As I watched my favorite morning news show today, an item came up which caused me to execute a perfect Danny Thomas “spit-take.” Today is the publication date for President Obama’s new children’s book billed as “a moving tribute to thirteen groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped our nation.” The content of the book didn’t cause my reaction, nor was it that what Obama would describe as the “ideals that have shaped our nation,” would probably be unrecognizable by our founding fathers. The publication of the President’s book made me angry but it had nothing to do with the President’s progressive politics and everything to do with the title of his book; Of Thee I Sing.
There is only one true Of Thee I Sing, a musical that first appeared on Broadway almost seventy years ago and (in my humble opinion) is one of the most biting political satires ever written. In fact, Of Thee I Sing was the first successful American musical with a consistently satiric tone. The writers and the cast 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.”
Written at the beginning of the great depression, Of Thee I Sing lampoons a political system too tied up in personalities and silly little issues to fix the country’s economy. 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). Music and lyrics were written by George and Ira Gershwin. 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).
Of Thee I Sing was the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Unfortunately though the score is an essential part of the play, George Gershwin was was not recognized by the Pulitzer committee.
The play tells the story of presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen,” he’s the man the people choose, loves the Irish and the Jews.” For Vice President the choice is Alexander Throttlebottom, who throughout the play keeps trying to get into meetings and rallies, but gets thrown out because no one knows who he is.
Thanks to political bosses Louis Lippman and Francis X. Gilhooley, newspaper magnate Matthew Arnold Fulton, Senators Carver Jones and Robert E. Lyons – Wintergreen’s chosen platform was the politically safe “love platform.” The party bosses also decide that Wintergreen should get married, so they hold a beauty pageant to select a bride for him. The winner is the sultry southern belle Diana Deveraux.
Unfortunately the candidate throws a wrench into the plans when he falls in love with the all-American Mary Turner whose major qualification is, well, “some girls can make a pie made up of prunes and quinces, some make an oyster fry others are good at blintzes, some lovely girls have done wonders with turkey stuffings but I have found the one who could really make corn muffins.”
Wintergreen and his Mary win the election but immediately after the inauguration/wedding, Ms. Deveraux shows up to tell her story of winning the contest and being jilted by the new President. Thankfully the Court decides that “corn muffins are more important.”
Of Thee I Sing is merciless in the way it attacks all American institutions, the nine members of the Supreme Court care more about politics than justice, the Senators care more about petty local politics than doing their jobs, and the political operatives don’t give a rat’s ass about what the country needs. They only care about public opinion and maintaining power.
Some things never change.
The least sympathetic character is the French Ambassador, even back then (as Al Bundy once said) everyone hated the French. The Ambassador escalates the Diana Deveraux scandal, bursting into the White House demanding retribution for the affront to France. It seems that the sultry Deveraux is “the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon.”
France is not happy, so to placate the French, the political operatives decide to have the President impeached. But just as the Senate is going through its roll call, in bursts the First Lady who announces she’s expecting. Since no expecting President has ever been impeached the impeachment is called off.
And what of Ms Deveraux? Vice-President Throttlebottom reminds us, when the President is not able to fulfill his duty, that obligation is taken over by the Vice-President.
In the end everyone is happy, the President has his Mary (and corn muffins.
Of Thee I Sing is a special play because it really connected with the mood of America during the first part of the depression. There wasn’t so much a feeling of a mistrust of government institutions, as a feeling that our government was run by a bunch of well-meaning fools who didn’t quite know what they were doing. Over and above the great music, comedy and biting satire, the element that worked best was a sense of optimism, a feeling that however bad things got eventually things would turn out fine.
That optimism is uniquely American.
Two years after Of Thee I Sing opened the same exact all-star team of producers, writers, actors, etc. wrote a sequel called Let Them Eat Cake, which failed because was it was much darker and more pessimistic than the original.
Of Thee I Sing was revived a few times, a planned movie version starring the Marx Brothers never came together (thank God), there was even a dreadful TV version starring Carrol O’ Conner, but it was never brought back at the right time. This classic of American theater works best during a time when the country is in economic and political distress, at a time when the country looks for entertainment poking fun at what they are going through while understanding that as as bad as things get, in the end everything will be just fine.
Sorry Mr. President, nothing personal really but you can write a thousand books, but you could never be in touch with the American people enough to equal the real Of Thee I Sing.