By Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman
It's the end of the Roaring Twenties and Tin Pan Alley—a small street of songwriters and publishers in New York's West 20s—provided the musical accompaniment to the era. Aspiring lyricist Fred Stevens ventures from Schenectady to the Big City, because "that's where they got the Mecca for a man if he's got the song-writing gift." On the train to New York, he meets a sweet young girl named Edna, who falls for him: "I love to have a man love their mother," she coos. Young Stevens has more enthusiasm than talent, however, and he gets swept up the fads and foibles of the song-writing business. His composing partner, Paul Sears, is having problems with his own marriage and his sister-in-law, Eileen, turns her digging sights on Fred after he and Paul have a minor hit with a song, "June Moon." Sudden fame and fortune go to Fred's relatively empty head, until he realizes that he and Edna are meant for each other—like "June" and "moon." Serving as 24-bar Greek chorus is Fred's friend and mentor, Maxie, Tin Pan Alley's resident song-plugging genius and cupid, who remarks about the song "June Moon": "It's a tune that's easy to remember, but if you should forget it, it wouldn't make any difference."
About the play:
June Moon is, sadly, Kaufman's only play with his fellow Round Table member and humorist Ring Lardner. Kaufman admired Lardner's 1921 Saturday Evening Post short story called "Some Like It Cold," in which Fred Stevens' adventures as a Tin Pan Alley lyricist are recalled in a series of letters to his girlfriend, Edna. Lardner, one of America's most successful humorists and journalists, was initially reluctant to participate in adapting another of his works for a Broadway show, having had several previous unpleasant experiences. But, perhaps seduced by the opportunity to write the music and lyrics for a few clever Tin Pan Alley pastiches, he succumbed.
The out-of-town tryout in Atlantic City was bumpy and the script was incomplete; "I'm down here with an act," remarked Lardner upon encountering a friend on the boardwalk. But, by its Broadway opening, Kaufman and Lardner had created a unique blend of their respective skills: Kaufman's craftsmanship and gift for characterization combined with Lardner's surreal wordplay and cynical world view. No other play—or musical—of the period takes such accurate aim at the banal bromides pitched at the American public by the worst kinds of popular song. Indeed, June Moon implies that anyone can write a hit song—provided they employ the lowest common denominator. Typical is one moment at Goebel's Music Publishing firm, when, in the middle of a song demonstration, one character after another bolts into the next studio to catch a glimpse of the godlike George Gershwin. "He stole my rhapsody!" shouts one envious hack composer.
June Moon was the last major comedy to open on Broadway before the Stock Market Crash. It had its premiere on October 9, 1929 at the Broadhurst and ran 249 performances. A filleted screen version starring Jack Oakie appeared in 1931, and the material largely vanished from the public eye until Burt Shevelove adapted it for PBS in 1974. With an impressive cast, consisting of Jack Cassidy, Susan Sarandon, Estelle Parsons, and Stephen Sondheim, making his television dramatic debut as Maxie, the program received much critical acclaim. The Drama Department, an Off-Off-Broadway company, revived it in 1996 in a well-regarded production that moved to an Off-Broadway theater for a brief run.
Cast size: 7 men, 5 women (One man can be cut); 3 sets
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There is a mean edge to it that is uncharacteristic of Kaufman's work with his other collaborators. It doesn't slash with the broad, ruthless, side-splitting strokes of the great Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur farce, 'The Front Page.' Rather, it has the structure of the kind of boy-girl romantic comedies its title suggests, but there is one large difference: virtually everybody in it is dangerously flawed, if not rotten to the core. Why then is 'June Moon' so funny? It's as sentimental as cyanide; its skepticism is exhilarating. In addition, the characters, in spite of their thick skins, small minds and all of their furious double-dealing, remain naked and thus vulnerable from beginning to end.
--Vincent Canby, New York Times, review of "June Moon," 1997
One of Kaufman's wittiest plays—perfect for theater groups with limited resources—a small show with big laughs.