SATIRE, COMMENT, AND SOPHISTICATION | The period prior to the Second World War is often associated with mindless musical comedies composed of silly situations and incongruous songs. It was, however, similarly and crucially characterized by an increasing number of serious-minded musical shows that found sharp, sophisticated dramatists integrating dialogue, song, staging, and dance to tell potent, prescient stories. Of Thee I Sing (1931), for instance, was a savage political satire by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and Ira and George Gershwin; The Cradle Will Rock (1937) was a searing social commentary by Marc Blitzstein; Pal Joey (1940) was a chic, cynical character study by John O’Hara, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, and George Abbott; and Lady in the Dark (1941) was a thrilling psychological exploration by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill. Among the other adventurous new works were Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and The Threepenny Opera (1933), a stunning musical statement by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill that premiered in Berlin in 1928 and emerged as a classic nearly 25 years later when newly translated for the American stage by Marc Blitzstein.
SOPHISTICATED REVUE | In the late 1920s, Broadway’s kaleidoscopic annual revues (e.g. Ziegfeld Follies, George White’s Scandals, etc.) gave way to a strikingly modern brand of episodic entertainment bursting with freshness, ingenuity, intelligence, and zest. Regarded by Herald Tribune critic Richard Watts, Jr. as “one of the most important forms of dramatic expression in the country,” the new sophisticated revue was instrumental in sharpening the content, stagecraft, and storytelling of the maturing musical stage, becoming an unparalleled playground for countless creative minds prior to its abrupt decline in the 1950s. The form’s most prominent practitioner was perhaps Howard Dietz, an expert lyricist and sketch writer who blazed a trail with such superbly routined, singularly stylized revues as The Little Show (1929), Three’s a Crowd (1930), and The Band Wagon (1931). His collaborators included George S. Kaufman, Arthur Schwartz, and Hassard Short.
In 1936, On Your Toes famously incorporated into its storytelling two groundbreaking ballets choreographed by George Balanchine, including a second act showstopper entitled “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” In 1940, Pal Joey incorporated into its own storytelling a similarly groundbreaking dream ballet choreographed by Robert Alton, closing the first act with a fantastical glimpse of the title character as the king of Chicago nightlife. These two modern musical comedies were both manufactured by legendary theatre artists George Abbott, Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers, with John O’Hara providing the libretto for the latter. Their integrated dance displays, in particular, were part of an important trend that intensified throughout the 1930s, bringing contemporary “concert dance” to the legitimate stage. One of the most significant drivers of this creative movement was revue, with the increasingly sophisticated style of entertainment having showcased the work of such trailblazing choreographers as Albertina Rasch, Harry Losee, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Agnes de Mille.
VENOM, HUMANITY, POWER, AND WIT | In the exceptionally tense space of time between the Jazz Age and the Second World War, the American drama dazzled. On Broadway, in particular, a sizable collection of new and established playwrights served up an endless succession of theatrical treasures, several of which were presented under the auspices of either the Group Theatre, the Playwrights’ Company, or the Theatre Guild. Outfitted with rich dialogue, robust characters, and revelatory infusions of venom, humanity, power, and wit, the most prominent new plays of the period included Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (1937), Robert E. Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight (1936), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939), Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story (1939), Paul Osborn’s On Borrowed Time (1938), Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (1939), and Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women (1936), a blissfully brutal satire that featured an all-female cast. But, it was Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s Life with Father (1939) and Jack Kirkland’s Tobacco Road (1933) that each played more than 3,000 performances to become two of the longest running productions in Broadway history.
MOSS HART AND GEORGE S. KAUFMAN | A legendary pair of fiercely theatrical sophisticates, both of whom proved similarly successful on the musical stage, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman dominated the impressive pre-war era with a string of sparkling entertainments like Once in a Lifetime (1930), You Can’t Take It with You (1936), and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). Kaufman separately coauthored such classics as The Royal Family (1927) and Dinner at Eight (1932), while helming the original Broadway productions of The Front Page (1928), Of Mice and Men (1937), and My Sister Eileen (1940).