OF THEE I SING
Right after John P. Wintergreen, the pseudo-populist politician who’s the hero of Of Thee I Sing, wins the presidential election that dominates the show’s first act, a slew of supporters parade across the stage brandishing victory posters. The mood is optimistic, the sign carriers satisfied to proclaim the virtues of their candidate and his cause. Then one woman suddenly turns her sign around to display a second message: “Screw the other guy.” The joke got a big laugh in this Remains production, for its shock value as much as anything. An interpolation by director Larry Sloan, the nasty message is a far cry–and a refreshing change–from the innocuous goofiness that otherwise characterizes this 1931 musical comedy. Screw the other guy: there’s a political message a modern audience recognizes.
Of course, 1931 viewers would have recognized the phrase too; but its callous vulgarity would have turned off most audiences, and it’s doubtful a smart playwright would have used it even if he’d been allowed to. George S. Kaufman was a very smart playwright–partly because he’d learned from bitter experience that satire is what closes Saturday night. His 1927 Strike Up the Band, a revue written with composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira, had laid an egg with its barbed view of international politics. So when Kaufman teamed up with the Gershwins again, he and writer Morrie Ryskind deliberately soft-pedaled issues and ideas in favor of the wacky comedy they’d used successfully in their Marx Brothers vehicle Animal Crackers.
The result was the longest-running show of the 1930s–and the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. Of Thee I Sing was hailed for its artistic innovation and its social relevance, but by today’s standards it’s a lightweight bit of nonsense, an irreverent but inoffensive cartoon as much concerned with spoofing the inanities of musical comedy as with caricaturing political excesses. The show’s central joke is that in an era dominated by disastrous depression, campaigners focus on the all-purpose, frivolous issue of “love”; but Of Thee I Sing is as prone to that escapist tactic as its characters.
The frivolous plot concerns puppet candidate John Wintergreen (New York’s playboy mayor Jimmy Walker was a model), who symbolizes his party’s cynically conceived “love” platform by focusing his campaign on his search for a wife. A beauty contest is held in Atlantic City–“If a girl is sexy / She may be Mrs. Prexy,” the chorus warbles–but Wintergreen spurns the winner, a southern belle named Diana Devereaux, in favor of the contest administrator Mary Turner: Diana is prettier, but Mary’s extra-special corn muffins win Wintergreen’s heart.
In act two, the Wintergreen White House is rocked when Diana threatens a breach of promise suit, dragging in the French ambassador to claim that she’s descended from Napoleon, which gives the crisis an international flavor. The Senate, presided over by Vice President Throttlebottom, embarks on impeachment proceedings; but the problem is resolved when Mary delivers twins, leading the nation to unite behind the slogan: “Posterity is just around the corner.”
When things weren’t going well for Strike Up the Band (according to Howard Teichmann’s biography George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait), lyricist Ira Gershwin once quipped that two elegant gentlemen buying tickets “must be Gilbert and Sullivan coming to fix the show.” “Why don’t you put jokes like that in your lyrics?” Kaufman responded; in a sense, that’s what Gershwin did in their next collaboration. The Mikado is the model for Of Thee I Sing: the Gershwins’ score is replete with quasi-operatic aspirations, most of them successfully realized (though musically negligible in comparison to their Porgy and Bess of a few years later). Extensive choral sequences depicting campaign rallies, a congressional debate, a Supreme Court session, the Wintergreens’ inauguration-cum-wedding, and other events provide the show’s funniest and most imaginative moments, as George Gershwin effortlessly spins out a stream of recitatives, arias, and elaborate ensembles sprinkled through with Ira’s giddy, supremely silly rhymes. Along the way a few stand-alone songs emerge–among them the title tune, a parodic pastiche of patriotic and romantic cliches (“Of thee I sing, baby . . . “); “Wintergreen for President,” a minor-key refrain whose account of the candidate’s virtues consists entirely of “He’s the man the people choose / Loves the Irish and the Jews”; one of the Gershwins’ sprightliest numbers, “Who Cares?” (“Who cares if banks fail in Yonkers / Long as you’ve got a kiss that conquers”); and the vaudevillian “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” performed in 1931 by a young hoofer named George Murphy–who himself went on to serve, so to speak, in the Senate.
The script is peppered with jokes that genially if toothlessly gnaw away at concerns that seem strangely relevant 60 years later. Chief among them is the exploitation of what today is code-named “family values” to distract voters from genuine concerns. “We do not talk to you about war debts or wheat or immigration,” declares the demagogue assigned to introduce Wintergreen at a Madison Square Garden rally. “We appeal to your hearts, not your intelligence.” Meanwhile a wrestling match keeps the crowd distracted from the speechifying, reinforcing the show’s other running theme of politics as show biz. Later, faced with a hostile press corps, Wintergreen declares himself ready for battle: “I can still sing. Once a trouper, always a trouper!” (What fun Kaufman and Ryskind would have had with Ronald Reagan.)
Remains Theatre’s production, despite its election-year timing, steadfastly avoids exploring any contemporary correlations, perhaps preferring to let audiences draw their own conclusions. But lacking a point of view, the show also doesn’t rise to its potential as sheer musical-comedy entertainment. Sloan’s broad, bland, let’s-have-a-good-time approach would have been much better suited to a suburban venue like Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace or Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre. So what we’re left with is, well, cute–a bunch of middlingly accomplished performers playing around with a cheeky chestnut but bringing neither much interpretive command nor technical facility to it.
The ensemble is solid but not outstanding; Darren Matthias’s crisply sung Wintergreen and Christopher Garbrecht’s perpetually outraged French ambassador are the best of the bunch, while Rich Maxwell’s cute, gangly, one-note naif of a Throttlebottom falls far short of the role’s pixieish pathos (master comedian Victor Moore stole the show in the part in 1931). Under Jeff Lewis’s musical direction the two-pianos-and-percussion instrumentation is smooth but not spectacular; the choral sequences sound lush, which is a good thing because the cast hardly does anything except stand and sing. Timothy O’Slynne’s dance staging has a truncated, trimmed-in-previews look, as if the choreographer gave up finally after waiting for some real dancers to show up. So will the audience.
“It is funnier than the government,” wrote George Jean Nathan of Of Thee I Sing’s 1931 premiere, “and not nearly so dangerous.” A little more dangerous is what a 1992 production needs to be.