Something for the Boys: The Last of the Red Hot Musicals
It was the biggest hit of the 1942-1943 season – for all of 83 days.
Cole Porter’s Something for the Boys opened on Jan. 7, 1943 to solid reviews and brisk business from the proverbial tired businessmen.
But then it was eclipsed by the musical that opened on March 31, 1943.
After the Rodgers and Hammerstein smash, all shows were compared to it. Was the score integrated? Did the songs help move the plot forward? Where’s your dream ballet?
Something for the Boys, however, was the last Broadway musical to not have these questions asked of it. It was just a good-time show, and if some of the plot was ridiculous, who cared as long as we were having fun? As Burns Mantle wrote in the Daily News, “It is a perfect sample of the sort of musical comedy entertainment that 98 per cent of the playgoing populace revels in.”
To fully appreciate the show, you’ll have to head to Musicals Tonight! now through May 13. Yes, there’s a 1944 movie version which retains much of the plot. But as was the case with film versions of Broadway musicals in those days, Hollywood bought the property and then had its way with it. The only song retained from Porter’s score was the title tune. Otherwise, there were half-dozen new songs by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson -- none of which can approach the level of what Porter had achieved.
This was the fifth show that Porter and Ethel Merman did together. No one knew it at the time, but this was another “last” for Something for the Boys: the two would never again work professionally, even though Porter would write seven more musicals and Merman would headline an additional five originals and one revival.
While Something for the Boys may be known for its lasts, one wonders if Mantle gave birth to the ultimate cliché that many drama critics have since used: “You had better run, not walk,” he urged theatergoers who weren’t at the Alvin Theatre box office.
So how good was it? Well, there was a ridiculous plot device involving a woman’s ability to pick up radio signals through the fillings in her teeth. What would bookwriters Herbert and Dorothy Fields have thought of had they been living in the era of fluoridated water?
With a plot point such as that, Something for the Boys couldn’t be expected to challenge Oklahoma!’s record-breaking run. But it did last, as they say in the fairy tales, a year and a day. We’d have a better sense of the show if we had an original cast album, but few in America had thought of making such a thing until Oklahoma! came along.
And yet, we can somewhat can hear how Merman fared on a quasi-original cast album that AEI Records released in 1985. For during the run, songs from Something for the Boys were broadcast over the airwaves for the Armed Forces. That was very much in keeping with the theme of the show.
On the broadcast, Merman sang the title song, the swinging “Hey, Good Lookin’” and led “There’s a Happy Land in the Sky.” Wonder how much that last-named lyric influenced her choice of a later husband who headed Continental Airlines?
Merman also got the chance to begin another beguine: “He’s a Right Guy” and soared through the jauntier “I’m in Love with a Soldier Boy” – even though she didn’t sing it in the show. (As I say, a quasi-original cast album.)
The B-section of “I’m in Love with a Soldier Boy” ends with a musical phrase that was later used in a song in – of all things! – Les Miserables. See – well, hear -- if you can spot it at Musicals Tonight!
The original cast album of The Decline and Fall of the Entire World of Cole Porter – easily one of my desert island discs – gave many of us the first opportunity to hear the heavenly “The Leader of a Big-Time Band.” You get it, too, on this radio broadcast disc – but, alas, only in the overture. It’s a delectable song, and you’ll want to hear the lyrics, which Musicals Tonight! will happily provide.
In 1997, the estimable 42nd St. Moon in San Francisco staged a revival of Something for the Boys, and recorded it too. This disc allowed me to discover one of my all-time favorite neglected show songs. Granted, the title “Announcement of Inheritance” may not be one that seems to sing, but the song is intoxicating.
It starts with Roger Calhoun, a lawyer, coming to visit Chiquita (née Florence) Hart, a night club singer. It only takes a moment for Chiquita to see that this straight-arrow is no Stage Door Johnny. As she tartly says, “If you’re from The Friendly Loan Company, our friendship is over.”
No, actually it’s good news. Chiquita’s Uncle Lou has died, and left her a third of 4,000 acres in Texas. The other two-thirds will be given to her cousins Harry Hart, a flim-flam man, and Blossom Hart, also an entertainer, but one who’s followed Rosie the Riveter by working in a factory to help the war effort.
All three will visit Texas and see the manse on the property. It’s not in great shape, but Blossom wants to do “something for the boys” who are stationed at the nearby airbase. The three renovate the house so that soldiers’ wives can have a place to stay when they visit their husbands.
Blossom, in fact, would like to change her status from owner-resident to wife-resident, for she’s become taken with Staff Sergeant Rocky Fulton, who falls for her, too. Unfortunately, Rocky had been keeping company with Melanie Walker, who is so jealous that she starts spreading the word that the house is actually a brothel. Thus, the musical could have been called The Best Little Mistaken Whorehouse in Texas.
And while I would have loved to have heard original casters Jed Prouty’s Calhoun, Paula Laurence’s Chiquita, Allen Jenkins’ Harry and of course Ethel Merman’s Blossom sing “Announcement of Inheritance,” I’m grateful to have the rendition by Bill Fahrner, Lesley Hamilton, Steven Patterson and Meg Mackay on the 42nd St. Moon album. Now I’ll look forward to catching Dan Debenport, Valerie Lynn Williams, Roger Rifkin and Lauren Elaine Taylor do it at Musicals Tonight!
By the way, “Announcement of Inheritance” is a song that moves the action forward. When it begins, none of the three knows about the good fortune about to arrive; at song’s end, all do. Could it be that while Rodgers and Hammerstein were readying Oklahoma! they saw Porter’s show and said, “Hey, isn’t that great how that song gets them from here to there?” For all we know, Porter might have done something for the boys. — Peter Filichia