A Political Musical Whose Time Has Come—-Again

posted at 3:31 pm on January 5, 2014 by Jeff Dunetz

Of Thee I Sing, a musical that first appeared on Broadway over eighty years ago is long over due for a Broadway revival.

One of the most biting political satires ever written, Of Thee I Sing was the first successful American musical with a consistently satiric tone. It was so satirical, the writers of the play and the cast were unsure of what the public’s reception would be, prompting one of the writers of the book, George S. Kaufman, to quip “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”

Written at the beginning of the great depression, Of Thee I Sing lampoons a political system too tied up in personalities and silly little issues to fix the country’s economy and of how a completely gullible American people can be controlled at the hands of a good media spin (sound familiar?).

The creative team behind the musical was a Broadway All-Star team.  The book was written by George S. Kaufman (You Can’t Take it With You) and Morrie Ryskind. The team’s previous collaboration was Animal Crackers, a Broadway musical written for the Marx Brothers (Ryskind went on to write many of the Marx Brothers movies). George and Ira Gershwin wrote music and lyrics.  George Gershwin was perhaps America’s greatest composer, writing everything from musicals, to opera, to classical music and ballet.   Ira Gershwin is one of the American musical’s greatest lyricists, who wrote for both stage and screen (including the original A Star is Born).

Of Thee I Sing was the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Unfortunately though the score is an essential part of the play, the Pulitzer committee did not recognize George Gershwin.

The play tells the story of presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen,” he’s the man the people choose, loves the Irish and the Jews.” For Vice President the choice is Alexander Throttlebottom, a man best known for gaffes who throughout the play keeps trying to get into meetings and rallies, but gets thrown out because no one knows who he is.

Thanks to political bosses Louis Lippman and Francis X. Gilhooley, newspaper magnate Matthew Arnold Fulton, Senators Carver Jones and Robert E. Lyons – Wintergreen’s chosen platform was selected to avoid political controversy, ending up with the “love platform.”  The party bosses also decide that Wintergreen should get married, so they hold a beauty pageant to select a bride for him. The winner is the sultry southern belle Diana Deveraux.

Unfortunately the candidate throws a wrench into the plans when he falls in love with the all-American Mary Turner whose major qualification is, well, “some girls can make a pie made up of prunes and quinces, some make an oyster fry others are good at blintzes, some lovely girls have done wonders with turkey stuffings but I have found the one who could really make corn muffins.”

Wintergreen and his Mary win the election but immediately after the inauguration/wedding, Ms. Deveraux shows up to tell her story of winning the contest and being jilted by the new President. The Supreme Court is called in to decide between corn muffins and justice. Thankfully the Court decides, “corn muffins are more important.”

Of Thee I Sing is merciless in the way it attacks all American institutions, the nine members of the Supreme Court care more about politics than justice, the Senators care more about petty local politics than doing their jobs, and the political operatives don’t give a rat’s ass about what the country needs. They only care about public opinion and maintaining power.

Some things never change.

The least sympathetic character is the French Ambassador, even back then (as Al Bundy once said) everyone hated the French.  The Ambassador escalates the Diana Deveraux scandal, bursting into the White House demanding retribution for the affront to France.  It seems that the sultry Deveraux is “the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon.”

France is not happy, so to placate the French, the political operatives decide to have the President impeached. But just as the Senate is going through its roll call, in bursts the First Lady who announces she’s expecting.  Since no expecting President has ever been impeached the impeachment is called off (she ends up with twins–it was the politically expedient thing to do).

And what of Ms Deveraux? Vice-President Throttlebottom reminds us, when the President is not able to fulfill his duty, that obligation is taken over by the Vice-President.

In the end everyone is happy, the President has his Mary (and corn muffins).

Of Thee I Sing is a special play because it really connected with the mood of America during the first part of the depression. A mood similar to today a feeling that our government was run by a bunch of well-meaning fools, who get  tied up in their own underwear trying to get anything done. Over and above the great music, comedy and biting satire, the element that worked best was a sense of optimism; a feeling that however bad things got eventually things would turn out fine.

That optimism is uniquely American.

Two years after Of Thee I Sing opened the same exact all-star team of producers, writers, actors, etc. wrote a sequel called Let Them Eat Cake, which failed because was it was much darker and more pessimistic than the original.

Of Thee I Sing was revived a few times, a planned movie version starring the Marx Brothers never came together (thank God), there was even a dreadful TV version starring Carroll O’ Connor (it was the musical comedy equivalent of the Star Wars Christmas Special), but it was never brought back at the right time.  This classic of American theater works best during a time when the country is in economic and political distress, at a time when the country looks for entertainment poking fun at what they are going through while understanding that as bad as things get, in the end everything will be just fine. A time like now

Below for your enjoyment is a recording of the impeachment scene from the original 1931 cast.

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A Political Musical Whose Time Has Come—-Again

posted at 3:31 pm on January 5, 2014 by jeffdunetz

….who are you?

KOOLAID2 on January 5, 2014 at 3:37 PM

(:->)

KOOLAID2 on January 5, 2014 at 3:38 PM

….who are you?

KOOLAID2 on January 5, 2014 at 3:37 PM

Drummer for The Who?

VegasRick on January 5, 2014 at 3:39 PM

….who are you?

KOOLAID2 on January 5, 2014 at 3:37 PM

Drummer for The Who?

VegasRick on January 5, 2014 at 3:39 PM

Bob Etheridge

22044 on January 5, 2014 at 3:44 PM

I think they should bring back 1968′s “How To Steal An Election”.

graydo on January 5, 2014 at 3:48 PM

mood similar to today a feeling that our government was run by a bunch of well-meaning fools, who get tied up in their own underwear trying to get anything done.

Actually, this sounds like an ideal scenario to me. The less they “get done” the better off we are. Anytime DC “gets something done” 9 times out of 10 they’ve actually broken something that did not need a federal “fix”.

Difficultas_Est_Imperium on January 5, 2014 at 4:01 PM

Of Thee I Sing was revived a few times, a planned movie version starring the Marx Brothers never came together (thank God), there was even a dreadful TV version starring Carroll O’ Connor (it was the musical comedy equivalent of the Star Wars Christmas Special), but it was never brought back at the right time.

Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who collaborated with Kaufman and Ryskind on “Animal Crackers” would give the Marxes their proper political forum in 1933 with “Duck Soup”, which includes the musical lines of newly-install national leader Groucho singing:

The country’s taxes must be fixed/
and I know what to do with it/
If you think you’re paying too much now/
just wait ’till I get through with it.

Liberals of today may still love Groucho. But I’ll bet they don’t like having to explain why that line’s still funny 80 years after the fact.

(Pretty much all of those associated with “Animal Crackers” and “Of Thee I Sing” would have been considered political liberals in the late 1920s/early 30s. But liberalism then was different from post-FDR liberalism, and the two plays’ co-author, Morrie Ryskind, in fact would end up as a conservative political columnist by the 1960s.)

jon1979 on January 5, 2014 at 4:01 PM

Enjoyed this article!

I’d only vaguely heard about this musical and didn’t know the particulars of the story line. Sounds like it would be an awesome remake for today. But of course you know if they did make this today, the filmmakers would somehow make the presidential candidate recognizably “Republican” in various ways. He’d be controlled by cartoonish corporate fat cats who want to rape the earth and kill Grandma, and the laugh would end up being on them, instead of where it should be—on the stupidity and cynicism of politics and on the idiotic Americans who buy all the image-making garbage of the kind they swallowed back in 2008.

ThanksMo on January 5, 2014 at 4:03 PM

Written at the beginning of the great depression, Of Thee I Sing lampoons a political system too tied up in personalities and silly little issues to fix the country’s economy
==========================================

Written at the beginning of the great depression, Of Thee I Sing lampoons a political system too tied up in personalities and silly little issues to fix the country’s economy and of how a completely gullible American people can be controlled at the hands of a good media spin (sound familiar?)
============================

H*lls/Bells,…its the Barry Soetoro Show!!!

canopfor on January 5, 2014 at 4:07 PM

Bob Etheridge

22044 on January 5, 2014 at 3:44 PM

Scumbag. I wish he would have grabbed me like that. “Sir, if you don’t take your hands off of me NOW I am going to assume we are having a physical altercation and I will act accordingly”.

VegasRick on January 5, 2014 at 4:11 PM

Bob Etheridge

22044 on January 5, 2014 at 3:44 PM

…that was a good one!….he should have bopped Bobby in the mouth!

KOOLAID2 on January 5, 2014 at 4:12 PM

Obama’s book?

kcewa on January 5, 2014 at 4:20 PM

That optimism is uniquely American.

Two years after Of Thee I Sing opened the same exact all-star team of producers, writers, actors, etc. wrote a sequel called Let Them Eat Cake, which failed because was it was much darker and more pessimistic than the original.
=============================


Broadway Opening Premier in 2016,

Starring Michelle OMama OBama,

in,

Let Them Bitter Clingers Eat Cake.

canopfor on January 5, 2014 at 4:21 PM

The problem with things like this is that those who hate this country see it as justification for that hatred … That is why we have a President who was elected to “fundamentally transform America” by Executive Order

TimLenox on January 5, 2014 at 4:21 PM

Bob Etheridge

22044 on January 5, 2014 at 3:44 PM

22044:

The name didn’t ring a bell, how ever as soon as I had
seen him walking, it flooded back.

And that is another thought, and I’m gonna say it.

The last five or so years has been Taxing/Draining/Saturation of/
Totally Fed Up/DeMoralizing/And Sick of His Sh*t/,,,and an endless
thesaurus pile of wording!

Yes, the Obamas are draining everything in sight, and especially
AMERICA!

On the bright-side, there another two-three years yet to go!!

canopfor on January 5, 2014 at 4:29 PM

A mood similar to today a feeling that our government was run by a bunch of well-meaning fools

,

Ah, yes, the point at which the case falls apart. This is where it fell apart with Mitt Romney, and continues to fall apart with every republican working in politics today. It’s the fallacy too big to fail.

They are not well-meaning, nor are they fools. They’re malicious and determined enemies.

rrpjr on January 5, 2014 at 4:32 PM

Obama’s Version

kcewa on January 5, 2014 at 4:34 PM

….who are you?

KOOLAID2 on January 5, 2014 at 3:37 PM

He is yidwithlid

OmahaConservative on January 5, 2014 at 4:52 PM

OmahaConservative on January 5, 2014 at 4:52 PM

…thanks OC…you ok?

KOOLAID2 on January 5, 2014 at 5:09 PM

…thanks OC…you ok?

KOOLAID2 on January 5, 2014 at 5:09 PM

I’m OK, but my sister isn’t doing too well. Continue the prayers, please…

OmahaConservative on January 5, 2014 at 5:37 PM

OMG YES!!!! I sent this to the artistic director of our community theater. This would be so fun.

LL

Lady Logician on January 5, 2014 at 6:03 PM

George Gershwin was a genius.

vityas on January 5, 2014 at 6:20 PM

Written at the beginning of the great depression, Of Thee I Sing lampoons a political system too tied up in personalities and silly little issues controlled by Socialists and other assorted criminals to fix purposely destroying the country’s economy and of how a completely gullible American people can be controlled at the hands of a good media spin (sound familiar?).

Yes, I’d love to see it!

Of course the children’s CGI animated version will have at least one fart gag included.

Dr. ZhivBlago on January 5, 2014 at 6:29 PM

Below for your enjoyment is a recording of the impeachment scene from the original 1931 cast.

I seriously doubt that’s a recording of the 1931 cast, unless it was for a 30th anniversary recording. Peter Goldmark of CBS didn’t release a hi-fidelity LP disc until 1948.

DarthBrooks on January 5, 2014 at 11:17 PM

DarthBrooks on January 5, 2014 at 11:17 PM

I’ll bet you don’t believe that FDR gave a speech on TV the day after the Great Stock Market Crash, either! /s

GWB on January 6, 2014 at 9:13 AM

“..the Senator who’s from Alaska…”?

A prophetic musical! (They were singing in 1931. Alaska became a state — and got senators — in 1959.) Maybe this was part of the joke; you didn’t even have to be a state to get senators, as long as the name rhymed.

acasilaco on January 6, 2014 at 2:31 PM