Of Thee I Sing

Orchestra Hall, November 7

By J.R. Jones

By far the weirdest moment in this Gershwin centennial performance came near the beginning of the second act, when the chorus bore down on the president of the United States, singing, “He is stubborn–we must teach him / He has forced us to impeach him! / You decline to resign / So we’ll teach you! We’ll impeach you!” Last fall, when the Chicago Humanities Festival decided to produce a semistaged concert of this 1931 political satire, no one could have predicted how bitterly, richly ironic it would seem: a cynical pol is swept into the Oval Office after a heart-tugging campaign, a vengeful floozy tries to cripple him with a civil suit, and the ensuing scandal prompts the Senate to vote on his impeachment. The biggest laughs to ripple across the hall on Saturday all carried a note of uncomfortable delirium, as people realized how handily life imitates farce.

Of Thee I Sing can use all the topical spin it can get. The play enjoyed enormous critical and commercial success in the 30s, even winning the Pulitzer Prize, but it’s never risen to the top of our musical-comedy canon. George and Ira Gershwin’s score was masterfully integrated into the play’s action, and as a result it produced few hit songs. George S. Kaufman, who wrote the book with Morrie Ryskind, is better remembered for evergreens like Dinner at Eight, You Can’t Take It With You, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. And, truth be told, Of Thee I Sing hasn’t aged particularly well: its once-brutal satire of electoral politics has been far outstripped by our venal culture of focus groups, negative ads, and tabloid journalism. But the unique blend of temperaments that created it still speaks to us at the close of this godforsaken American century: like the play itself, we seem to swing wildly between naive sentimentality and heartless cynicism.

Privately, Kaufman was a kind and generous man, but his moroseness blotted out any sense of romance. He hated love scenes in plays, and he’d never been particularly fond of having music in his own, believing that songs stopped the action dead. Once Irving Berlin played Kaufman a tune he’d been working on, the now-classic “Always,” with its line “I’ll be loving you / Always.” Kaufman pointed out that the lyric was hardly realistic and suggested “I’ll be loving you / Thursday.” Yet Ryskind, by most accounts, was at least as cynical. Their first collaboration, the Marx Brothers vehicle The Cocoanuts (1925), gave Groucho Marx such heartwarming lines as “Oh, I can see you now–you and the moon. You wear a necktie so I’ll know you.”

The Cocoanuts poked fun at the Florida land boom of the early 20s, and its follow-up, Animal Crackers (1928), lampooned celebrity culture on Long Island. But the kernels of social comment were obliterated by the brothers’ onstage lunacy. Kaufman wanted to try something truly daring: a satire of America’s involvement in World War I. Strike Up the Band was an outlandish scenario about an American cheese magnate who offers to finance a war against Switzerland after the Swiss protest a U.S. tariff on cheese imports. Despite the 1924 success of the antiwar drama What Price Glory?, producer Edgar Selwyn was justifiably cautious about the idea of mocking American jingoism, and he was relieved when Kaufman suggested that a musical score might make the show more palatable to theatergoers. Selwyn responded by enlisting one of the hottest songwriting teams on Broadway: George and Ira Gershwin.

The bluesy warmth of George’s melodies and Ira’s ability to construct clever, expertly rhymed lyrics that still beat with honest emotion have made their songbook an American treasure. Fervent admirers of Gilbert and Sullivan, they eagerly accepted Kaufman’s challenge that the music advance the action of the play, and in a sense they took on the task of sweetening Kaufman’s bitter story just as other of his partners had in the past. They wrote a rousing march to serve as the show’s title song, but their finest contribution was “The Man I Love,” an aching ballad now regarded as their first masterpiece.

That song later became a hit on its own, but Strike Up the Band was a disaster. Kaufman often appropriated the role of doomsayer when one of his plays was about to open, but this time he was right: the well-fed theatergoers of 1927 had no interest in a musical that challenged their sense of righteousness. The play had a dismal tryout in New Jersey, followed by another in Philadelphia that closed after two weeks. Selwyn and the Gershwins were disappointed by the show’s failure, but perhaps none of them more so than Kaufman, who considered it the most honest play he’d ever written. A few years later Selwyn decided to try again and asked Kaufman to tone down the book; Kaufman couldn’t bring himself to do it but suggested Ryskind for the job. The revised version enjoyed a successful run in 1930 and created enough commercial momentum for Kaufman, Ryskind, and the Gershwins to try another political satire. Of Thee I Sing would take aim at a less inflammatory target–the presidency–but this time they would have to find the right mix of sugar and salt.

The very title made Kaufman jittery. If the original version of Strike Up the Band had bombed, who would even approach a show that seemed to mock the lyrics of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”? He was even more fearful after a friend stopped him on the street to report that George Gershwin, in Hollywood working on a movie, had regaled partygoers with a new tune whose chorus declared, “Of thee I sing, baby.” The two brothers had turned the title into a warmly comic love song: “Of thee I sing, baby / Summer, autumn, winter, spring, baby.” As it turned out, the Gershwins’ instincts were on the money: the lilting melody worked as a joke but also as a sincere sentiment. Ira later wrote, “Opening night, and even weeks later, one could hear a continuous ‘Of thee I sing, baby!’ when friends and acquaintances greeted one another in the lobby at intermission time.”

The original story centered on two political parties trying to win the presidency by composing new national anthems, an idea Kaufman and Ryskind thought would seamlessly integrate the score into the action, but this went nowhere. Even Kaufman conceded that the play needed a love interest, yet the final scenario made a mockery of the audience’s appetite for romance. As the play opens, a group of supporters are rallying for John P. Wintergreen, a candidate so bereft of purpose that their placards carry slogans like “A Vote for Wintergreen Is a Vote for Wintergreen.” Meanwhile, in a hotel suite, a group of party hacks try to drum up a winning issue. The candidate is no help: reminded of Lincoln’s adage that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, he argues, “It’s different nowadays. People are bigger suckers.” After polling a hotel maid about what she values most, the committee decides that Wintergreen will campaign in favor of love. They’ll hold a beauty pageant in Atlantic City, and the winner will become Wintergreen’s girl; the bachelor candidate will propose to her in every state of the union, promising to marry her at the inauguration if he’s elected.

This time the Gershwins really delivered. Songs like “Because, Because” actually advanced the story instead of interrupting it, and Ira’s lyrics were as witty as the book’s dialogue. But the jewel of the score was “Who Cares.” The winner of the pageant is Diana Devereaux, a simpering southern belle, but Wintergreen has fallen for Mary Turner, one of the contest administrators, and weds her at the inauguration instead. Devereaux sues the president for breach of promise, the public turns against him, and his party demands that he drop Mary to save his presidency. But Wintergreen is a changed man; just as Ira Gershwin gave a romantic twist to the patriotic phrase “of thee I sing,” he turns a catchphrase of worn apathy into a solemn vow of love: “Who cares if the sky cares to fall in the sea / Who cares how history rates me / Long as your kiss intoxicates me! / Why should I care? Life is one long jubilee / So long as I care for you and you care for me.” Instead of countering the book’s cynicism, the song acknowledges and rises above it.

Despite the sobering experience of Strike Up the Band, Kaufman and Ryskind had agreed to pull no punches, and their satire of the American electorate was truly wicked for its time. The Madison Square Garden nominating speech for vice president is so dull the party stages a wrestling match in front of the podium. As the election returns come in, Wintergreen barely inches past Mickey Mouse to win Hollywood, and he suffers a resounding defeat in Lexington, Kentucky, where straight whiskey receives 1,850,827 votes. Facing impeachment in the second act, Wintergreen is rescued only by another helping of mush: the American people forgive him when Mary announces that she’s expecting a baby. When the play opened in New York on December 26, 1931, some of the actors fully expected to be arrested for appearing in it.

They needn’t have worried. Of Thee I Sing was a smash, playing 441 performances on Broadway and sustaining both a national tour and a second production. Critics hailed it as a high-water mark in American musical comedy, and when it took the Pulitzer in May 1932, news of the controversial choice eclipsed most of the other winners. Ironically, George Gershwin wasn’t included: the judges, chafing against the strict rules of the drama category, had selected the musical as a protest but could honor only the wordsmiths involved.

Yet without his music–and more important, his emotional involvement–the show could never have succeeded. According to Scott Meredith’s George S. Kaufman and His Friends, Kaufman and Gershwin were watching the audience during a performance one night, and Kaufman was stunned to see people’s eyes moistening as Wintergreen pledged his love to Mary. “What’s the matter with them?” he asked. “Don’t they know we’re kidding love?” Gershwin shot back, “You may think you’re kidding love–but when Wintergreen faces impeachment to stand by the girl he married, that’s championing love. And the audience realizes it even if you don’t.”

The second weirdest moment in Saturday’s concert came near the end of the first act, when former representative Dan Rostenkowski made a surprise cameo as Wintergreen’s defeated opponent. He collected a warm round of applause and delivered a grudging concession speech in which he accused Wintergreen of outspending him two to one and having his wife do most of the campaigning. The lines don’t appear in Kaufman and Ryskind’s book; apparently they were cooked up for the performance as a poke at Bob Dole for griping in ’96. Inviting Rosty onstage was a gracious act, surpassed only by his own graciousness in reprising his last notable appearance. Yet his speech pushed the show well past the hypocritical into the truly surreal: wasn’t this the guy whose swelling coffers had nudged him out of office after 36 years?

Also in attendance was Anne Kaufman Schneider, the playwright’s daughter, who must have cringed to hear this partisan jab in a play that’s uniformly contemptuous of politicians. But this was George Gershwin’s night, and the high-toned crowd was there to fall in love with love. After the leads, the chorus, and the orchestra had all taken their bows, the house lights came up to reveal Rostenkowski in the audience. Some folks gave him a standing ovation. That he could somehow become the guest of honor at a show lambasting political operators only demonstrates how our affection for our leaders often grows in equal measure with our disgust. As Americans, we’ll stand for just about anything.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin, George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind Morrie Ryskind photo / Culver Pictures; Of Thee I Sing photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.