REVIEWS: I'd Rather Be Right
A.K. Schneider On the occasion of the semi-staged Musicals Tonight! production of I'd Rather Be Right, Anne Kaufman Schneider reflects on the life and work of her playwright/dramatist father. MORE from

I'd Rather Be Right (In Concert) - February 9, 2011
Reviewed by Erik Haagensen

This 1937 Broadway musical, with book by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and music by Richard Rodgers, presents a real conundrum. A political satire about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—the first sitting president to receive such attention—it was also a vehicle for legendary song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, who came out of retirement to do it. That's two icons in one. The show was such a popular success that the 1942 Cohan bio film Yankee Doodle Dandy ends with the star, in the personage of James Cagney, performing his 11 o'clock number from it, "Off the Record." As often happens with star vehicles, however, "Right" sank into obscurity once Cohan was no longer around to play it (he died in 1942, just five months after Dandy's release). How do you convey to a contemporary audience the effect of a beloved star impersonating a beloved president? Director Thomas Sabella-Mills has a wise answer: Don't try. Instead, he puts the focus on the material, which turns out for the most part to be dated but nifty.

Though there's a wisp of a plot, the creators rightfully subtitled their show "a musical revue." Two American everykids can't get married because of the depressed economy. As they sit in Central Park listening to the far-off strains of a free July 4th concert, Phil falls asleep in Peggy's arms and dreams that President Roosevelt comes walking by. The lad explains that he and Peggy can't get hitched unless Roosevelt balances the budget. Soon the president's cabinet, the Supreme Court, the president's mother, and various and sundry others become entangled in Roosevelt's determination to deliver for the lovebirds.

 The revue structure involves idea after idea being tried unsuccessfully, which allows the authors to go scattershot after a variety of political issues. The show's heroes are Kaufman and Hart, whose witty script is loaded with zingers ("Isn't there something we can sell? Do we really need Baltimore?" asks the postmaster general). They're careful to walk a fine political line, going equally after the New Deal's excesses (a bit about the Federal Theatre Project is very funny) and the ultraconservative Supreme Court (they skulk behind rocks and bushes and leap out shouting "No!" every time Roosevelt considers enacting a law). It's good stuff, but the downside is that most folks won't know enough about the 1930s to get many of the jokes.

The show's Achilles' heel is its score. Hart's nimble lyrics have many pleasures ("When I go up to Hyde Park/It's not just for the ride there/It's not that I love Hyde Park/But I love to park and hide there," sings Roosevelt, of his family's country estate), but they're not as inventive and pointed as Ira Gershwin's work for two previous Kaufman political satires, "Of Thee I Sing" and its sequel, "Let 'Em Eat Cake." ("Right" was originally intended to be the third show in that line, but composer George Gershwin died before writing could begin.) Rodgers' music is mostly thin gruel. The great composer doesn't seem to be inspired by the ironic musical style the show requires. Only three of 13 numbers have musical distinction: the ballads "Have You Met Miss Jones?" (the show's only pop hit) and "Everybody Loves You" (cut prior to Broadway but happily restored here) and the rousing first-act closer "We're Going to Balance the Budget," an expert pastiche of one of Cohan's signature flag-waving tunes until it amusingly impales itself melodically on the prosaic, unsingable title.

The scrappy cast enlivens things a lot. Steve Brady is a solid FDR, finding constant humor in the president's genial upper-class paternalism and smartly avoiding any attempt to evoke Cohan or Cagney. Brent Di Roma and Laurie Hymes sing attractively and are perfectly period as the loving couple. Donna Coney Island, Peter Cormican, John Alban Coughlan, and Rob Lorey all have their moments as members of the cabinet, but the most forceful comic turns come out of the ensemble. Jeff Horst is a hoot playing everything from an angry balloon seller to defeated presidential candidate Alf Landon, now Roosevelt's butler. Matthew Conti and Michael Mott make delightful mayhem as a boss and his sole employee— stereotyped Italian immigrants—to whom Roosevelt tries to explain collective bargaining. Emily Glick's giddy and unflagging invention in the tiny role of Roosevelt's secretary is a joy to behold.

Thanks to our current economic downturn and its resultant Tea Party hysteria, there are sudden moments of bracing relevance in Kaufman and Hart's caustic humor. Though hardly a show for the ages, anyone with an interest in the work of its august authors won't regret taking this rare chance to discover just exactly what I'd Rather Be Right was.

I'd Rather Be Obama?
Reviewed by Michael Dale

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?

I'd Rather Be Right · February
8, 2011
Reviewed by Martin Denton

Mel Miller's invaluable Musicals Tonight! series—which is now in its 14th season producing concert-style revivals of musicals from the (mostly distant) past—hits another bullseye with its latest offering, I'd Rather Be Right. This choice musical comedy first appeared on Broadway back in 1937, when its two pairs of creators—book writers George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and score writers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart—were the hottest names on the Great White Way. This, their one and only collaboration, does not represent either team at their peak; but even second-best Kaufman & Hart and Rodgers & Hart is well above par in musical theatre, and the chance to see this light-hearted satirical romp on stage for the first time in more than 70 years is one you will not want to pass up.

The title of the show is an allusion to something Henry Clay is supposed to have said (the rest of the quote is "...than president"). The main character of this show gets to be both: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is at the center of this very funny script, which focuses on his battle to balance the budget at the height of the Great Depression. Here, his reason for wanting to zero out the national deficit is pressing indeed: on a stroll in Central Park, FDR has happened upon Phil Barker and Peggy Jones, a couple of thoroughly charming and decent young Americans who are deeply in love but unable to get married. The reason: Phil's boss refuses to give him a raise until the President balances the budget.

I should mention, I guess, that this meeting with FDR occurs in a long dream sequence that comprises almost the entire running time of the show. Phil, bereft at not being able to marry Peggy, falls asleep in Central Park, his head in her lap. And in the dream, he conjures not only his Chief Executive but also the entire Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and a bunch of other notable figures.

Kaufman & Hart's book is loose as can be (in fact they bill the piece as a "musical revue" rather than a musical comedy, which is apt). Mostly the play is an occasion for various sketches that poke gentle though often pointed fun at the incongruities and mishaps of FDR and his New Deal. There's a running joke about Roosevelt's feud with the Supreme Court (they hide in the bushes to keep tabs on him); a couple of funny bits involving the President's famously domineering mother; and more than one swipe at the world of finance (at one point, Postmaster General James Farley has this too-resonant line: "Frank, we can't fool around with Wall Street. To hell with the country!").

By the second act, it's pretty much devolved into a vaudeville, with a sketch about the Wagner Labor Relations Act taking the form of a comic dialogue that wouldn't have been out of place in the mouths of Chico and Groucho; followed by a warm comic turn for FDR called "Off the Record" (which one can easily imagine original star George M. Cohan turning into a gigantic show-stopper; I need to check out Cagney's performance of it in Yankee Doodle Dandy); which is in turn followed by a faux-radio show featuring a hillbilly band made up of Cabinet members, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins delivering a gossip report a la Walter Winchell, Secretary of State Cordell Hull doing a bit of standup, and Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau crooning a song about government savings bonds. Great stuff.

There are some songs, of course, though no real hits. Phil and Peggy have two charming numbers, "Have You Met Miss Jones?" and "Sweet Sixty Five," and FDR leads the first act finale, "We're Going to Balance the Budget." Rodgers' melodies are, as always, tuneful and smart. Lyricist Hart really hits his stride though only one time, in the deliriously witless sendup "Spring in Milwaukee":

It's spring in Milwaukee
And spring when I sing;
It's spring in the hilltops,
And spring in the spring.

Miller, with frequent collaborator/casting director Stephen DeAngelis, has assembled a fine cast of 17 to put over the show. Steve Brady stars as the likable FDR, with the appealing Brent Di Roma and Laurie Hymes making an easy-to-root-for couple as Phil and Peggy. Standouts among the supporting cast include Lydia Gladstone as FDR's mom, Peter Cormican as a glad-handing Jim Farley, and Rob Lorey, who brings a splendid tenor to Morgenthau's eleven o'clock number "A Baby Bond." James Stenborg is at the piano, and Thomas Sabella-Mills at the helm, doing their usual sturdy work to guide the company smoothly through the script-in-hand presentation. (The pacing, especially on some of the gags, was a little slack at the opening night performance I saw; hopefully that will improve as the run progresses.)

I'd Rather Be Right is a delightful entertainment; even though many of the topical references are dated, the engine of this well-crafted comedy is in excellent shape. They knew how write a musical comedy in 1937. I wonder if anyone would dare to put on stage in 2011 something at once so gentle and good-natured and smart and sharply satirical about our current government leadership?

I'd Rather Be Right · February
14, 2011
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

I’d Rather Be Right, the 1937 musical by the writing team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and score by the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (no relation) is legendary for two reasons. It was the first stage show to depict the sitting president (that was Franklin D. Roosevelt) and it brought song-and-dance man George M. Cohan (a rabid anti-Roosevelt Republican) out of retirement to play FDR in the only show he appeared in that he did not also write.

Not seen locally since 1938, I’d Rather Be Right is back courtesy of a concert staging by Musicals Tonight! in a taut production by Thomas Sabella-Mills that demonstrates that current economic times have made its satire of balancing the budget relevant all over again, though the depression humor and the gentle kidding of FDR has worn thin.

It also proves that this show has a melodic, unfamiliar score, with the notable exceptions of Have You Met Miss Jones?, the musical’s only hit song, and Off the Record which was famously performed by James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. As several of the intended songs were dropped before the show opened on Broadway, this is a rare chance to see the only book musical by Kaufman and Hart, in their only collaboration with Rodgers and Hart, the way it was originally planned.

Set in New York’s Central Park on July 4th, 1937, the show is framed by the story of lovebirds Phil Barker and Peggy Jones who go on a Sunday afternoon stroll to commiserate about the fact that they can’t get married on their meager salaries unless Phil gets a raise, and Phil’s boss won’t give him a raise unless the president balances the budget. Phil falls asleep on Peggy’s shoulder and dreams that President Roosevelt passes by on his way to his New York home on 65th Street to write his July 4th speech.

When they tell FDR their problem, he promises to balance the budget if it is the last thing he does, and he promptly calls a cabinet meeting right in Central Park. A discussion of not letting the Supreme Court in on a new proposal brings those nine men out from behind the bushes and things start to get very crowded.

Kaufman and Hart’s gentle ribbing of the New Deal government includes jokes at the expense of Roosevelt’s ending of the gold standard in 1933, the Fireside Chats, the Works Progress Administration, Social Security, and the Federal Theatre Project all begun in 1935, Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, and the outrageous suggestion that Roosevelt would run for a third term.

In addition, there is satire of Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor and mother Sara, and various colorful cabinet members such as Postmaster James Farley (a political power as he simultaneously served as Democratic National Committee chairman), Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The title I’d Rather Be Right, an 1850 quote from American statesman Henry Clay (“I’d rather be right than president”), is given a sly nudge when Roosevelt says, “What a silly idea. I’d rather be both!”

The score alternates between Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter songs, parodies of popular song styles, and romantic ballads. Among the witty patter songs are A Homogeneous Cabinet which introduces the quirks of each cabinet member separately and contains a sly reference to G&S’s Savoy operas, A Little Bit of Constitutional Fun poking fun at the Supreme Court, Labor is the Thing sung by America’s leading capitalists, and Off the Record, a parody of one of FDR’s Fireside Chats conducted by a fireplace that magically appears in Central Park.

The melodic ballads include the standard, Have You Met Miss Jones?, and Everybody Loves You When You’re Asleep, a lullaby cut before the Broadway opening. Among other satiric numbers are the martial, We’re Going to Balance the Budget; the lively parody of Social Security, Sweet Sixty-Five; the jaunty pop song, A Baby Bond for Baby, sung by Secretary of Treasury Morganthau; and the bouncy title song.

This number includes a soft shoe for the president which, of course, would have been impossible as Roosevelt had been many years in a wheelchair due to polio by this time. The score even includes a parody operetta number Spring in Milwaukee, sung by members of the Federal Theatre Project who must perform if there are three people in a room.

In the leading role which gave Cohan his last stage triumph, Steve Brady is pleasant but bland, as are Brent Di Roma and Laurie Hymes as the young lovers. However, the other cast members surely make up for it. Peter Cormican is a very authoritative Secretary Farley, while Donna Coney Island as Secretary Perkins (the only female member of the cabinet who was surely in for a great deal of kidding) is both quirky and amusing. As Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, Roger Rifkin is commanding and imposing. Lydia Gladstone does a comic send-up of Roosevelt’s mother Sara making her both dizzy and wise.

Special credit must go to both the male and female ensembles that not only back up the lead singers but play all the rest of the roles in a show that originally had 68 actors. Matthew Bauman, Matthew Conti, Jeff Horst and Michael Mott play the rest of the cabinet as well as sing and dance to Labor is the Thing as America’s captains of industry.

Sara Jayne Blackmore, Merissa Czyz, Emily Glick and Kari Ringer appear as the bored Federal Theatre troupe as well as the Supreme Court justices’ girlfriends, among other roles. Sabella-Mills choreography and musical staging for the ensemble is particularly witty. Musicals Tonight!’s veteran musical director and vocal arranger James Stenborg demonstrates a particularly light touch with the sprightly score.

While we debate the budget, social security, earmarks, and political corruption in Washington in general, I’d Rather Be Right proves that nothing much has changed since the 1930’s. While the musical is neither top-drawer Kaufman and Hart or Rodgers and Hart, it is a diverting show and your first chance to see it in 73 years.

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