Of Thee I Sing
Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
It's a presidential election year: bachelor presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen—who "hopes to run a good clean campaign without any mention of an issue"—is set up by his handlers to run on the "love" platform; Wintergreen will propose to the winner of a nationwide beauty contest and marry her if he wins the White House. Unfortunately, Wintergreen spurns the piquant Southern bombshell, Diana Devereaux, who wins the contest for the no-nonsense contest organizer, Mary Turner. Once the Wintergreens are married and successfully ensconced in the White House, Devereaux turns all her considerable powers to suing the new president for "breach of promise." Even the French Ambassador arrives on the scene to threaten war, if the president doesn't honor his word. Complications for the president and First Lady, as the saying goes, ensue, until love triumphs in the end.
About the Play:
Kaufman and co-librettist Morrie Ryskind had worked with the Gershwins before, on the 1927 political satire, Strike Up the Band. A failure in its first incarnation, the show was heavily revised by Ryskind and became a hit in 1930. Kaufman and Ryskind wanted to work on a new show, again with the Gershwin, and the satirical spirit of their new vehicle was also abetted--although they might have wished otherwise--by the Depression. By late 1930, the nation's spirits were such that they could be buoyed by sheer escapism or roused to bitter laughter by incisive sarcasm, and their new show provided both. By the time the show opened on Broadway (after what appears to have been an effortless Boston tryout), it was simply a triumph. Of Thee I Sing was the perfect tonic to Depression-era woes. The show's biggest running joke is the utter ineffectuality of its non-entity Vice-President Alexander Throttlebottom. Tutoring his naive protégé, Throttlebottom, on the subtleties of the presidency, Wintergreen reminds him that "The first four years are easy. You don't do anything except try to get re-elected... The next four years you wonder why the hell you wanted to be re-elected." He further counsels him that a president only makes a speech when he wants the stock market to go down. "What do you do when you want the market to go up?" asks the Vice-President. "Boy," Wintergreen replies, fairly falling on Throttlebottom's neck, "wouldn't I like to know!"
Of Thee I Sing had the longest run for any original Gershwin show; was acclaimed by the critics for being the first intelligent musical comedy; was the first musical to be published (by Knopf) in book form; and was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Infamously, the prize was awarded only to Ira, Kaufman, and Ryskind. George Gershwin was left out, because the prize was considered to be a "literary" honor--an oversight partially redressed by this year's honorary Pulitzer Prize to Gershwin. By the time the show was nearly a year into its run, FDR had been elected and his command of the issues, his honesty with the American people, and his bold social and economic had programs rendered much of the satire moot. Kaufman and Co. were quite savvy in deftly not mentioning the names of any political parties in the musical. It keeps the show timeless, in a way, but then again, what really keeps the show timeless is the absurdity of participatory democracy.
Of Thee I Sing opened at the Music Box Theatre on December 26, 1931 and ran for 441 performances. It was followed by a sequel in 1933, Let 'Em Eat Cake. Although it was optioned for the movies (apparently for the Marx Brothers), it was never filmed and not revived until 1952, when Kaufman and Ira Gershwin rewrote some of the script for an ill-advised production reset in the early 1950s. A reduced television version appeared on CBS in 1972, starring Carroll O'Connor and Jack Gilford, but the full score was not heard until 1987, when the Brooklyn Academy of Music produced a concert evening where both Of Thee I Sing and its sequel were performed under the baton of Michael Tilson-Thomas. This evening was expertly recorded by Sony. The first New York version in a half-century opened at the City Center's ENCORES! series in May of 2006 to rave reviews for a production starring Victor Garber and Jefferson Mays..
22 men, 17 women; doubling possible
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Of Thee I Sing is not only coherent and well-knit enough to class as a play, but it is a biting and true satire on American politics and the public attitude towards them... The play is genuine and it is felt the Pulitzer Prize could not serve a better purpose than to recognize such work.
--1932 Pulitzer Prize Committee
Of Thee I Sing is the sharpest, wittiest, and by all odds the most salubrious cathartic applied to American customs and morals that the stage, whether dramatic or musical, has offered us in an unnecessarily long time. With it, further, I believe that the American musical comedy enters at length upon a new, original, and independent lease of life.
--George Jean Nathan , 1932
This merry cocktail was stirred way back in 1931, by George and Ira Gershwin in collaboration with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. It's a trenchant little musical satire called "Of Thee I Sing" baby, and it's one of the silliest and yet most sublime things on a New York stage right now... What's that old saw about satire closing on Saturday night, Mr. Kaufman? The laughter that greets the show today is tinged with surprise at how eerily some of its jokes seem to take precise aim, from decades back, at current affairs. A chorus of reporters sings to the new president of the "17 vacations you have had since you've been here". A politician dismisses Lincoln's pronouncement about not being able to fool all of the people all the time by remarking: "It's different nowadays. People are bigger suckers."... Even as this jubilant production reminds us of what has been lost in the craft of the musical, it serves as a sigh-inducing argument for the enduring follies of American politics. In Washington, where the country's political discourse is scripted, it seems they do still make 'em like that. Isn't it a pity the Gershwins aren't around to provide a diverting score for the midterm elections?
--Charles Isherwood, New York Times, 5/11/06