When Of Thee I Sing was first staged in 1931 at the height of the Depression, it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its gang of pompous, Senator Packwood-style legislators who wave cigars and ogle the young ladies as overtly as they can.
Plus a change . . . Watching this creaky show, presented at Grand Canyon University as the finale in this season's Ethington Theatre Series, is a then-and-now experience. With music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, and book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, Of Thee I Sing is how they used to make musicals, what audiences used to find charming and funny. The show also satirizes politics without being vicious--an unimaginable point of view in 1994. Aside from the lampooned politicians, however--always a timely topic--the show carries its burden of nostalgia too wearily to resurrect itself.
The play starts out with an assortment of kingmakers plotting to get their man in the White House, and even half a century later, these scenes are funny--as I watched them, I found myself wishing that political satire were more popular. But once the traditional musical comedy form kicks in, even George and Ira couldn't save the day with their standards "Who Cares?", "Love Is Sweeping the Country" and the title tune. The two romantic leads--President Wintergreen and his new First Lady--aren't given a whole lot of characterization, so they spend most of their time warbling at each other with dewy eyes in the annoying tradition of Victor Herbert.
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I suspect the show would defy revival at all if it weren't for the comic relief of the second male lead, Vice President Throttlebottom. It's the kind of character Danny Kaye or Donald O'Connor always got to play--the simpleminded innocent who never quite catches on and always gets the laughs. And in these days of ethnic sensitivity, it was a trip down memory lane to snicker at the caricature of the French ambassador, prancing around in a beret and speaking with a haughty accent. Like Speedy Gonzales and Charlie Chan, national stereotypes aren't something you see much anymore.
Now that every viable musical has been revived to death in road shows with aging musical stars and by community theatres showcasing earnest casts of thousands, putting life back into what has always been a form of slender substance remains a challenge. My Fair Lady, Carousel and Damn Yankees are all back on Broadway now with fresh, successful stagings; other revivals have found audiences by updating the material, or ignoring the march of time completely and assuming people still want to see a straightforward rendition of The Sound of Music or Hello, Dolly!.
But Of Thee I Sing is simply too dated to present as is, and can't be modified a lot without changing the show's essence. It needs a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek camp to keep it going--overloaded glitz, nifty tap-dancing, gaudy outfits and other such amenities which this production at Grand Canyon University couldn't provide. Gershwin's music, always brassy and inherently orchestral, wasn't showcased well with only a piano in the pit for accompaniment. Some musicals can be done on the cheap and keep their charm, but Of Thee I Sing isn't one of them.
Just the same, the thought was never far from my mind that musicals and political satire are intriguingly compatible. Given the never-ending soap opera in the fin de siäcle White House we now enjoy, there's got to be a show that current audiences would enjoy just as much as those theatregoers in 1931 liked Of Thee I Sing.