The biggest Broadway event of 1937 was undoubtedly the gala opening night of I'd Rather Be Right. Not only did the new musical boast a score by Richard Rodger and Lorenz Hart and a book by George S. Kaufman (who also directed) and Moss Hart (the pair had just won that year's Pulitzer for You Can't Take It With You), but the star was no less than the grand old man of Broadway - who many will argue invented the book song and dance musical comedy as we know it today - George M. Cohan, playing the role of then-President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Never before and never since has a sitting U.S. president been the leading character in a Broadway musical.
The simple story of the Depression Era show had two young lovers trying to enjoy the Independence Day festivities in Central Park, despite the fact that their current financial state is keeping them from getting married; the boy's boss wants to expand his company and promote him, but he's hesitant to do so until the country's economic future looks clearer. "If only the president could balance the budget," thinks our hero as he falls asleep in his girlfriend's lap.
I don't suppose it will be a major spoiler to let you know that the rest of musical is a two-act dream where FDR shows up on his way to prepare a Fourth of July speech, but instead puts aside all other matters of state in order to figure out a way to immediately balance the budget so that these two wonderful kids can get married.
The American Songbook standard, "Have You Met Miss Jones?" was the score's big hit but the showstopper was Cohan pattering political back-peddling in "Off The Record.":
My speeches on the radio have made me quite a hero;
I only have to say, "My friends," and stocks go down to zero.
Don't print it! It's strictly off the record.
Peppy numbers like "A Little Bit of Constitutional Fun" (sung by the aged Supreme Court members and their young female admirers) and the rousing "We're Going To Balance The Budget" kept spirits in a lightly satirical mood.
Also quite rousing is the Musicals Tonight! concert revival of I'd Rather Be Right, which has just opened for a two-week run. Simply staged by Thomas Sabella-Mills with books in hand and very little choreography (no buck and winging across the stage as the 59-year-old Cohan did in the original), the talented company is clearly having a grand time with this cheery chestnut steeped in silly fun and jokes that will test your knowledge of 1930s American history.
Steve Brady gives a winning turn as a kindly FDR who can set off verbal fireworks when placed before a microphone. Brent Di Roma and Laurie Hymes play the young lovers with a fine combination of sweetness and song and dance flair. A Gilbert and Sullivan type cabinet, led by Donna Coney Island (Perkins), Peter Cormican (Farley), John Alban Coughlan (Hull) and Rob Lorey (Morgenthau) plus a Supreme Court headed by Roger Rifkin's persnickety Chief Justice contribute zany cartoon antics.
The lighthearted topicality of I'd Rather Be Right was made possible by the fast-moving pace of creating Broadway musicals in the days before numerous workshops, regional productions and extended previews. Before its November 2nd opening night, Kaufman and Hart's previous Broadway outing, You Can't Take It With You, had opened less than a year ago, in December of '36. More remarkably, the most recent Rodgers and Hart musical before then was Babes In Arms, which had opened in April of '37.
Imagine if today's Broadway artists had the opportunity to write hit shows with that kind of frequency. Who might you pick to write and star in a Broadway musical about the current administration? Off the top of my head I can see this as an opportunity for a snazzy David Yazbek score with a book by George C. Wolfe (who would direct) and Gary Trudeau. Starring as the President and First Lady? How about Norm Lewis and Deirdre Goodwin? And maybe juicy roles for Carolee Carmello and Jeff McCarthy as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden?
But there's a lot of talent out there on Broadway. Who would you like to see write, direct and star in a musical about President Obama?
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.