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P.G. Wodehouse: A Broadway Centenary — by Tony Ring

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My personal quest is the search for a life inspired by the literature of P.G Wodehouse. Plumtopia celebrates this quest with other Wodehouse fans.

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The name Tony Ring is familiar to many P.G. Wodehouse enthusiasts — it pops up often and in a surprising array of places: journal articles, forewords of new editions, and even theatre programmes. Tony’s books on Wodehouse’s life and work line many of our shelves, and his sparkling presence has enlivened Wodehouse society events around the world. It is an honour and a pleasure to add Plumtopia to his long list of appearances.

Another Centenary to Celebrate

The Sunday Times Magazine for 9 April this year included a four-page article saluting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extraordinary achievement in having four shows in performance simultaneously on Broadway, though two of them are revivals. It suggests he shares this record with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and states that it hasn’t been done for 60 years.

Well, Rodgers, like Lloyd Webber, was a composer. Hammerstein was a lyricist. The paper overlooked Lloyd Webber’s one-time lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote this in his Introduction to the booklet contained in the 2001 CD The Land Where the Good Songs Go:

I am, I hope, a fairly modest cove, but I must admit I felt fairly gruntled when, in 2000, I could briefly brag about having my lyrics on Broadway in no less than four shows at the same time [including one revival]. Surely this must be a record, I reckoned – certainly for a British lyricist.

So the errors the Sunday Times made are stacking up. First, as they refer to Hammerstein as one of the previous record-holders, they clearly mean to include lyricists. Therefore, Lloyd Webber’s achievement, though amazing, also only equals that of Tim Rice. And when earlier this year his fourth show opened, it was only 17 years since Tim Rice’s achievement, not 60.

But that is not all. Tim Rice went on to add in his remarks that he had mentioned his achievement only because of its relevance to the CD – which was full of songs by one of his literary heroes, P G Wodehouse.

For in 1917 the mighty Plum, lyricist and British to boot, had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. That achievement reaches its Centenary on November 7, this year.

It is only fair to admit that some of the shows were far less successful than the typical Lloyd Webber and Rice offerings, and that in one in particular he was not the only lyricist. Nevertheless, it is an achievement which should not be overlooked.

In all, Wodehouse contributed lyrics to 25 musicals in one or both of the UK and the USA, and the changes in style and approach which he and Jerome Kern in particular brought to the format of musical comedies smoothed the way for the next major revolution, with the production of such shows as Show Boat. Along with Guy Bolton, who was generally responsible for the first drafts at least of the libretti, they introduced the idea of simpler plots relating to subjects more in keeping with the experience of theatre-goers.

Poster for 2010 Chicago production of 'Oh,Boy!' (Bolton, Wodehouse & Kern)

Playbill from a 2010 production

Whereas one of their earliest efforts, Miss Springtime, paid lip-service to the earlier traditions of comic opera, the setting for their first 1917 hit, Have a Heart, was the life of a salesgirl in a retail clothing store. This was followed by Oh, Boy!, which encompassed a modern take on romance, with newlyweds, misunderstandings and a lecherous old judge; and Leave It To Jane, based around American football.Wodehouse absorbed this policy in future collaborations with other composers – the 1926 show Oh, Kay!, written with the Gershwins, had the theme of bootlegging during the prohibition era; while Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s 1934 perpetually popular show, featured escaped criminals. Porter, who had written the lyrics for all the songs in the Broadway production, invited Wodehouse to anglicise a couple of them for London, and he pulled no punches in satirising the greed of certain classes even in times of economic difficulty.

Do the following examples sound like Wodehouse? They were.

The Duke who owns a moated castle
Takes lodgers and makes a parcel
Because he knows
Anything goes

It’s grab and smash today
We want cash today
Get rich quick today
That’s the trick today
And the Great today
Don’t hesitate today
But keep right on their toes

And lend their names, if paid to do it
To anyone’s soap or suet
Or baby clo’s
Anything goes

If you enjoy Wodehouse but have not heard – knowingly – any of his lyrics (the one EVERYBODY has heard without realising it is Bill, originally written for Oh, Lady! Lady!! in 1918, dropped from that show but added, with a little tweaking by Oscar Hammerstein II, to Show Boat in 1926, where it has resided ever since), I recommend that you try to get one of the three CD’s, each with a variety of his lyrics, recorded since 2000.

Maria Jette & Dan Chouniard CDThey are:

The Land Where the Good Songs Go
Singers: Hal Cazalet, Sylvia McNair, Lara Cazalet; Pianist: Steven Blier
2001   Harbinger Records   HCD 1901

In Our Little Paradise
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2011   Woleseley Recordings

The Siren’s Song
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2004   Woleseley Recordings

For a relatively modern recording of a complete show, try Sitting Pretty (1926), recorded on a double CD in 1990 under the direction of John McGlinn. It was published by New World Records (80387-2).

But let your mind wander a little further. You may not have been aware that Wodehouse was quite such an important lyricist. Perhaps you have not realised that he was an accomplished playwright, as well. He never reached quite the same prominence as with his other activities but, while mentioning impressive achievements, we should not overlook that in December 1928 he had three new plays on the West End stage simultaneously – and that is something not many of even our greatest playwrights can boast.

Perhaps you could suggest some names of those who have matched this achievement – either on the West End or on Broadway?

Tony Ring

April 2017

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6 Comments

  1. Ken Clevenger says:

    As ever, anything by Tony Ring is aces, and this one is also trumps!

  2. Joss Weatherby (Morten Arnesen) says:

    Hear, hear!

  3. mariajette says:

    I feel the theme of my 2017 TWS convention performance coalescing…

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