Eighty-six years ago today, on December 26th,1931 the most biting political satire ever written opened at the Music Box Theater on Broadway. Called Of Thee I Sing was the first successful American musical with a consistently satiric tone. Still relevant eighty-six years after it debuted, the play lampoons identity politics lampoons a political system too tied up in personalities and silly little issues to fix the country’s economy, and how a completely, gullible American people can be controlled at the hands of a good presidential media spin (sound familiar?).
Despite the fact that Of Thee I Sing first appeared on Broadway over eight decades ago, it speaks to politics today and is long overdue for a Broadway revival.
Written at the beginning of the Great Depression, Of Thee I Sing was so satirical, the writers and cast of the play and were unsure of what the public’s reception would be, prompting one of the writers of the book, George S. Kaufman, to quip “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Ah but it didn’t. In fact, Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize.
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The creative team behind the musical was a Broadway All-Star team. The book was written by George S. Kaufman (You Can’t Take it With You) and Morrie Ryskind. The team’s previous collaboration was Animal Crackers, a Broadway musical written for the Marx Brothers (Ryskind went on to write many of the Marx Brothers movies).
George and Ira Gershwin wrote music and lyrics. George Gershwin was perhaps America’s greatest composer, writing everything from musicals, to opera, to classical music and ballet. Ira Gershwin is one of the American musical’s greatest lyricists, who wrote for both stage and screen (including the original A Star is Born).
The play tells the story of presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen,” he’s the man the people choose, loves the Irish and the Jews (song below)”
For Vice President the choice is Alexander Throttlebottom, a man best known for gaffes (sound familiar) and who throughout the play gets thrown out of important meetings because, despite the fact he is vice president, no one knows who he is.
For the Wintergreen political campaign, the party elite (specifically political bosses Louis Lippman and Francis X. Gilhooley, newspaper magnate Matthew Arnold Fulton, Senators Carver Jones and Robert E. Lyons) selects a political platform meant to avoid political controversy– the “love platform.”
The party elite also decides the bachelor Wintergreen needs to get married, so they hold a beauty contest. The selected winner is the sultry southern belle, Diana Deveraux…