Jerome Kern's 1917 'Have a Heart' Gets First New York Revival

Nowadays they might be accused of being too small for Broadway. Audiences looking for elaborate sets and extravagant costumes might grumble at their modest production costs. But in the early years of the 20th Century, Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton (eventually joined by P.G. Wodehouse) helped prove that musicals with modest production values, boasting little more than clever writing and infectious melodies, can compete with the lavish extravaganzas that dominated Broadway even back then.

The Princess Musicals, named for their residency, the cozy Princess Theatre, were each budgeted at less than ten thousand dollars. To keep costs down, the characters were contemporary Americans in modern dress and the plots revolved around believable situations (well, believable in the world of musical comedy) of everyday life, which eliminated the need for elaborate sets and special effects. With a seating capacity of only 299, a more naturalistic acting style was used and songs were written to be more fully integrated into the plot and characters, so only a small chorus, without showgirls, was necessary.

Although technically not a Princess Musical (It premiered at the Liberty Theatre in 1917), Have a Heart, recently receiving a funny and energetic staged reading courtesy of Musicals Tonight!, contained all the aforementioned characteristics, and was very much a part of the movement to create more intimate, realistic and inherently human musical comedies.

Though his maiden Broadway venture, A Gentleman of Leisure had little success, Wodehouse was anxious to try his luck at musicals after reviewing Kern and Bolton's second Princess show, Very Good, Eddie, for Vanity Fair, and collaborated with Bolton on the book and lyrics. The farcical story of a separated couple trying to save their marriage via a second honeymoon (where an ex of his just happens to show up) takes place primarily in that most everyday of American locales, a department store, but one can't help sensing a British style to the proceedings. Although Wodehouse had yet to have a book published when Have a Heart opened, the show's cultured, but dim-witted males, sensible-minded females ("Women don't need to think. They've thought.", says one) and haughty elders strongly suggest the classic characters he would later create in his Jeeves/Wooster novels. Coupled with Thomas Mills' clipped placing, exchanges like "Where have you been all my life"/"Well, for most of it I wasn't born yet." and "Where can I find men's wallets?"/"Usually in their pants." provide far more laughs than you might expect. Bolton and Wodehouse's then-contemporary references (An aspiring film director says of a plot twist "This has the makings of a five-reeler", and a dancer is referred to as "The white hope of the featherweight one-steppers.") respectfully remain, at the risk of being lost on 2004 audiences.

At this point in his career, ten years before Show Boat, Jerome Kern was writing scores with simple operetta-influenced melodies typical of the period, occasionally peppered with a bit of ragtime. There are two lovely waltzes in "Look In His Eyes" (sweetly done by Marni Raab as the separated wife) and "You Said Something" (where Raab is joined by Christopher Guilmet, playing her husband with a humorous fluster). Guilmet, as a department store manager, also has the tasty title song, where Bolton and Wodehouse satirize the plight of the overworked shop girl by creating a scenario where the clerk, not the customer, is always right. As his film directing best friend, James Patterson excels in Wodehousian daffiness, especially with his comedy number, "Napoleon". Special mention must be made of the 4-woman chorus (Melissa Gietzen, Jenny Millsap, Andrea Rae and Julia Tilley), who do some beautiful vocal work throughout.

But the highlight of the evening was supplied by the cast's senior member, Evelyn Page, who made her 1933 Broadway debut in the musical revue Tattle Tales before appearing in the original companies of such shows as Plain and Fancy, Wonderful Town, Little Me and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Her small role as the leading man's wealthy aunt did not have a solo when Have a Heart played Broadway, but Ms. Page's audition song "Let's Build a Little Bungalow in Quogue" (a Kern/Bolton/Wodehouse ditty from The Riviera Girl) was delivered with such vigor, charm and comic finesse that producer Mel Miller felt compelled to have the number interpolated into the score. Though purists (like myself) generally don't approve of such tampering, the result was undoubtedly delightful.

Musicals Tonight!'s next production, Rodgers and Hart's The Girl Friend opens May 18th. The next performances of their series featuring Broadway understudies singing from the roles they cover will be held May 23rd and 31st. Visit musicalstonight.org

For Michael Dale's "mad adventures of a straight boy living in a gay world" visit dry2olives.com



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