When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was in America. For the next five years he remained there, keeping a healthy distance between himself and the hostilities. Though accused by some critics for displaying unpatriotic behaviour, poor eyesight made him ineligible for military service. He therefore chose to remain in the USA to concentrate on developing his career as a writer of amusing and witty lyrics for light escapist entertainment. During this time, he also continued to write comic stories featuring ‘Psmith’ and his character of ‘Jeeves’ made his first appearance in the serial Something New.
Prior to arriving in the USA, Wodehouse had already achieved some small success as a lyricist, having written and published his first song ‘Put Me in My Little Cell’ for the musical Sergeant Brue in 1904. In 1906 Seymour Hicks invited him to contribute a song to The Beauty of Bath—and for a short time his comic song ‘Mr. Chamberlain’ achieved some notoriety (a topical number which satirised the then British Parliamentary Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Chamberlain). It also marked his first collaboration with composer Jerome Kern. The following year, also for Hicks, he wrote and published two songs for The Gay Gordons, ‘Now That My Ship’s Come Home’ and ‘You, You, You’.
From 1908 Wodehouse’s career as an author and humourist started to take off. He was a frequent visitor to the USA where he would go to sell stories to magazines such as Collier’s and Cosmopolitan.
In late 1915 a chance meeting with Guy Bolton (1883-1979) presented an opportunity to write for Broadway. Born in Britain of American parents, Bolton’s career as a playwright and librettist was just beginning. During 1914/1915 he achieved success with the play The Rule of Three and had written librettos for three Jerome Kern musicals Ninety in the Shade, Nobody Home and Very Good Eddie, as well as the George M. Cohan musical Hit-the-Trail Holiday. It was at the Broadway opening of Very Good Eddie that the two were assumed to have first met, introduced by Kern. Bolton and Plum (Wodehouse’s nickname) soon became firm friends—and over the next thirty years they collaborated on no less than fifteen musical comedies and plays. In the period 1916-1919 their output was prodigious, working on some nine show together in a three-year period. Many of these productions featured music by Jerome Kern, the most successful of which premiered at New York’s Princess and New Amsterdam Theatres, earning them the collective title of the ‘Princess musicals’.
As Michel M. Miller, writing for the Operetta Research Centre in 2016, observes:
Although they worked together as a trio on only five shows over seven years, the influence of “Bolton, Wodehouse, and Kern” on the development of American musical theater was monumental. Sensing perhaps a need to fill the vacuum created by the war-induced absence of the Viennese and Hungarian operetta imports that had filled Broadway theaters since even before The Merry Widow, their shows featured not the exotic locales and the dukes and duchesses of operetta, nor the lavish spectacle of the Ziegfeld Follies, but rather the romantic and comic entanglements of everyday Americans, in current dress and modern dialogue. These shows forever changed the landscape of Broadway; Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and numerous others credited these musicals with inspiring their own development and quest for a theatrical style.
The first Broadway show that Wodehouse worked on as a lyricist was Miss Springtime, adapted from a Hungarian musical play Zsuzsi kisasszony (Miss Susie). Opening at the New Amsterdam Theatre in September 1916 (and running for 227 performances), it featured libretto by Guy Bolton and score by Emmerich Kalman and Jerome Kern. One song that did well was ‘My Castle in the Air’ which was recorded by George MacFarlane, who played the role of Jo Varady, a gypsy photographer.
In 1917, the trio of Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern worked on their first original musical comedy Have a Heart. Though Have a Heart only lasted three months at New York’s Liberty Theatre, with Eileen Van Biene and Thurston Hall as the leads, it spent two years on the road with two complete companies playing as Michel M. Miller observes ‘no fewer than 36 states and five Canadian provinces’.
The same team scored a sure-fire hit with their next musical, Oh, Boy!, which opened at the Princess Theatre in February 1917, just one month after Have a Heart. Notching up 475 performances it starred Tom Powers and Marie Carroll as George Budd and Lou Ellen Carter. Wodehouse’s song ‘Till the Clouds Roll By’ was one of the show’s most popular songs. (During 1918, it also played eight weeks in Sydney and five-weeks in Melbourne, with Fred Maguire and Gracie Lavers as the leads.) With a change of title to Oh, Joy!, it played another 167 performances in London during 1919. Tom Powers revived his role of George with Dot Temple as his love interest. Supporting roles were filled by Beatrice Lillie (her stage debut) and Billy Leonard. This show represented a watershed in the development of the American musical—and as historian David A. Jasen later observed ‘established Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern as the innovators of the American musical comedy in the form it has taken today’.
In August 1917 the trio scored a modest success with Leave It to Jane. Not an original libretto this time but one based on the George Ade comedy The College Widow. With Edith Hallor as Jane, it achieved only 167 performances at the Longacre Theatre. The songs ‘The Crickets Are Calling’ and ‘The Siren’s Song’ were well liked, but the show did not reach the level of Oh, Boy!
For their next offering however, Bolton and Wodehouse teamed with Rudolf Friml for Kitty Darlin’. Based on the David Belasco play Sweet Kitty Bellairs, it should have fared well, but it did not. With opera star Alice Nielson in the title role, it opened and closed at the Teck Theatre in Buffalo in September 1917.
Kern was back in the mix for The Riviera Girl, but he shared the score with Emmerich Kalman. This opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York in September, with Wilda Bennett as Sylva Bareska, a vaudeville singer, but only managed 78 performances.
With their next show, Miss 1917, a Dillingham-Ziegfeld revue at the Century Theatre (November 1917), the claim by Wodehouse that he had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway was not without exaggeration. (See show listing from New York Times, 11 November 1917.) Though unfortunately, despite the lavishness of the production, including magnificent scenery by Joseph Urban, Miss 1917 was a monumental ‘flop’, closing after only 48 performances.
For the new year, opening in February 1918, the team produced a worthy success to Oh, Boy!, when Oh, Lady! Lady!! took its place at the Princess Theatre. Evening Mail critic Burns Mantle called it ‘another hit … Practically every one of the songs was an encore number, and not one of them is without distinction in the matter of lyrics.’ With Vivienne Segal as Molly Farringdon, the show played a respectable 219 performances.
The next musical, See You Later, saw Bolton and Wodehouse team with Jean Schwartz and William F. Peters on the score. Though this show never made it past out-of-town tryouts (opening at the Academy of Music in Baltimore in April), it furnished them with an amusing storyline based on a popular French farce Loute (1902) by Pierre Veber. In an earlier adaptation by Paul M. Potter, this play had enjoyed success in American and Australia as The Girl from Rector’s.
Which brings us to The Girl Behind the Gun (aka Kissing Time). For this musical Bolton and Wodehouse had been approached by composer Ivan Caryll (1861-1921) to turn Madame et son filleul, a 1916 Palais-Royal farce by Maurice Hennequin and Pierre Veber, into a new patriotic musical for producers Marc Klaw and Abraham L. Erlanger.
The Belgian-born Caryll (né Felix Tilkin) was a very successful composer of musicals for the British stage. By 1918 he had composed 29 musicals, five of which had notched up over 500 performances. During the early nineteen hundreds he scored success on both sides of the Atlantic—and in Australia—with A Runaway Girl, The Messenger Boy and The Spring Chicken among many others. And more recently, following his relocation to America, The Pink Lady and Oh! Oh!! Delphine!!! had added to his reputation as a leading composer of musical comedies.
The Girl Behind the Gun played Atlantic City and Philadelphia in August/September 1918 and following extensive rewrites, it was ready to be launched on Broadway. Reports suggested that the original book was not patriot enough, and that George M. Cohan (of ‘Yankee Doodle’ fame) had been employed to make some improvements. One such ‘improvement’ may have been a change to the second act finale which saw ‘Hark to the Drums of France’ replaced by the more rousing ‘Flags of Allies’.
During 1918, Wodehouse also contributed some songs to the Harry B. Smith/Ivan Caryll musical The Canary, which opened at the Globe Theatre, 4 November (152 performances). The same year, with Bolton, he wrote the book for Oh, My Dear! (music by Louis A. Hirsch), opening at the Princess Theatre on 27 May (189 performances). The duo also worked on The Rose of China (music by Armand Veesey), opening at the Lyric Theatre, 25 November 1919 (47 performances). And finally in 1920, Wodehouse contributed several songs to the hugely successful Bolton/Kern musical Sally, which opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 21 December (570 performances). His song ‘Bill’ (previously dropped from Oh, Lady! Lady!!) was also rejected by Sally star Marilyn Miller. It would however go on to be one of the big hits of Show Boat in 1927.