Here’s a question many Broadway aficionados won’t be able to answer.
In 1946, when “Oklahoma!” became the longest running musical in Broadway history, it broke the 25-year record of what musical?
The answer: the musical Irene, which opened 102 years ago tonight. At 675 performances (just shy of two years), it held that record of distinction for twenty-five years until Oklahoma! came along and smashed it. That’s right, for more than a quarter century no musical ran longer than Irene, which sort of makes the current runs of Phantom of the Opera (thirty-three years) and Chicago (twenty-five) mind-bogglingly overwhelming in comparison, doesn’t it?
How did this particular show run so long when Anything Goes, Babes in Arms, and Showboat couldn’t manage it (to name three that came and went during that time)? At one time it purportedly had 17 road companies playing at once. And who were James Montgomery, Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy, the trio that wrote its book, music and lyrics? Let me give all that a try.
What Irene had to offer was a snappy score and a scrappy title character who audiences were quick to fall for. And with the plaintive ballad “Alice Blue Gown,” quickly recorded by just about anyone who was anyone, resulted in audiences humming a song going INTO the theatre. The story is simple and, in the wrong hands, would seem trite: young Alice O’Dare, an Irish immigrant and piano tuner, lives with her widowed mother on Manhattan’s West Side with dreams of becoming a dress designer. Through a series of events, she falls in love with a rich man who backs her; then splits with him when he makes demands she won’t accommodate; only to fall back in love again before the final curtain. When it opened, Alexander Woollcott, then critic for the New York Times offered sardonic praise when he wrote, “Broadway’s desperate plight, with only seventeen or eighteen musicals on view, was magnificently relieved last evening when a new one called Irene was rushed into the breach at the Vanderbilt Theatre.” And yes, there were already that many musicals on Broadway by November in the relatively new season of 1919–20. Would it surprise you to know that prior to the collapse of the economy during the Great Depression, it wasn’t uncommon for 250 shows to come in per season? As stated by writer Maura Spiegel: “The political punch and variety, and the rapidity with which Broadway shows went up and came down, was unlike anything seen today.”
To provide some evidence of what the original Irene might have sounded like, here’s a recording from 1920 of Edith Day (whom audiences adored) singing “Alice Blue Gown.” The whole show was recorded during its London run and it’s entirely possible it’s the first original cast recording of a musical comedy.
Irene was the sixth production staged at the Vanderbilt Theatre, which was located on West 48th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, before being demolished in 1954 (and naturally, was replaced with a six-story parking garage). Edith Day was all of twenty-three and already making a name for herself on Broadway and in early silent pictures. After opening Irene in London, she permanently relocated to Britain. Over the next two decades, she became known as the “Queen of the Drury Lane Theatre,” playing (among others) the title role in Rose Marie (1925), Margot in The Desert Song (1927), Magnolia in Show Boat (1928) and the title role of Rio Rita (1930).
The trio responsible for Irene never quite topped their biggest hit, thought each went on to other things with different collaborators. Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy composed the score and lyrics to Rio Ritain 1927, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, and received two film versions, one a remake in 1942 that starred Abbott and Costello. McCarthy would go on to write (with other composers) the great songs “You Made Me Love You” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” later incorporated into the heavily rewritten 1973 revival of Irene. Librettist James Montgomery was a prolific book writer of musicals as well as plays in the teens and twenties, though long forgotten today. But by the time of his death in 1966, he had fifteen Broadway shows to his credit, including Yes, Yes Yvette, a sort of sequel to No, No Nanette, though nowhere near as successful (it closed in a month).
In fact, it was the 1971 Broadway revival of No, No Nanette that made the 1973 revival of Irene possible. After a truly troubling rehearsal process (firings were as common as lint), Nanette came into town a smash hit. The fact that it came along while Hair, the self-described “American Tribal Love Rock Musical” was in its third year on Broadway and still going strong, was considered folly. But Harry Rigby, one of the producers that spearheaded it, was single-minded in his notion that backlash against rock made Nanette revivable. After being proven right, he desperately wanted another twenties hit to capitalize on the nostalgia craze that Nanette had created. It was his idea to nab Debbie Reynolds to make her long overdue Broadway debut, though at age forty-one, she was a little long in the tooth for the twenty-something title character. Audiences didn’t mind, however, and the show proved a delight, though its arduous trek to Broadway was just about as tortured as the one for Nanette.
The new Irene’s miscast director was the great classical actor Sir John Gielgud, whose knowledge of American musicals was tenuous at best, which resulted in his being given the boot in Philadelphia (at Miss Reynolds’ request, as the story goes). Gower Champion, a solid pro, was brought in and did a more than admirable job setting the ship right. Book writer Hugh Wheeler (responsible for that season’s A Little Night Music) was the first hired for the update, only to be replaced by the venerable Joseph Stein (both received credit) with an additional “Book from an adaptation by Harry Rigby,” the show’s producer, to make it even more of a credit-fest. Doing solid business its first year, mainly due to the novelty of Debbie Reynolds Broadway debut, it merited a prominent replacement once she exited when another former MGM film star, Jane Powell, took over the role. After an eighteen-month run, Powell then took the show on to a successful national tour.
Almost two‐thirds of the score heard in the Reynolds Irene was not in the original one that opened in 1919. Old unknown songs were dropped in favor of the aforementioned “You Made Me Love You” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” known tiles that featured lyricist McCarthy’s words. here New songs by Otis Clement and Charles Gaynor and Wally Harper and Jack Lloyd were added, the latter two responsible for a terrific “I Want” song to establish Irene’s character at the start of the show titled, “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue.” Here’s Barbara Cook’s recording of it from 2005, when she was a mere seventy-eight (still possessing the voice of an ingenue):
Though triumphing in the role, Debbie Reynolds’ Irene lost that year’s Tony to Glynis Johns’ Desire in A Little Night Music, which took home six trophies that evening. Irene’s sole award was for Featured Actor in a Musical, given to George S. Irving, for his hilarious turn as the phony French couturier, Madame Lucy. Clive Barnes (who otherwise didn’t much care for the show) wrote in his opening night review in the New York Times that “His Madame Lucy stole a show that was never guarded as closely as it might have been.” Having come into the show out of town on quick notice to replace an ailing Billy De Wolfe, who would die a year after Irene opened, Irving was, at the time, a veteran of twenty-two Broadway plays and musicals extending over a thirty-year period — astonishing! With his first credit going back as far as a member of the chorus in the original Oklahoma!, Irving’s ovation from the Tony audience that evening was a huge one and richly deserved.
Also of note is that the 1973 Irene was the inaugural production of the brand new Minskoff Theatre on West 45th Street, current home to The Lion King, by far and away its longest running tenant since it moved from the New Amsterdam in 2006. As far as esthetics go, the Minskoff is not anyone’s idea of an intimate or cozy theatre (which is putting it kindly). And judging from this dismal photo, it makes it seem like the owners ran out of money and skimped on the marquee for its grand opening. Sad.
Before closing, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t offer an example of Debbie Reynolds lovely singing of “Alice Blue Gown,” recorded fifty-three years after Edith Day’s. And yes, for authenticity’s sake, Ms. Reynolds went with an Irish brogue. 😊
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.