WHEN SHAKESPEARE MET JAZZ
September 4, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Only the most devoted of theatre fans will have heard about a long-forgotten musical that opened eighty-one years ago at the long-gone Center Theatre. Located at 6th Avenue and West 49th Street, across from Radio City Music Hall, the Center seated 3,700 people, which for a little perspective was twice the capacity of the current largest theatre on Broadway — the Gershwin — where Wicked has played since 2003. The Center was so big it didn’t play home to many Broadway shows, but Swingin’ the Dream was something special and very ambitious for its time. It was a jazz-infused, fully integrated version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, updated to 1890 New Orleans.
White actors played the aristocrats like Dorothy McGuire (Helena) and Ruth Ford (Polly/Hippolyta), and the comic roles by the black actors. Among them were the immortal trumpeter Louis Armstrong as Bottom; bluesy-jazz singer Maxine Sullivan as Titania, the Dandridge Sisters (one of whom would become the future film star Dorothy of Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess fame), the groundbreaking comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley as Quince, and Butterfly McQueen (Prissy in Gone with the Wind) as Puck. Among the array of musicians who contributed were Count Basie and Benny Goodman (who performed nightly with such greats as Fletcher Henderson on piano and Lionel Hampton on the vibraharp), and the production’s wild scenic design was based on Walt Disney cartoons. Some of the trick scenery included microphones (necessary in the cavernous Center Theatre) hidden in the shapes of caterpillars and snails.
The choreography was by Agnes DeMille (who would change musical theatre forever with her dances for Oklahoma! a few years later), and its score mixed then-contemporary hits like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Jeepers Creepers” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” side by side with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from his 1842 Midsummer Night’s Dream. There was original material, too, with “Darn That Dream,” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie De Lange, going on to become a standard.
And with all that… Swingin’ the Dream ran for thirteen performances.
The thinking at the time was to capitalize on recent successes that had helped turn Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors into the Rodgers and Hart hit musical The Boys from Syracuse, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s faux-Japanese operetta into The Hot Mikado, which transferred its action to Harlem in the 1930s with an all-black cast. But for a variety of reasons, Swingin’ the Dream didn’t come close to repeating those shows in audience popularity. For one thing, it was a behemoth, boasting a cast of one hundred (yup — one hundred). For another, unlike those two, the critics were most unkind.
Swingin’ the Dream has aroused the curiosity of theatre historians for the better part of four-score-and-one year ago for a number of reasons. For one thing, there was Louis-freaking-Armstrong in a Broadway musical! That never happened again. With no significant recording made of the show, and its script lost forever, there’s no question it’s a long time to cry over spilled milk. But from what’s been pieced together, it appears that the show relied a lot more on Shakespeare than one might have initially expected, apparently to its detriment. The reviews on the whole pointed out how Swingin’ the Dream adhered too closely to Midsummer’s original storytelling, and perhaps Brooks Atkinson had the right idea when in his New York Times review, he suggested it may have done better “by forgetting Shakespeare altogether.” Citing the lack of focus and grab bag aspect of the show, Atkinson closed by calling it “an uneven show that represents a good idea indifferently exploited.” And Richard Watts, then of the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that “it proves to be just a series of good night-club turns, tossed rather carelessly together to no good end.”
The show’s book was by Gilbert Seldes, a well-regarded writer and cultural critic (and father of the Tony Award winning actress Marian Seldes). His Swingin’ the Dream co-author was Erik Charell, who also served as its producer and director. Charell, a German-born artist with a fine eye (he would later retire and become a renowned art collector), had in the previous season, produced another extravaganza at the Center Theatre, White Horse Inn. It was an enormous show, but as opposed to Swingin’ the Dream, an enormous hit. First produced in London (1931), Charell successfully brought it to Paris, Broadway, and then the world over. And just for the fun of it, White Horse Inn was the first musical the eight-year old Stephen Sondheim ever saw (and if you read somewhere that it’s The Boys from Syracuse, that information is incorrect). He told me so himself. 😊
1939 was a heady time for Broadway. Just take this partial list of shows that appeared on the same page of the New York Times as Atkinson’s November 30th review of Swingin’ the Dream:
Not only is there the matter of taking in that Swingin’ the Dream boasted a “$2.20 TOP,” but also (just for the asking) there were Paul Muni, Helen Hayes, Gertrude Lawrence, Tallulah Bankhead (in The Little Foxes, no less), Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson in the longest running revue in Broadway history, Hellzapoppin; James Barton in Tobacco Road (the second-longest run for a straight play ever) and the original cast of Life with Father, still the record-holder as Broadway’s longest running play. If that’s not enough, the musical Yokel Boy was at the Majestic, and though it may have starred Buddy Ebsen, how much fun would it have been to see a new guy named Phil Silvers stealing the show nightly in a supporting role? Not to mention Rodgers and Hart’s Too Many Girls (featuring the debut of a twenty-two year-old Cuban-emigre Desi Arnaz) and the now-classic Kaufman and Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner. And if this list was expanded to all the shows being presented, you would see that Maurice Evans was performing as Hamlet, Ella Logan and Ann Miller were appearing in George White’s Scandals, Abbott and Costello headlined a revue called The Streets of Paris with Carmen Miranda, and William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, “the original gay-mad comedy hit” (as advertised), was the season’s future Pulitzer Prize winner, and featured Gene Kelly and Celeste Holm in minor roles that would help make them stars.
But back to Swingin’ the Dream and one of the reasons why it’s still so intriguing, even after all these years. Sure, there is the sheer size of it all (which is a huge part of it), but more substantially, it afforded a host of unique opportunities to one-of-a-kind African-American performers at a time when they were usually forced to play servants and maids in that less-enlightened time.
For whatever its faults, Swingin’ the Dream presented these immensely talented men and women at the peak of their powers. And that’s something … even if it was only for thirteen performances.
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 sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.