"Revue"-ing the Situation: Musical Revues in the Spotlight
I started out writing this piece, intending to explore all styles of musical revues, the "best of" the genre. I soon realized that, if I didn't apply certain parameters, I'd be writing until the end of time. So, I set some rules: the musical revues that I would discuss had to have original music, not an assemblage of showtunes such as in And the World Goes 'Round, or be composed of radio hits a la Smokey Joe's Café. Both are fine revues, but I decided I wanted to concentrate on the pieces that were written, from conception, as original revues. Here are some of my favorites to listen to and read about.
The Bandwagon (1931)
The composing team of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz rarely get the recognition they deserve for their contributions to musical theatre. 1931's The Bandwagon, which they wrote with playwright George S. Kaufman, is an example of their finest work, some delightfully joyous songs and tongue-in-cheek humor. It introduced the oft-recorded standard "Dancing in the Dark" the sketch involving two performers (one a singer, one a dancer) on a slanted mirror stage. The song "Hoops" gave us a young Fred Astaire and his elder sister Adele (the last time they'd appear together onstage) dressed in rompers while rolling giant hoops (among other kids at play). Frank Morgan (who would play the title character in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz) appeared in several of the sketches in moments of comedic genius.
As Thousands Cheer (1933)
Arguably the greatest of all musical revues, As Thousands Cheer featured music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and sketches by Moss Hart that used the layout of a newspaper to thematically connect everything. 21 scenes were employed to cover the weather ("Heat Wave"), comic strips ("The Funnies"), the society column ("Easter Parade"), and even serious commentary on racism ("Supper Time") a hauntingly palpable song for a black woman lamenting the lynching of her husband. It was timely, in sync with the world of the Great Depression. This revue also featured two Broadway stars of the era, Marilyn Miller and Ethel Waters. The production ran for an astonishing 400 performances, a particularly impressive feat considering the economic state of America at the time.
Pins and Needles (1937)
The striking International Ladies Garment Workers Union sponsored a musical revue at the Princess Theatre that featured members of their organization as performers (thus its title Pins and Needles). Featuring talent from celebrated and up-and-coming writers, and a score by the always reliable Harold Rome, Pins and Needles focused on current events as the basis for its varying sketches. The revue was a hit and became so popular that the garment workers quit their day jobs when the production expanded to an eight-performances-a-week, open run. Pins and Needles also performed at the White House at the request of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
New Faces of '52 (1952)
Imagine a musical revue that featured the talents of Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostly, Eartha Kitt, and Carol Lawrence. New Faces was a series of comedy revues, but the 1952 installation was its most successful. Ronny Graham and Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks) wrote the sketches and Sheldon Harnick (with other composers and lyricists) provided the score. If you want to have a wicked laugh, revel in "Lizzie Borden", a murder trial spliced together with a hoedown, or listen as Eartha Kitt's purrs her way through the distinctly sly "Monotonous."
The Mad Show (1966)
If you like your humor slightly twisted then you've probably, at some point in your life, read an issue or two of Mad Magazine. In 1966, Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard) joined up with a handful of lyricists to create the sketch comedy revue The Mad Show, inspired by the magazine. The whole score is loads of fun, but the stand-out is "The Boy From..." (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim using a nom de plume), a droll spoof of "The Girl from Ipanema" that is the anthem of every gal who finds herself hopelessly (and unknowingly) attracted to a gay man.
When Pigs Fly (1996)
Campy can be fun, and the musical revues of Howard Crabtree were always dripping with the sassiest sarcasm and the craziest antics around. When Pigs Fly (co-conceived by Mark Waldrop) is arguably the most fun. From euphoric moments of drag (punctuated by Crabtree's over the top costumes) to torch songs sung by a gay man to top-standing conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, every moment of the show elicited side-splitting laugher. A longer sequence spoofing a community theatre fundraiser is a scream in its unfortunate accuracy. Running Off-Broadway, When Pigs Fly ran for 840 performances.
Closer than Ever (1989)
The composing team of Maltby and Shire are at their best when they are writing in the revue format. Their exemplary work on Starting Here, Starting Now yielded one of the finest comic musical theatre songs "Crossword Puzzle." However, for my money, I find their Closer than Ever to be, overall, an even more satisfying experience. From its electrifying opening number "Doors", through the piquant humor of songs like "Miss Byrd" and "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole," to the aching honesty of "Life Story," Closer than Ever is an especially useful resource and a veritable goldmine for performers looking for audition songs.
Songs for a New World (1995)
No modern composer-lyricist compels me or twists and turns my heartstrings the way that Jason Robert Brown can. He probes an emotional depth and poetry in his work that perfectly captures and encapsulates moments in the human experience. His revue Songs for a New World laid the foundation for his work in emotionally-charged musicals such as Parade and The Bridges of Madison County. The entire revue pulses and throbs, particularly in the ironic and ultimately regretful "Stars and the Moon." But really, listen to any track on the album, each one is its own little one-act play.