NOTES: A Newly Resonant “Of Thee I Sing” at Carnegie Hall
This evening at Carnegie Hall, MasterVoices—the 100+ member chorus under the helm of Tony-winning artistic director Ted Sperling—presented a one-night-only concert adaptation of the classic 1931 musical “Of Thee I Sing”—music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind—an early American musical comedy that finds new resonance in 2017.
A biting satire of then-contemporary political and social mores, “Of Thee I Sing” was and remains a frisky, light-hearted frolic with a lush score and punchy book. Portents of George Gershwin’s operatic turn in “Porgy and Bess” (1935) permeate the music, which retains a light-opera feel, akin to Gilbert & Sullivan, and features perhaps his best overture, and the hit songs “Who Cares?” and “Love Is Sweeping the Country.”
“Of Thee I Sing” is a show of many firsts: the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1932); the first Gershwin musical to run more than a year on Broadway (441 performances to be exact); the first musical to be published in book form; and the first musical to produce a sequel, the much less successful “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” (1933).
In this abbreviated concert presentation, Bryce Pinkham (“Holiday Inn”, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”) plays John Wintergreen, the nobody nominated for president by an unnamed major political party. Devoid of a platform or signature issue, Wintergreen opts to run on a message of love. To capture the nation’s imagination, his campaign launches a beauty contest in all 48 states, the winner of which will marry Wintergreen on Inauguration Day, but only if he wins the election.
Wintergreen falls for the contest’s organizer and champion corn muffin maker (don’t ask), Mary Turner (“Great Comet”’s Tony-nominee Denée Benton), instead of southern contest-winner Diana Devereaux (Elizabeth Stanley, “On the Town”), setting off a diplomatic row with the French who claim Devereaux as the “illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon” (it rhymes when sung with a French accent, laid on thick by the superb David Pittu as the French Ambassador). Scandal, confusion, and impeachment proceedings follow, all before resolving with a happy ending
First produced during the depths of the Great Depression, “Of Thee I Sing” could just as easily have been written this week. A reality show presidential election less about leadership and more about marketing. Voter fraud. Foreign intervention. A know-nothing Cabinet. A vacationing president facing impeachment. It’s eerie how perfectly Kaufman and Ryskind’s 86-year-old book mirrors our times. Narration, commentary, and stories about the show’s creation delivered by humorist Mo Rocca brought these parallels home throughout the concert, and it was fun to enter the world of this silly musical for an evening, before returning to its less humorous reality.