I'd Rather Be Right (1937)
Book by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Music by Richard Rodgers
Attending the annual Fourth of July concert in Central Park, young Phil Smith and Peggy Jones can't quite transcend the day's bad news—Phil hadn't got the raise he had been expecting. The couple wants to get married—if only they knew if President Roosevelt were going to balance the budget, that would be a big help. As if on cue, FDR himself enters and offers to give the youngsters whatever help he can. He calls in his Cabinet and asks Phil to sing "Have You Met Miss Jones?" to them as a way of enlisting their help as well. Soon, an entire parade of New Deal characters and programs—including the Federal Theatre Project—tromp through Central Park, all summoned to either support or criticize FDR. At the end of the day, FDR can't promise to balance the budget for Phil and Peggy, but suggests they marry any way—the country will survive and so will they.
About the Play:
Although Kaufman had satirized the presidency before, never had any playwright gone so far as to make a sitting president the leading character in a full-length satirical musical. Kaufman and Hart teamed for the only time with Rodgers and Hart (no relation), who had already two hits on the boards that season—Babes in Arms and On Your Toes. Adding the high anticipation among Broadway audiences for the show was the star performance of George M. Cohan, coming out of retirement as a singing/dancing Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Cohan's personal politics were highly critical of FDR, and he was professionally quite critical of Rodgers and Hart's score—although it yielded the standard "Have You Met Miss Jones?")
The satire was non-stop; the president was summarily chided for his attempt to pack the Supreme Court (all nine pop out of the bushes to shout down FDR every time he proposes a new law), his failure to balance the budget, his ambition for a third term, even his frequent browbeating at the hands of his overbearing mother. (Kaufman and Company were clever enough to leave Eleanor off-stage for the evening.)
All aspects of the WPA came under the fire and it was perhaps inevitable when the Wagner Act actually appeared on-stage--as a German vaudeville team. The high profiles of the creative staff, plus the electric performance of George M. Cohan, made the show the hit of the season, even with—or perhaps because of—its sentimental closing speech, which had FDR rallying America with a fireside chat.
I'd Rather Be Right opened on November 2, 1937 at the Alvin Theater, where it ran 290 performances. Moviegoers may be familiar with the patter song "Off The Record," performed by James Cagney as Cohan in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy. It has never been revived in a full production, but in 1995, a concert version was produced at Arena Stage in Washington DC with a cast that included Edward Herrmann as FDR, David Garrison and Lauren Mitchell as Phil and Peggy, Kitty Carlisle Hart as FDR's mother, and members of the Senate, Congress, and the Clinton Cabinet as other characters in the show.
7 men, 3 women, plus a large ensemble. One set.
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ROOSEVELT: (To the CABINET)
Now then, I'm open for suggestions. How are we going to balance the budget? (He looks around the table, hopefully)
SECRETARY OF THE NAVY: (Belligerently)
Can't cut the Navy!
SECRETARY OF COMMERCE:
Mustn't touch Commerce!
Don't look at me!
Now, gentlemen, that wasn't what I meant at all. All I meant was—what new taxes can you think of?
(Great relief all around, naturally. "Well!" . . . "Why didn't you say so?" . . . "That's different!")
FARLEY: (Rubbing his hands)
Hot dog! New taxes, boys! Wheeee!
This tuneful, hilarious spoof of FDR is not only a brilliant look at New Deal politics, but the first full-length musical to feature a sitting president.