"You'd Be Surprised" - Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 - Lest We Forget
There are some things we tend to forget these days. Our past is one of them. We are so caught up in the modern musical theatre worlds of Sondheim, Wicked and The Book of Mormon that we sometimes forget the wealth of musical treasures that came in the early half of the last century. I don't mean the Rodgers and Hammerstein, post Oklahoma! era (after 1943), I mean even further back. Back to the days of operetta, silly musical comedy, and especially the musical revues that lit up the Great White Way. I am speaking of the George White's Scandals and Ziegfeld Follies installments of yesteryear. We do not speak of them much anymore. It is a shame when such a wealth of wonderful music and witty lyrics are just washed away in the gutters of Shubert Alley because we don't stop to embrace where we came from.
We also forget that Irving Berlin was more than just a composer/lyricist of sentimental, holiday music and patriotic anthems. We forget that he used to write for these brilliant revues, packing them with tongue-in-cheek irony, sassy wordplay, and a sly sophistication. Sure we saw it in Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam, but even they were somewhat sanitized in keeping with the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. Watered down Berlin is still brilliant, but it's a shame that he is mostly remembered for his more anemic work.
The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 featured one of Berlin's most audacious songs "You'd Be Surprised," introduced by Eddie Cantor, a mainstay performer of the musical revue. The piece is one of Berlin's more irreverent songs: filled with innuendo and double entendre. It's one joke after another about a guy who doesn't seem like much, but when you get him alone "You'd Be Surprised." The song was, in fact, considered so brazen at the time that it was not sung in more respectable places. Nowadays, it may seem tame, but you cannot help but see how must have gotten under the skin of more conservative listeners. Anytime that happens, we musical buffs sleep just a little better at night.