'40s Flop, 'Sweet Bye And Bye,' Could Get 2nd Chance

The 1946 musical Sweet Bye and Bye was an unmitigated disaster and never made it to Broadway. The show closed in Philadelphia and seemed to be lost forever — until the score was rediscovered in a New Jersey warehouse in 1986.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

"Sweet Bye And Bye" might be the best 1940s musical nobody's ever heard. The show crashed and burned in its out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia and never made it to Broadway.

Popular or not, Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash did write one bewitching score for the musical, and a new recording is bringing it back to life. Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: Ask record producer Tommy Krasker where "Sweet Bye And Bye" belongs in the history of American musical theater, and he has no hesitation.

Mr. TOMMY KRASKER (Record Producer): I really do consider this maybe one of the top 10 scores written in the '40s, and that's a powerful decade that included, obviously, "Carousel" and "South Pacific," "Brigadoon," "St. Louis Woman," "Finian's Rainbow." But I really do feel this score is up there with those. It just never had a chance to be heard.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Krasker discovered "Sweet Bye And Bye" in 1986, when he was one of a group of people hired to catalog 20,000 musical theater manuscripts discovered in a warehouse in New Jersey. It was a treasure trove with music by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and others.

One day, Krasker opened a package, which contained music by Russian-born composer Vernon Duke - who wrote "April in Paris," among other standards - and lyrics by poet Ogden Nash.

Mr. KRASKER: The music looked amazing. It was so challenging and demanding. It looked deeply melodic and romantic. So I did what I wasn't supposed to do. I went to a Xerox machine during lunch, and made copies of it so I could take it home. Because, you know, it's one thing to look at music and go wow, that looks cool. But if you're a pianist, as I am, you want to take it home and play it. And I don't even know how to describe it. I had never heard of this show and within minutes, I was just bewitched by it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARIN MAZZIE (Singer/Actor): (Singing) Too enchanting like lilacs when the rain is landing, too enchanting for words.

LUNDEN: Krasker did some research and discovered that "Sweet Bye And Bye," produced in 1946, was kind of the "Spider-Man" of its time.

Mr. KRASKER: I think this is an everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. I mean, Duke and Nash started writing a score and their collaborators -the people writing the book - were S.J. Perelman, the famous humorist who wrote a lot of the Marx Brothers movies, and Al Hirschfeld, the famed caricaturist, the only time he ever tried to write a music theater libretto. I mean, you can't get a better quartet than that, but everything went wrong from the beginning.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: How wrong did things go? Very, very, very wrong. The show was a light-hearted satire of corporate culture set in the future, 2076, with a sweet little romance between a meek tree surgeon and a sexy image consultant. It was directed and produced by a man who had never directed and produced before. The lead actress had a nervous breakdown during rehearsals and was committed to a sanatorium.

The lead actor, Gene Sheldon, was a vaudeville star known for his ability at mime and banjo playing, not singing or acting. And at the very first performance - in New Haven - instead of saying his lines, he did his vaudeville act.

Mr. KRASKER: And he comes off stage and Perelman has a fit and says, what the heck are you doing? You didn't say any of our dialogue. Throws him against a wall, a brick hits his head; he falls unconscious, and an ambulance has to come to cart him away while the stage manager goes on stage and says, ladies and gentleman, Mr. Sheldon has been taken with a case of appendicitis.

And for the second act of the opening night in New Haven, the stage manager plays the role of Solomon Bundy, script in hand. And for the rest of the run, the choreographer does it.

LUNDEN: The show moved to Philadelphia and after two more disastrous weeks of scrambling, recasting and rewriting, it closed. Jason Carr, who created new orchestrations for this recording, says Duke and Nash's score was decimated during rehearsals and tryouts, with many of the best songs cut.

Mr. JASON CARR (Musician): There was never a version of it played in which the music was particularly well-represented, certainly in a way that was working with the script.

(Soundbite of song, "Round About")

UNKNOWN MALE (Singing): You go round about and round about and round about, you go. For an old ...

LUNDEN: Kay Duke Ingalls, Vernon Duke's widow, says some of the music survived. Her husband found ways over the years to reuse tunes from "Sweet Bye And Bye" in other shows, like his favorite song from the score, "Round About," which he put in 1952 review starring Bette Davis.

Ms. KAY DUKE INGALLS: He felt, always, that that was really, almost his best song that he ever wrote.

(Soundbite of song, "Round About")

UNKNOWN MALE: Then it's round about and round about and round about again, as you pray again each day again to soar. On your way again, it's round about once more.

LUNDEN: Producer Tommy Krasker put together a group of veteran Broadway actors and musicians to re-create "Sweet Bye And Bye" - not as it was when it closed, but as he thinks Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash intended it to be.

Mr. KRASKER: I would like nothing better than to see the music published, a vocal score published. Heck, I'd like to see some adventurous theater company take on the show. It's never been done on a New York stage before.

LUNDEN: So who knows? Maybe the new recording will give a future to this lost futuristic musical.

(Soundbite of music)

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: And this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.