Retro Notes: “Of Thee I Sing”

Retro Notes: "Of Thee I Sing." Photo by Rick Stachura. November 2, 2017.

 


 

Who cares what the public chatters? 

Love’s the only thing that matters!

 


 

One of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1930s, “Of Thee I Sing” (1931) originally played 441 shows at the Music Box Theatre on 45th Street. The story follows a presidential candidate who runs on a platform of “love” and fakes a romance to capture the White House. It was so popular, the show not only spawned a sequel, it also won the Pulitzer Prize — the first ever awarded to a musical. 

In his review for the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson (1894-1984) praised its satirical style. He quipped: 

 

Never has there been such a belaboring of our self-seeking and pettifogging government….

From the moment the curtain lifts on a raffish assembly of campaign managers in a tawdry hotel bedroom, “Of Thee I Sing” whacks every head in sight in an outrageous brawl of malignant buffoonery. The authors…have translated government into bedlam….

[The play] is funnier than government, and not nearly so dangerous.

 

Tonight’s version, produced by MasterVoices, was a one-off staging at Carnegie Hall. Much of the libretto was cut in favor of the songs, which featured backing from a 35-piece orchestra, 100-voice choir, and cast of stars — literally stars. The group included one Tony Award recipient (Chuck Cooper) and several past nominees (Bryce Pinkham, Denee Benton, Kevin Chamberlin, David Pittu, and Brad Oscar). Meanwhile, in between numbers, humorist Mo Rocca served as master-of-ceremonies, sharing tales from the show’s first Broadway iteration. 

Rocca’s best narrative concerned William Gaxton (1893-1963), the actor who originated love-running schemester President John P. Wintergreen. As Gaxton drew acclaim for his portrayal, Rocca said he responded to his popularity by playing the role increasingly “over the top.” Perhaps sensing the misstep, Brooks Atkinson ignored the actor altogether in his review. Instead, he lauded Victor Moore (1876-1962), Gaxton’s co-star, who turned in a “truly comedic performance” as Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom.

As it turns out, director George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) caught wind of Gaxton’s antics too. One evening, after watching the show’s first act from the audience, he sent a message backstage during intermission. When Gaxton opened the envelope, the note inside read:

 

Am in the rear of the theater watching your performance. Wish you were here.

–George S. Kaufman.

 

And that, as they say, is the stuff of Broadway legend.

 


 

Retro Notes: "Of Thee I Sing." Photo by Rick Stachura. November 2, 2017.

 


 

MasterVoices presents George and Ira Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing” at Carnegie Hall.

Lyrics from “Who Cares?” by George and Ira Gershwin, 1931.

Photos by Rick Stachura. November 2, 2017.

(1) The stage at intermission.

(2) Bryce Pinkham, center stage, who played President John P. Wintergreen, introduces Denee Benton, stage left, who played Mary Turner. Turner is the President’s love interest. 

(This story was originally posted to my old Tumblr site on December 2, 2017.)

 


 

 

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