that enhanced the effectiveness of the action. The first of the musicals, "Nobody Home" (1915) was set in the Blitz Hotel. Showgirl Violet (Alice Dovey) attempts to focus the wandering attention of society dancer Vernon Popple (George Anderson) while subletting her room and avoiding the chilly judgment of Popple's aunt . Vernon's virtuous brother Freddy materializes--he has eyes only for Violet--love ensues. They wed, the room is sublet, and Vernon exits with music hall starlet Tony Miller (Adele Rowland) for some frisky business. The show was staged for less that $7,500, ran for 136 performances, switched to a larger theater and went on the road. Its success convinced theater owner Ray Comstock to sign Bolton and Kern for a follow-up. "Very Good Eddie" (1915) would be a smash hit, and the model for a witty, vernacular sort of American musical theater of manners. A bedroom farce dealing with the mix-ups between two newlywed couples on an excursion up the Hudson River, the good-natured embarrassments and careful avoidance of smut endeared it to critics and audiences alike. Kern's ability to make songs arise out of emotional developments in the plot proved exemplary to the younger composers (Gershwin, Porter, Youmans) who attended the show repeatedly to study its musical dramaturgy. At this juncture Kern and Bolton enlisted the services of English wit P. G. Wodehouse for song lyrics in "Have a Heart" (1917). Since "Very Good Eddie" was still selling out The Princess, the musical was staged at the Liberty. The story--a troubled couple's effort to revive romance with a second honeymoon goes haywire, nearly wrecking a couple's marriage--had a grim interest, but did not give rise to the lapidary songs that ornamented the other Princess musicals. After "Very Good Eddie" closed at the Princess in later 1917 it would be replaced by another smash hit "Oh, Boy" starring ex-Ziegfeld girl Marion Davies in the tale of an unmarried woman accidently discovered in the rooms of a married man and the contortions endured with a draconian aunt and a bevy of showgirls to maintain her reputation. Admired for its brisk dialogue and exquisite timed sequence of stage actions, "Oh Boy" of the musicals of the 1910s predicated the style of the Jazz Age productions of the 1920s. Because "Oh Boy" was in the midst of its 463 performance run, Bolton, Kern, and Wodehouse had to place their next creation, "Leave it to Jane," (1917) at the Longacre Theatre. With a plot based on George Ade's famous comedy, "The College Widow" (1904), it became the harbinger of a flood of college sports plots on Broadway. Jane, the daughter of a college president woos the football star of a rival college convincing him to play for Atwater under an assumed name. Is he being used? She must demonstrate the honesty of her affections. Graced with two hit songs and a plot that has proved durably revivable, "Leave it to Jane" continued the string of success. "Oh Lady, Lady!" would be the last creation of the Princess trio. Depending upon a classic theft plot (the beau of a young heiress is suspected of having stolen jewels at the mansion by a mother who dislikes the match), the musical by dint of splendid performances overcame a substandard score and creaky plot mechanics to become the final of the Princess Theater hits. Kern at this juncture became disillusioned with his compensation for his work, broke off the collaboration, leaving Bolton and Wodehouse to enlist journeyman composer Louis Hirsh to provide music for 1918's "Oh My Dear," a burlesque of eccentric New Yorkers' fixation on health fads. It failed to connect. Bolton would reactive the partnership in "Sally" and "Sitting Pretty" in the 1920s, but his enduring successes would be the books he provided for several Gershwin musicals. Wodehouse would team up with Bolton and George Gershwin in "Oh Kay", contribute lyrics to "Three Muskateers" and supply the book for "Anything Goes." Kern would continue as a creative force on Broadway and in Hollywood until the end of his life. David S. Shields

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