The folks who revived George and Ira Gerswhin’s 1925 Tip-Toes last year are back with another Broadway musical from days gone by, this time one by Rodgers and Hart.  Is it Pal Joey? Babes In Arms? Think again. The Boys From Syracuse?  A Connecticut Yankee?  Wrong again.

Still stumped?

The correct answer is … I’d Rather Be Right, from Broadway’s 1937-8 season.

What?  You’ve never heard of it?

Not surprising, as I’d Rather Be Right is seldom if ever revived, and not because it doesn’t have a tuneful and clever Rodgers and Hart score.  It does.  Not because it doesn’t have a funny, witty book. It does, and by those Broadway magicians George Kaufmann and Moss Hart.

I’d Rather Be Right is rarely performed these days because it is so 1930s specific (like a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update from 1937) that for decades it’s simply been considered dated.  Now, with sufficient passage of time, it can be appreciated for what it is, a funny (and surprisingly still topical) look back at the second administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the politics of the late 30s.

Young lovers Peggy Jones and Phil Barker hope to marry, but their wedding plans depend on FDR. You see, Phil didn’t get the job he was hoping for because the company he works for is waiting to open a new office until things get better with the economy. Peggy is willing to take the chance and marry Phil anyway, but young Mr. Barker tells her, “We can’t get married till ‘they’ (i.e. Washington) balance the budget.”

The date is July 4th, 1937, and Peggy and Phil are strolling through Central Park when suddenly, out of nowhere, who should appear but President Roosevelt himself?     “We thought you could tell us what’s going to happen with the country,” ask the young couple.  “Could you at least tell us if you’re going to balance the budget?”

Next thing you know, the two lovebirds are sitting on a park bench eating ice cream cones with FDR, who takes a little black book from his pocket to jot down the cost of the ice cream. 25 cents for three cones, just below the previous  entry, $150,000 for two battleships. “Oh, Mr. Roosevelt,” begs Peggy. “Will you balance the budget?”

Just then, out of the same “nowhere” from which the President has popped up, arrive Cabinet members Farley, Perkins, Hull, and Morgenthau, who’ve been having a Cabinet meeting in the park.  Song cue for “A Homogeneous Cabinet,” the first of a dozen melodious Rodgers and Hart ditties, followed by the enchanting “Have You Met Miss Jones?” in which Phil introduces the cabinet to his lovely fiancée.

None of the Cabinet members are willing to cut the budget, but all are happy to create new taxes.  If not that, how about a government sponsored pickpocket gang?  “What about the Supreme Court?” wonders FDR.  “Let’s not tell them,” responds a crafty Cabinet member.  “Why don’t we sell something?” is the President’s next great idea. “Do we really need Delaware?”  Perhaps Roosevelt’s most ingenious idea of all is to ask American women to give up beauty products for a year and write checks to the government for the amount they’ve been spending on makeup and moisturizer.

When the women of America hear about this in one of FDR’s famous Fireside Chats (“Send your checks to Henry Morgenthau.”), they rise up in protest, three of them even showing up in Central Park (in curlers) to demand, “Give me vanishing cream or give me death!” and to sing R&H’s  “Take And Take And Take.” “Not for a year,” they warble, “not for a day will we give beauty away.”

In one of I’d Rather Be Right’s funniest scenes, the oh so flamboyant (but married to a woman) Director of the Federal Theatre arrives with his troupe. “Whenever we see three people together, we have to give a show.” They’re being paid $670,000 for their musical entitled “Spring In Vienna.”  What’s it about?  It’s about spring…and Vienna. “It’s spring in Vienna and spring in my heart,” sing a beautiful young woman with flowers in her hair (the Spirit of Spring?) and a pair of cute young Alpine lads in lederhosen. 

The Supreme Court’s been hiding in the bushes too, and are joined by a bevy of showgirls in a musical tribute to the Court, “A Little Bit Of Constitutional Fun.”

Act 1 ends with a flourish, a full cast production number entitled “We’re Going To Balance The Budget.”

Among Act 2’s musical highlights are “Everybody Loves You” (when you’re asleep), sung by Peggy to a dozing FDR; Phil and Peggy’s “I’d Rather Be Right (than Presidential.  I’d rather be right than wealthy and wise”);    “Labor Is The Thing,” performed by PWA workers bearing solid gold garden tools; and FDR’s still pertinent “Off The Record.”  There’s also the show’s wackiest scene, a burlesque- style sketch about a Merry-Go-Round worker who’s gone on strike against the carousel’s owner, featuring a comical pair of bickering Italians.

Unlike Saturday Night Live sketches which often turn the President into a buffoon (not that he doesn’t do that perfectly well himself), I’d Rather Be Right treats FDR with kid gloves and utmost love and respect. The show is in fact credited with having restored FDR’s popularity at a time when it was dwindling, and appears to have made the first suggestion that he might consider running for a third term in office.  Interestingly, much of Kaufman and Hart’s book remains true about Washington today, 70+ years later. (For the record books, I’d Rather Be Right is the one and only time that Rodgers and Hart collaborated with Kaufman and Hart, whose classic You Can’t Take It With You was in its second year on Broadway when I’d Rather Be Right opened.)

By George Productions’ revival of I’d Rather Be Right is faithful to and respectful of its source. Director/choreographer William Mead (who’s starred on Broadway in A Chorus Line and the 1980 revival of West Side Story and directed/choreographed Tip-Toes) keeps the proceedings light and lively, and despite the Hudson’s limited stage area, has created a number of full cast production numbers with laudable results.

Stephen Vendette and Christian Valo, as Phil and Peggy, both have charm and lovely voices to match.  Thomas Dolan, Matt Kubicek, Nancy Dobbs Owen, and Tom Walz are the tuneful Cabinet members.  Dolan doubles as a very funny “Mamma Mia!” Tony, Kubicek shows off a gorgeous tenor in his solo, “A Baby Bond For Baby” and flames with the best of them as the Federal Theatre director, Owen dances a lovely solo ballet over the post-intermission Entr’acte, and though twinkly-eyed Walz gets only one role, he is a welcome addition to any show. I’d Rather Be Right also features Walter Beery (funny as both the Supreme Court Chief Justice and Presidential race loser Alf Landon), Carol Herman (an elegant and tart Sara Roosevelt), and Dan Spector (standing out in a quartet of roles including Tony’s nutty Italian boss). Kristen Heitman, Alli McGinnis, Lyndie Renee, and Kimberly Wood bring talent and appeal to the female ensemble. Finally, Joe Joyce is so good as FDR (A+ for manner, voice, and accent) that one hopes that he will overcome his frequently fluffed lines.

Offstage accompaniment is provided (flawlessly) by musical director (and Tip- Toes vet) Brian O’Halloran on piano and John Harvey on drums.

The crème de la crème design team behind I’d Rather Be Right is composed of scenic designer Victoria Profitt (a Sunday comics-worthy Central Park), costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg (top marks for the authentic 1930s look), and lighting design whiz kid Jeremy Pivnick (his most gorgeously rainbow colored design yet). 

Since it’s unlikely that I’d Rather Be Right will ever get a major big stage revival, this scaled down gem of a production is a must-see for musical theater (and especially Rodgers and Hart) fans. One suggestion: do read the program notes before the show starts.  You’ll enjoy the production even more if you familiarize yourself with its historical background. 

Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 26, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

Comments are closed.