Nichols was a good judge of talent, too, and was well-suited to the jazz-flavored music George Gershwin was writing for Broadway. Nichols had found the musicians to play the previous Gershwin show,
. In the pit on opening night under George Gershwin’s baton (standing in that one night for conductor Earl Busby) were, among others, Nichols and Charlie Teagarden on trumpet, Georgie Stoll and Glenn Miller on trombone, Benny Goodman and Larry Binyon on sax, and Gene Krupa on drums. Midway through
‘s run, Goodman had a falling-out with Nichols and was fired, replaced by Jimmy Dorsey. All these men would be in demand, even famous, during the Big Band Era — Goodman and Miller would become legendary. Georgie Stoll went on to become a key man in the MGM music department (winning an Oscar in 1945 for
). So did Roger Edens, who moved from the pit to the role of Ethel Merman’s on-stage pianist when her keyboard man Al Siegel became ill on opening night and had to drop out of the show. Later, at MGM, Edens would be producer Arthur Freed’s right-hand man and a formative influence on the great MGM musicals of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
Playing Girl Crazy
‘s lead was 19-year-old Ginger Rogers, fresh from making her Broadway debut in Top Speed
and creating a sensation purring “Cigarette me, big boy” in her first movie, Young Man of Manhattan
. She had two of Girl Crazy
‘s most enduring songs, “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me”, and by all accounts handled them quite nicely. But lacking what Cole Porter later called Ethel Merman’s “golden foghorn” voice, she had to stand helplessly by while Ethel stole her thunder night after night; it would take the intimacy of the movie camera to coax her star into full bloom. (And here’s a fun fact: During rehearsals one of her dance numbers was not working exactly right, so producers Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley asked a dancing star they knew to step in and refine the choreography as a favor, and he coached Ginger on the routine in the lobby of the Alvin during rehearsals. Yep, it was Fred Astaire.)
Rounding out the principal cast of Girl Crazy were its two nominal stars, comedians Willie Howard and William Kent, and juvenile lead Allen Kearns. (Understand, “juvenile” was a relative term in the theater of the day, denoting a romantic character type rather than age; think Dick Powell with Ruby Keeler. In fact, Kearns was 37).
With George and Ira Gershwin providing the songs; Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers and 35 beautiful chorus girls on stage; and Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Roger Edens et al. supplying the music, Girl Crazy — over and above the hit it made with audiences at the time — represents to us looking back an almost mind-boggling nexus of the burgeoning American pop music scene. If anyone ever does invent that time machine, the Alvin Theatre between October 14, 1930 and June 6, 1931 (when Girl Crazy closed) is liable to wind up bulging with millions of time-travelling buffs eager to experience the magic for themselves.
The magic act did have its flat spots, mainly in the form of the book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan — a weakness recognized at the time by even the most rhapsodic reviewers. The “integrated” musical, where the songs grow out of a show’s plot and characters, wasn’t unheard of then (e.g., Show Boat), but it was far from the gold standard it would become in the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein (and remain ever after). More common was the musical comedy, where the book consisted mainly of a series of elaborate, even labored, set-ups for the next song. So it was with Girl Crazy: the music presents one show, the book another, in which (as historian Ethan Mordden aptly put it) “songs drop in like guests at an open house.” In 1991, when Broadway director Mike Ockrent undertook a revival of the show, he found the book so irrelevant (and by then so dated) that a new one was commissioned from playwright Ken Ludwig. Then, figuring that since they were writing a new book they might as well embellish the score as well, they imported a raft of other Gershwin songs and came up with a whole “new” show, Crazy for You. It was another smash, running just short of four years.
Ockrent and Ludwig could afford to ignore Girl Crazy‘s book, but I can’t; you’ll need a grasp of the show’s original plot (such as it was) before we fall to discussing the various tweaks and prods it got once it went to Hollywood. So, as quick-and-painless as I can make it, here goes:
Act I opens in the sleepy village of Custerville, Arizona, where the only excitement comes when somebody shoots the sheriff, which happens about every other week. Into this rides New York playboy Danny Churchill (Allen Kearns), in a taxicab driven by Gieber Goldfarb (Willie Howard) with $742.30 on the meter. Danny’s tycoon father, appalled at his girl-crazy Manhattan hijinks, has banished him to Custerville, where there isn’t a woman for 50 miles; Danny is to stay out of trouble by managing Buzzards, the family ranch. But there is a woman in town: Molly Gray (Ginger Rogers), the local postmistress, and Danny falls for her on sight. Homesick for the fast life, he decides to turn Buzzards into a dude ranch, and soon it’s a hot spot; among the tourists it attracts are gambler Slick Fothergill (William Kent) and his wife Kate (Ethel Merman). But it also brings Tess Harding, Danny’s old girlfriend, and Sam Mason, the guy Danny beat out for Tess’s affections. Sam decides to get Danny back by wooing Molly away, which, after the typical misunderstandings, he does, persuading her to go over the border with him to San Luz, Mexico. Meanwhile, another sheriff has been assassinated, and Gieber Goldfarb runs for the vacant office against local tough Lank Sanders. When he wins, he opts to decamp to San Luz himself to flee Lank’s wrath; Slick joins him, bringing two visiting girls along to keep them company. The Act I finale finds Danny dejected at his rift with Molly, Kate consoling him (not yet knowing that her husband has gone philandering to Mexico), and everybody else on their way to San Luz.
Act II finds half the population of Custerville in San Luz. Danny finds Molly, bids her farewell and wishes her all the best with Sam; only after he leaves does she realize her true feelings for him, and now she fears the knowledge has come too late. But when she learns that Sam has registered them at the local hotel as husband and wife, she realizes what a cad he is and runs to Danny’s arms. Outraged, Danny blurts a threat against Sam that returns to bite him when Sam is assaulted and robbed and Danny is accused of the crime. Meanwhile, Kate confronts her cheating husband. Eventually — jeez, let’s cut to the chase — Gieber exposes Lank and his henchman Pete as the men who robbed Sam, Kate and Slick reconcile, Danny and Molly are reunited, and everybody presumably lives happily ever after back in Custerville.
Girl Crazy was still going strong when it closed on June 6, 1931; producers Aarons and Freedley had been unable to persuade Willie Howard (who for some reason they considered indispensible) to sign on for a second season. In the meantime, the movie rights to the show had been sold to RKO Radio Pictures for $33,000.
And I think that’s about enough to digest for one session. When we come back, we’ll look at what happened when the show, like Danny Churchill himself, went west — not to sleepy Arizona, but all the way to the bustling environs of Tinsel Town.