Remembering Bloomer Girl
The other night I was making my way through Amazon Prime video, looking for something to watch. After sorting through hundreds of movies and television shows that I just knew wouldn’t hold my interest at that moment, I stumbled upon the 1956, Producer’s Showcase made-for-television version of the 1944 Broadway musical Bloomer Girl. My streaming choice for the evening was set. I have always adored the Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score ever since I was first introduced to it in my History of American Musical Theatre class in college. Having listened to the score multiple times and read the book of Bloomer Girl for that glorious seminar, I was sad to realize that no one hardly ever produces this adventurous and courageous show that came fast on the heels of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking Oklahoma!. Watching an abridged, made-for-television version was most-likely the closest I would get to seeing a production of the show, so I hit the play button, sat back, and took a little jaunt into musical theatre history, where I admittedly spend most of my time.
Lyricist and occasional book writer E. Y. Harburg believed in a musical theatre that challenged audiences, delved into social issues, but did so with whimsy. Particularly when he was paired with book writer Fred Saidy, Harburg could be at his boldest and most controversial. The duo would go on to write the book for the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow, itself a lesson in societal discrepancies, teeming with a socialist bent, but veiled in magic and merry mischief. They would also write the far more controversial Flahooley (1951) which was an artistic response to Harburg’s experience being blacklisted, a fantasy that poked fun at both capitalism and McCarthyism. Bloomer Girl, which preceded both of these shows, was no less controversial in the topics it would undertake. For Bloomer Girl, the book was written by Saidy and playwright screenwriter Sig Herzig, based on an unpublished play by Lilith and Dan James.
Bloomer Girl is set just before and during the American Civil War. Evelina Applegate is the daughter of a hoop skirt manufacturer and the niece of Dolly Bloomer, a progressive abolitionist who embraces the pants for women created by Amelia Bloomer. Evelina takes after her aunt, often aiding in her crusades for equal rights for women and African Americans, often to the chagrin of her conservative father. When Mr. Applegate returns from a business trip with a suitor for Evelina, she is reticent to embrace this Jefferson Calhoun from Kentucky who own a slave named Pompey. She likes “Jeff”, but refused to marry him until he secures the release of Pompey, a situation complicated by Calhoun’s brother who insists that he is property belong to the family and not for him to free. The Civil War breaks out and takes the men away, leaving the women to stay behind, reflected beautifully in Agnes de Mille’s breathtaking “Civil War Ballet”. Of course, everything works out in the end, with Pompey gaining his freedom and Jeff returning from war, he and Evelina ending up together.
For Bloomer Girl, Harburg (as lyricist) wrote the score with Harold Arlen. The duo is best remembered for their score of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Together, they crafted some delightful songs such as “Right as the Rain”, “Evelina”, “The Eagle and Me”, “It Was Good Enough for Grandma” and “When the Boys Come Home.” Particularly wry and witty was “Sunday in Cicero Falls” about the pomp and circumstance of going to church, the whole tone reverently making their way to worship, but offering sly commentary. One of the slyest lyrics of Harburg’s career can be found in the number: “Even the rabbits inhibit their habits on Sunday in Cicero Falls,” A few of the songs found some play on the radio, particularly “Evelina” which was recorded by Bing Crosby.
Bloomer Girl, under the direction of William Schorr, and with De Mille providing choreography, opened at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on October 5, 1944 where is ran for 657 performances, a solid hit for its day. In the role of Evelina was Celeste Holm, who had been a triumph as Ado Annie Carnes in Oklahoma! a year earlier. David Brooks (who would originate the role of Tommy Albright in Brigadoon a few years later) played Jeff Calhoun, and Dooley Wilson, who had appeared in the 1942 film classic Casablanca singing “As Time Goes By” as the piano player Sam, took on the role of Pompey.
Brazen and bold for its time, Bloomer Girl suffers now from some politically incorrect plot points and stereotypes (particularly in the song “I Never Was Born”, and it is unlikely to be revived without some revisions. Watching the 1956 Producer’s Showcase version (which stars a perfectly cast Barbara Cook as Evelina), it is evident that there is an intriguing story at its heart and a clever score worth hearing.