Cole Porter and Moss Hart's Jubilee: Still Smart, Funny and Tuneful

The big news on Broadway in October of 1935 was that George Gershwin and Cole Porter each had new musicals opening in the same week. The Gershwin entry, Porgy and Bess, took the better part of two years to create, with its composer taking great pains to research the culture and music of southern black Americans, including visits to Charleston, South Carolina's notorious ghetto, Cabbage Row. Two nights after that one opened, Cole Porter's Jubilee hit the boards. This one was created during a four and a half month luxury cruise, where Cole Porter and his collaborator Moss Hart enjoyed modern accommodations, drank lots of champagne, visited exotic locales and wrote a musical packed with inside jokes about their famous friends.

Guess which one got better reviews and ran longer.

Of course, through the years public and critical opinion has tended to favor Gershwin's folk opera over Porter's musical comedy, but Jubilee was not a show created for longevity. You wouldn't imagine a large-scale musical produced on today's Broadway whose book and lyrics featured a parade of jokes and spoofs of both pop figures and the culturally elite. No matter how well received at first its just not financially feasible to finance a show whose material could easily date within months, ruining any potential for stock and amateur productions. But that kind of entertainment was a staple of 1930's musical comedy, so even if you don't get all the references to Johnny Weissmuller, Elsa Maxwell, Gertrude Stein, kling-kling birds and divi-divi trees, you can still appreciate lively immediacy of Cole Porter's score and Moss Hart's book. Especially as performed in Musicals Tonight!'s latest staged reading.

The royal family of a fictional country that could easily be mistaken for Britain has been warned of a revolutionary uprising on the eve of their jubilee, but instead of retreating to the boredom of their castle in Feathermore, they separate to pursue some incognito adventuring. The queen gets chummy with her favorite movie star; a former swimming champ who now does jungle flicks (a role spoofing Johnny Weissmuller) and her husband, continually occupied with trying to master a string trick, meets up with a famous party hostess (based on Elsa Maxwell) who invites him to entertain at all her exclusive gatherings. Their children have romantic aspirations as the prince starts courting an attractive cabaret singer while the princess is ga-ga over a famous actor/playwright/songwriter, a character inspired by Noel Coward. (Their affair seems doomed, but not for the reason you may think.)

Although Cole Porter's score contains two solid nuggets of musical theatre gold, the flippantly fatalistic "Just One of Those Things" and the sumptuously melodious "Begin the Beguine", it's the more obscure numbers that stand out when hearing it all in the context of Hart's book. Robert Benchley once wrote that Porter's lyrics often seem to have been written "with an eye to pleasing perhaps eighteen people", referring to his frequent references to society celebrities and topical events. And Jubilee's score (and Moss Hart's book, for that matter) contains an unusually large bounty of obscure references, even for him. When the Noel Coward-ish playwright is welcomed back from his travels, the chorus sings "While he was away, the only shows / Were bastard babies of Abie's Irish Rose." and "While he wasn't here to write new tunes / We were stuck with the muck Bing Crosby croons." In "My Most Intimate Friend" Porter plays off of George Gershwin's reputation for hogging the piano at social gatherings by having his hostess sing that her next gathering "'Twill be new in every way; / Gershwin's promised not to play.". And Porter fans should get a kick out of the line "And Miss Otis thinks she will be able to attend."

Almost unperformable today (at least to audiences under 80) is the extremely catchy and clever "A Picture of Me Without You", with its refrains such as...

Picture Lily Pons without a throat,
Picture Harold Vanderbilt without a boat,
Picture Billy Sunday without a sinner,
Picture dear Missus Corrigan without a dinner,
Picture Hamlet's ghost without a darkness,
Picture Mother Yale minus Father Harkness.
Mix 'em all together and what have you got?
Just a picture of me without you!

Although all of them are certainly well under 80, Thomas Mills' cast smartly and enthusiastically romp through this aged banter like it was the morning headlines. By not altering the text we get a real feel for what it was like to attend a 1935 musical comedy.

Justin Sayre is rousingly hammy as the erudite Eric, based on Mr. Coward. His performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan spoof "The Kling-Kling Bird on the Top of the Divi-Divi Tree" makes for a charmingly funny entrance. Patti Perkins and Ed Schiff are adorable as the randy queen and her dim-witted king, especially when singing the unusually old-fashioned Cole Porter waltz, "Me and Marie", and Raymond Baynard is very funny as the prissy prince. Michael Shane Ellis shines in a small role as the annoyingly efficient prime minister.

Special mention must be made of Cynthia Collins, whose been a wonderful presence in the chorus of several past Musicals Tonight! productions. In her first featured role for the company, she embraces the cartoon spoof of Elsa Maxwell with a healthy dose of comedic relish. Reminiscent of Carol Burnett in her prime, she moves her body and face into an angular array of positions that sweeten up the Hart/Porter wit just right. Her rendition of "My Most Intimate Friend", a fierce juggle of Porter references and rhythms, is simply hilarious.

Of the New York companies that regularly perform staged readings of older musicals, Musicals Tonight! has earn a special place (and a recent Obie Award) as the company that most frequently revives neglected works by the great masters of the early 20th Century. Their productions of musicals like Lady, Be Good, The New Yorkers, I Married an Angel, and now Jubilee, give many of us a first hearing of lyrics, music and dialogue by significant musical theatre artists which have gone unrecorded and unpublished. They are preserving our musical theatre history.

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