I love musical theater. When I was in ninth grade (in the spring of 1967), I got to play (trombone) in the pit orchestra for Ottumwa Heights College’s production of Annie Get Your Gun. (The Heights was a two-year liberal arts women’s college that opened to male students during the fall term after Annie got her gun. It merged with Indian Hills Community College in 1979.) I have no memory of how or why I was selected for that gig, but it was gobs of fun, and that experience got me hooked on musicals. (I think I even got paid a little bit.) I was in the pit for most of our high school musical performances (South Pacific comes to mind), and when I was a music student at the University of Iowa in the early seventies, I played (yes, trombone) for The Music Man when Meredith Willson (who wrote the book, music, and lyrics) was in the audience. In the mid-1970s, I played for an outdoor theater production of West Side Story in Arlington, Virginia. It was quite challenging but an incredibly fun show to play. (West Side Story is my second favorite musical of all time.)
Fast-forward to 2004. My husband Joe was teaching in the Fine Arts Department at Roanoke College when they added a three-week Intensive Learning (IL) May term class to the curriculum. Students had to enroll in one May term class during their tenure at the college, and professors were required to teach an IL course (which they proposed for approval) once every three years. Joe had been performing in the pit at Mill Mountain Theater in Roanoke (VA) for several years by then and was intrigued by the business of musicals. So, he developed a May term course he called “The Broadway Musical,” (very clever!) and that was the beginning of several interesting and (mostly) fun adventures for both of us. The class met for one week on campus, one week (four days, actually) in New York City, then one week back on campus. On the last night of the class, they would present their original thirty-minute musical, written entirely by the class (with Joe’s help, obviously). It was loads of fun, and I think the students really enjoyed the experience.
Between December 2004 and May 2014, Joe and I ventured up to The Big Apple eight times (nine if you count my 60th birthday celebration in December 2011). We would always go up (via Amtrak) during the Christmas break before his class was to meet the following May. During those winter trips, we found shows and hotels Joe thought would work for his class. In May, the class saw three shows and made a visit to either the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Additionally, we invited a close friend, a former actress, to coach the students on their roles which they’d developed over the first week of the class. We all got lots of laughs out of those sessions.
Escorting a group of ten or fifteen college kids to New York City can be somewhat challenging. But we were blessed with well-behaved and mostly engaged students each time, and we saw some great shows. I enjoyed Billy Elliot (my third favorite musical of all time) tremendously, but I also loved Les Miserables and The Lion King. I will admit that I slept through part of Lion King that last year. After all, it was the fourth time I’d seen it, and keeping track of college students in Manhattan is exhausting. Clearly, I needed the shuteye.
Broadway did not close during World War II. But its mission changed somewhat during those years. Composer, songwriter, and lyricist Irving Berlin was working on a new “Music Box revue” for 1942 when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. As soon as the U.S. entered the war, Berlin knew theater goers’ tastes would change quickly. He scrapped his ideas for the revue and began thinking about all things patriotic. He met with General George C. Marshall in Washington, DC and proposed a new show he called This Is the Army. He asked the General (and the General agreed) to release talented soldiers from their units so they could perform in his show. All the proceeds from all the performances would be donated to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. By May 1942, This Is the Army was ready for rehearsals.
Irving Berlin insisted on an integrated cast for This Is the Army, and in fact, it was the only integrated armed services unit assembled during World War II. In one number, Black Army officers outshined their zoot-suited civilian friends in “What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear.”
On opening night—Saturday, July 4, 1942—almost two thousand theater people and U.S. Army personnel packed into the Broadway Theatre. Everyone was overcome with emotion when three hundred men marched in singing “This is the Army, Mr. Jones.” And they loved the corporal who sang about leaving his heart at the door at the Stage Door Canteen with a girl named Eileen. But the best part of the evening occurred when Irving Berlin himself showed up on stage in Act II, dressed in khaki puttees (new word for me—see below), singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
[A puttee is a covering for the lower part of the leg, from the knee to the ankle. The long, narrow piece of cloth was wound tightly around the leg and provided support and protection. Eventually, they were phased out during WWII as they were difficult to don quickly, plus there were medical reservations involving hygiene and varicose veins.]
The show played 113 performances on Broadway, followed by a special performance for President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor in Washington, DC. The secret service got involved, checking the onstage rifles for real bullets. The show then headed for a national tour, continuing to fill the coffers of the Relief Fund along the way.
Berlin took his popular show to London, North Africa, Italy, and finally to the South Pacific. Before it closed, the show had been running for more than three years. Irving Berlin was personally responsible for raising almost $10 million for the war effort. (That’s over 164 million in today’s dollars.) But its impact wasn’t over. In January 1943, an updated version of This Is the Army was filmed in Hollywood. Women were added to the cast as were actor/dancer George Murphy, Sergeant Joe Louis, and Lieutenant Ronald Reagan. And Irving Berlin also starred in the film version.
On May 18, 1942, the bright lights of Broadway were turned off for the duration of the war. The U.S. Navy was concerned that America’s greatest port city for the construction and shipping of material and cargo for the war effort would be an easy target for enemy bombs if they were to come. A complete blackout of all lights in Manhattan above street level, including the Theater District, was ordered.
In the summer of 1942, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II met at the Rodgers’ home in Fairfield, Connecticut to begin working on a show that would eventually be called Oklahoma! The book was based on the straight play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, and it was their first collaborative effort. Oscar was keen on calling their show Oklahoma!, but that was tossed out. It was feared backers would think the show was about “Okies” during the Depression. They also tried Cherokee Strip, but that was also “hoovered” for fear people would think it was a burlesque show. Most of the actors and musicians liked Green Grow, but in the end, Away We Go! (borrowed from square dancing lingo) became the working title.
Away We Go! opened for out-of-town tryouts on March 11, 1943, in New Haven, Connecticut, and then opened in Boston on March 15th. After a brief but very successful run in Boston, Oklahoma! opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theatre and ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances. (The show’s title was changed after Oscar Hammerstein wrote a new song—“Oklahoma!”—for the show’s finale.) There were no awards for musical theater productions in 1943. However, in 1944, Rodgers and Hammerstein were awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for Oklahoma!
Other musicals that opened on Broadway during World War II include:
By Jupiter (Rodgers and Hart)
Carmen Jones (Bizet/Hammerstein II) (the show featured an all-Black cast)
One Touch of Venus (Weill/Nash/Perelman)
Something for the Boys (Porter/Fields/Fields)
Bloomer Girl (Arlen/Harburg/Herzig/Saidy)
Mexican Hayride (Porter/Fields/Fields)
On the Town (Bernstein/Comden/Green)
Song of Norway (Grieg/Wright/Forrest/Lazarus/Curran)
Carousel (Rodgers/Hammerstein II)
Up in Central Park (Romberg/Fields/Fields)
Annie Get Your Gun (Berlin/Fields/Fields), with Ethel Merman starring in the title role, opened on May 16, 1946—close (to the war years) but no cigar.
My very favorite musical of all time? Of course, it must be The Music Man! It was written by an Iowa boy, it takes place in Iowa, and there are seventy-six trombones! What could be better than that?!
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in southwest Virginia with her husband Joe and Bart, Dog Number 8. My Mother’s Friend is her (soon to be published) debut novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.