GEORGE and Ira Gershwin, the legendary writers of Broadway musicals, eclipsed themselves in 193l with "Of Thee I Sing," whose 441 performances made it their biggest success.
"Of Thee I Sing" was also the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, points out Laurence Maslon, Arena Stage dramaturge who is resident expert on the musical, which opened last night.
"It was also the first musical to be published and sold quite well in book form. That was an honor to be awarded only to [playwright] Eugene O'Neill at that time," he says.
Mr. Maslon also points out that "Of Thee I Sing" is the second "in a sort of unofficial trilogy" of musicals that playwright George Kaufman wrote with the Gershwins, following "Strike Up the Band" and before "Let Them Eat Cake." Maslon, who says that Kaufman and Jacobean drama are his two great passions, has a huge photo of Kaufman looming over his office. He says that Kaufman richly contributed to the winning of the musical's Pulitzer.
Arena Stage artistic director Doug Wager, who is directing the show, had talked with Maslon, who is also his associate artistic director, over a period of years about doing "Of Thee I Sing."
Maslon says, "Doug has an affinity for Kaufman and American comedies of the '30s. So every four years it comes up. About a year ago, we read it again and said `Gee, here's a show in which a campaign is run without any mention of an issue, here's a show in which a candidate's candidacy is thrown completely off track by a woman from his past, here's a show in which the vice president is so imminently unforgettable that the handlers of the campaign beg him to stay in a cave and write his speeches before the
election...,' and we thought of one of the greatest lines in one of the songs that Ira Gershwin wrote, "Who Cares" is: `Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers, as long as you've got a kiss that conquers.' It seemed time to revive it - of course banks are failing in Yonkers again."
Maslon goes on to explain, "If you had to put it into words, the reason we hadn't revived it [before] was that the social situation and the situation in the show didn't quite match. Now they really do. If you take that further, when the show was written in l931, it was really written near the depths of the Depression, after a Republican administration in which banks were failing and jobs were being lost across the country, and no one had confidence in elected party officials.... And the Gershwins and Kau fman mocked this directly. And in more general terms it's almost a romantic sense of politics...."
On the subject of its relevance, Maslon says "This is probably the best American satirical musical, it made American history.... We haven't changed a single line of the book," although they went back to the first draft of the play, which was in the Library of Congress, as well as a 17-page outline, which Kaufman and Morrie Riskind had written and turned over to the Gershwins.
Maslon sums up what drama critic George Jean Nathan wrote in l93l: "Here was a musical that was more than flappers meeting playboys, for the first time you could actually listen to it, laugh at it, learn something from it."
This Arena Stage revival is only the second in 60 years; George Kaufman himself revived it in 1952, rewriting it, putting it in a 1950s setting and directing it. But Kaufman's version unfortunately turned out to be a failure.
The Arena Stage has an opportunity, in an election year no less, to revive the musical's popularity.