Dear Reader: As part of my course on the history of musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, I'm currently directing a staged reading of the Rodgers and Hart musical A Connecticut Yankee. What follows is my director's note from the show's program. The performances are this Friday, October 12th and Saturday, October 13th, both at 8 pm. If you're in the Boston area and would like to attend, call 617-912-9222 for reservations. Admission is free, but seating is limited, so reservations are recommended. --C.C.
When the Rodgers and Hart musical A Connecticut Yankee first appeared in New York City in 1927, the production ran a thoroughly respectable 421 performances. The economics of putting on musicals in the 1920s allowed shows to make a profit in as little as 100 performances, so this was more than enough of a run for the show to be considered successful. However, when A Connecticut Yankee was revived in 1943, the production was only able to eke out 135 performances, this despite two new Rodgers and Hart songs: “Can’t You Do a Friend a Favor?” and “To Keep My Love Alive.”
Why was the reception for the revival so much less welcoming? It helps to recall that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat made its maiden voyage in 1927, and that 1943 heralded the arrival of Oklahoma!, the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. In 1927, A Connecticut Yankee reflected the typical show on Broadway at the time: flippant, frothy, forgettable, but nonetheless fun. Show Boat would, of course, change the course of musical theater, but it would take a good sixteen years for the innovations to fully take hold. By 1943, A Connecticut Yankee was a bit of a dinosaur, a fact made all the more apparent by Oklahoma! and the arrival of the fully integrated musical.
The irony here, of course, is that Richard Rodgers would be largely responsible for making the shows that he created with Lorenz Hart, including A Connecticut Yankee, a thing of the past. When Rodgers changed writing partners, from Hart to Hammerstein, he became part of the single most important partnership in musical-theater history, one that would reinvent the form and lay the foundation for the innovations of the future.
A Connecticut Yankee has since pretty much disappeared from the theatrical landscape, apart from a television production in the 1950s and a 2001 concert staging as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. On the one hand, it’s a shame: the score represents Richard Rodgers at his most hummably melodic, Larry Hart at his most playfully inventive, and librettist Herbert Fields at his quip-master best.
But the show’s disappearance also makes perfect sense: the book is overly jokey, the songs are only partially integrated into the story, and the script contains numerous references to “specialties,” which in this case were essentially stand-alone dances that were intended to showcase particular performers, not further the plot.
The three men who created A Connecticut Yankee all grew up in the same part of New York City, within blocks of each other, in fact. Hart and Fields were slightly older than Rodgers, but they all went to the same summer camps, where they got their first experience at putting on stage shows and writing songs. Fields, of course, was the brother of now-famed lyricist Dorothy Fields, but he was also the son of Lew Fields, a hugely successful vaudeville performer, comedian, and eventually theater manager and producer. The elder Fields would become instrumental in providing opportunities for the three young men to get their work on stage.
Very early in their association together, the trio had the idea to turn Mark Twain’s satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court into a musical. In fact, the Twain estate gave them the rights free of charge, if only for a year. It would take them years to actually write the show, and by that time they were already established writers and had to pay a premium for the stage rights to the novel.
In the 1920s, the songs for musicals were very often crafted not so much to serve a dramatic purpose as to become hits. A Connecticut Yankee certainly had its share of hits, including “Thou Swell” and “My Heart Stood Still.” The latter song has quite an interesting backstory, although the story of the song’s genesis is possibly apocryphal. The story goes that Rodgers and Hart were working in London and took a side trip to Paris. During a cab ride through the city, the taxi they were riding in was nearly involved in an accident. One of the young women who were riding with them apparently remarked, “Oh, my heart stood still!” Inspiration struck, and – voilà – a hit song.
What was definitely true is that Rodgers and Hart originally wrote “My Heart Stood Still” for London theater impresario C. B. Cochran, who was sort of the British counterpart to America’s Florenz Ziegfeld. Cochran included the song in his London Pavilion Revue in 1927. When Edward, the Prince of Wales (the same Edward who would later become King Edward VII, only to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson), attended the show, he became an immediate fan of the song, and it went on to become a huge hit in Britain.
In fact, at one point, the legendary Beatrice Lillie wanted to include “My Heart Stood Still” in one of her stage shows. Both Rodgers and Hart felt that Lillie’s ironic performance style would be all wrong for the decidedly un-ironic song, so they claimed that they needed the song for the show that they were currently working on, which happened to be A Connecticut Yankee. However, in order to prevent Lillie from performing their song, they needed to purchase the rights back from C. B. Cochran, which set them back a reported $10,000 (roughly $127,000 in 2012 dollars).
The fact that Rodgers and Hart could take a song that was written for an entirely different production and insert it into A Connecticut Yankee is a fairly strong indication of how marginally integrated most of the songs in the show are. To be fair, this was 1927, and very few musical-theater practitioners were concerned about integration. (Show Boat and Oklahoma!, would change that.) And there are some genuine, albeit fledgling, attempts at integration in A Connecticut Yankee, including the show’s opening sequence, the opening of act 2, as well as a sequence introducing the audience to the court at Camelot.
But most of the remaining numbers in the show are virtually interchangeable. The secondary characters of Sir Galahad and Evelyn, his love interest, sing two songs that bear scant relation to the rest of the goings on in the show: “I Feel at Home With You” and “On a Desert Island With Thee,” although the latter gets points for at least throwing the idiomatic “thee” into the title. In fact, both numbers – and, indeed both characters – were excised from the 1955 television production of the show, without much effect to the plot.
One admittedly integrated song in the show’s score is “Thou Swell,” although the lyric is so dense it can be difficult to understand the song upon first hearing. When Hart was on his game, there were few lyricists who could surpass him in terms of verbal inventiveness (e.g. “I Wish I Were in Love Again” from Babes in Arms) and heartfelt simplicity (e.g. “My Funny Valentine” also from Babes in Arms). But Hart also displayed a strong tendency to write lyrics that were overly clever, calling attention to the wit of the lyricist rather than the plight of the character singing the song.
“Thou Swell” is arguably one of those songs. When A Connecticut Yankee was in production in 1927, many of those working on the show felt that the song’s lyric was perhaps a bit too dense and that the show might benefit from a new song in its place. But the song stayed, the audience response was very positive, and “Thou Swell” eventually made its way into the Great American Songbook, although this could be more due to Rodgers’ jaunty melody that Hart’s impenetrable lyric.
As for the Rodgers and Hart partnership, it was decidedly on the wane in 1943. In fact, while Rodgers and Hart were writing new songs for the revival of A Connecticut Yankee, Rodgers was also working with Oscar Hammerstein on Oklahoma!, the first of 9 stage shows the duo create together. Hart passed on Oklahoma!, reportedly because the rural setting didn’t really suit his writing style, but also because his famously dissolute lifestyle, including a significant dependency on and abuse of alcohol, was catching up with him. The last lyric Hart wrote was that of A Connecticut Yankee’s “To Keep My Love Alive,” a scathingly comic list song that represents Hart at his most clever, playful, and deeply sardonic.