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Broadway by the Year: 1931

As Broadway by the Year: The Broadway Musicals of 1931 began at Town Hall on Monday, creator and host Scott Siegel had to admit that 1931 was a pretty lean year for musicals. No legendary hit shows emerged from that harsh year (with the possible exception of the first musical to win a Pulitzer prize, Of Thee I Sing), but quite a few hit songs premiered on Broadway-enough, at least, to create an utterly enjoyable and entertaining concert.

In 1931, the Depression was on the upswing and Vaudeville was in its death throes. The combination led to a season of plays (less expensive to produce than musicals) and numerous bookless revues. Many of the songs from these revues were lighthearted and fun, offering escape to people whose daily lives were nothing to sing about. As such, BBTY 1931 had an overarcing mood of desperate frivolity that Brad Oscar's smart direction (and Ross Patterson's Little Big Band's energetic music) did much to enhance.

So if 1931 wasn't the treasure trove of musical gems other years were, it still offered plenty of opportunities for a strong cast to shine. Several terrific dance numbers let Jeffry Denman, Mara Davi, Tony Yazbek, Melinda Sullivan and KendRick Jones tear up the Town Hall floor (the latter two struck memorable sparks with their tap routine to "You Said It"). Cabaret legend Karen Akers sang a gorgeous "As Time Goes By" (which had been forgotten until playwright Murray Burnett used it years later in his play Everybody Comes to Rick's, which later became the movie Casablanca), and "Dancing in the Dark," to which Mara Davi and Jeffry Denman danced a lovely Fred-and-Adele-esque pas de deux. 

Denman, who also provided all of the evening's choreography, performed a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" with excellent timing and delivery. Chip Zien accompanied himself on the ukelele for a very cute "I Found a Million Dollar Baby," and performed a jazzy "By Special Permission of the Copyright Owners, I Love You" earlier in the show. Director Brad Oscar gyrated and bumped his way through the high-speed "Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba," and Mara Davi nicely captured the dual nature of the year with the sensual "Speak Easy" and the sweetly sexy "I Want A Man." Tony Yazbeck tap danced while getting dressed (no, really) for "Gotta Go to Town" (which was later recycled as "Getting Out of Town"--it was the Depression; people recycled everything) and showed off his strength as a singer with "To-night."

Of course, not all songs offered escape from the collapsing economy (then and now). Kerry O'Malley stopped the show cold with her heartbreaking "Cigarettes, Cigars," a mournful ballad about innocence lost and dreams not just deferred, but completely crushed. What could have been melodramatic or over-the-top instead became gutwrenching and devastatingly powerful. Earlier in the evening, David Pittu sang a soulful "The Thrill is Gone," and Barb Jungr, who just ended her premiere engagement at the Carlyle, got the rare distinction of performing two songs in a row--the slow and sad "Shadows on the Wall" and the bluesy and sassy "The Torch Song."

F. Murray Abraham may well be the first Oscar-winner to appear in a BBTY concert (has there been another? Anyone?), and the film and straight-play star seemed a little bit out of his element during his first solo--"Poor Pierrot"--and his vaudevillian duet with Brad Oscar, "I'd Rather Be Miserable With You." When he got to his second solo, however, and performed "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" unamplified, he proved his skill as a true Broadway leading man.

The evening's finale, a rousing "Sweet and Hot," recreated the vibe of an early-Depression-era speakeasy with the full cast singing and the dancers tapping with a wild energy. The song's enthusiasm was the perfect summation of the year itself: 1931 may have been a rough year for America in general and Broadway in particular, but even in harsh times, true beauty can be created by talented artists willing to take risks.

Photos by Genevieve Rafter Keddy

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From This Author Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox is a lifelong theatre addict who has worked as an actress, a singer, a playwright, a director, a lyricist, a librettist, and (read more...)