Sunday, January 6, 2008

Bring On The Girls!

One of the most remarkable theatrical memoirs ever written is by the musical book and lyrics collaborators P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, looking back at their wild and fruitful careers together and apart in both London and New York in the first three decades of the 20th century. It was published in 1953, when most of the theatrical managers they dealt with, such as Flo Ziegfield, Abe Erlanger and Col. Henry W. Savage, were safely gone from the earth and they could tell outrageously funny insider stories about their greed, cupidity, and general insanity. In fact, it may be the wittiest memoir I have ever read, and the sheer pleasure Bolton and Wodehouse took in each other's sensibilities comes through on every page. Though not available at the San Francisco Public Library (what's wrong with that place?), you can order a used copy on Amazon (click here).

There is a long chapter in the book about the genesis of "Oh, Lady, Lady" that is fascinating. After their first two collaborations, "Oh, Boy!" and "Leave It to Jane," Bolton and Wodehouse were on top of the world, thinking they could do no wrong, which of course is when they turned out three turkeys in a row, "The Rose of China," "The Riviera Girl," and "Miss 1917." Their account of this trio of disasters is hilarious, and by the end of them, the two authors are thinking about going back to architecture and journalism respectively. Out of the blue, however, they were contacted by Ray Comstock, the theatrical manager of the Princess Theatre, who wanted them to try and recreate their "Oh, Boy!" success and out of that process they produced yet another smash with "Oh, Lady, Lady."

It wasn't all smooth sailing, however. At the out-of-town tryout in Wilmington, Delaware, on a Wednesday matinee performance on Christmas Eve, only 36 people showed up in the audience, and they didn't utter a single peep or laugh. Let me quote the rest:
"They were so quiet that halfway through the first act Bolton, forgetting their existence, rose and addressed Harry Brown, who was playing his opening scene with Carroll McComas.

"That's wrong, Harry," he said. "You'll kill the laughs if you keep pointing to the settee. Carroll would be bound to know what you were talking about." His voice trailed off into silence as he became aware of thirty-six blank faces which had turned and were regarding him with astonishment from rows one and two. Plum [Wodehouse] came to the rescue.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "We must apologize. We're down here trying to get this show right for New York, and Mr. Bolton has just spotted something that is wrong. Would you mind if we fixed it?" Some civil person said, "Not at all. Go ahead," and Guy, encouraged, found his voice. "There are so few of you," he said, "and you were keeping so quiet that I had quite forgotten you were there." This got a better laugh than any of the lines in the show, and Guy said, "We're all a little dizzy these days, and I thought we were having a rehearsal. If you don't mind, we'll have one now."

It was one of the most successful rehearsals in the history of the stage. The audience listened with rapt attention as the authors made their corrections. Many of them contributed suggestions. When the performance ended, the cast came down to the footlights and signed the programs that were handed up to them."
Check out the whole book. I can't recommend it highly enough.