Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Special Dance Party: Goodnight Irene!

Most of us on the East Coast have been preoccupied with Hurricane Irene, and with just about everything shut down, we are all spending Saturday Night hunkered down, waiting for the lights to go out or the roof to fly away. Well, as long as we're all stuck here at home on a Saturday Night, why not offer an impromptu Dance Party?

There can be no other topic for this Very Special Episode of the Friday Dance Party (even on a special night!) than this:

Irene was a musical which made its Broadway debut in 1919; it became the longest running show (at 675 performances. Broadway was still pretty young back then), a title it held for almost 20 years. The show created a star out of leading lady Edith Day, who went on to repeat her role in London, and then become one of that city's premier musical actresses. Irene should be remembered for placing a veiled gay character at its center, a flamboyant dress designer provocatively called Madam Lucy. Many years later, Irene should also be remembered as the Broadway debut of Debbie Reynolds.
Irene's cast included film clown Patsy Kelley, on the right, and All My Children icon (and Citizen Kane vet) Ruth Warrick, on the left. Broadway stalwart George S. Irving, upper right, won his only Tony for this performance.

Irene's stars Irving and Reynolds died a few days apart,
in December, 2016.
In 1971, encouraged by the smash revival of another hit from the 20s, No, No Nanette, somebody had the great idea to dig up and dust off Irene. The production had lots of trouble on the road. Billy DeWolfe, hired to play Madam Lucy, had to withdraw due to ill health (he was replaced by show killer George S. Irving, who nevertheless went on to win the Tony for his performance), but that was the least of the problems. In their infinite wisdom, the producers placed this lightweight piece of musical comedy fluff in the hands of (are you ready?) John Gielgud. The Shakespearean titan had never directed a musical, and was a disaster. Despite its trouble, the show was selling out in Philadelphia, on the strength of Reynolds's name, so when she came down with laryngitis, one of the most notorious of all musical theatre performances took place. Instead of cancelling the sold-out performance, Debbie went onstage and mouthed her words, with Gielgud reading her dialogue from offstage.

It was little wonder that Sir John was replaced by Gower Champion, and book doctors were called in to overhaul the show (one of the great librettists of the century, Joseph Stein, had a hand in the revisions, a point I mentioned when I wrote of Stein's death). In the end, only a handful of the original tunes remained, the score was augmented by other songs from the period, and some new ones written by Charles Gaynor and Otis Clements.

Irene limped into New York in March of 1973, where the New York Times proclaimed it "the best 1919 musical in town." Much was made of the fact that Reynolds, who had substantial musical comedy credentials in film, was making a belated Broadway debut, and the show turned into a financial success.

In honor of Hurricane Irene, and the barely remembered musical which also bears the name, here is the best known number from the show. It is actually one of those tunes added to the revival, it does not appear in the original score. Here, Debbie Reynolds does a swell job of bringing some personal charisma to a song which is, let's face it, always tied to Judy Garland. But hey, we're all here on a Saturday night, waiting out the storm. Why not let a Hollywood legend entertain us?