Only the most devoted of theatre fans will have heard about a long-forgotten musical that opened on this date in 1939 at the long-gone Center Theatre. Located at 6th Avenue and W. 49th Street, across from Radio City Music Hall, the Center seated 3,700 people, which for a little perspective is 1,800 more than the capacity of the Gershwin, where Wicked is now playing. The Center was so big it didn't play home to many Broadway musicals, but Swingin' the Dream was something special—and very ambitious for its time. It was a jazz-infused, fully integrated version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, updated to contemporary New Orleans. Among its performers were the immortal trumpeter Louis Armstrong as Bottom; bluesy-jazz singer Maxine Sullivan as Titania, the Dandridge Sisters (one of whom would become the future film star Dorothy), and comedic actresses like Jackie "Moms" Mabley as Quince and Butterfly McQueen as Puck. Among the array of musicians who contributed were Count Basie and Benny Goodman (who performed on opposite sides of the stage), and the production's wild scenic design was based on Walt Disney cartoons. The choreography was by one of the all-time greats, Agnes DeMille, and its score mixed then-contemporary hits like "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Jeepers Creepers" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" side by side with Felix Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" from his 1842 Midsummer Night's Dream. There was original material, too, with "Darn That Dream," by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie De Lange, going on to become a standard.
And Swingin' the Dream ran for thirteen performances.
Al Hirschfeld's rendition of Swingin' the Dream that adorned the cover of Playbill (1939).
The thinking at the time was to capitalize on recent successes that had helped turn Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors into Rodgers and Hart's hit musical The Boys from Syracuse, and Gilbert and Sullivan's faux-Japanese operetta into The Hot Mikado, which transferred its action to Harlem in the 1930s with an all-black cast. But for a variety of reasons, Swingin' the Dream didn't come close to repeating those shows in audience popularity. For one thing, it was a behemoth, boasting a cast of one hundred (yup—one hundred). For another, unlike those two, it wasn't very good.
Swingin' the Dream has aroused the curiosity of theatre historians for the better part of seventy-eight years—and for good reason. For one thing, there was Louis-freaking-Armstrong in a Broadway musical! That never happened again. With no significant recording made of the show, and its script never being found, there's no question it's a long time to cry over spilled milk. But from what's been pieced together, it appears that the show relied a lot more on Shakespeare than one might have initially expected, apparently to its detriment. The reviews on the whole pointed out how Swingin' the Dream adhered too closely to Midsummer's original storytelling, and perhaps Brooks Atkinson had the right idea when in his New York Times review, he suggested it may have done better "by forgetting Shakespeare altogether." Citing the lack of focus and grab bag aspect of the show, Atkinson closed by calling it "an uneven show that represents a good idea indifferently exploited."
Louis Armstrong surrounded by the Dandridge Sisters in Swingin' the Dream (1939).
The show's book was by Gilbert Seldes, a well-regarded writer and cultural critic (and father of the late actress Marian Seldes). His Swingin' the Dream co-author was Erik Charell, who also served as its producer and director. Charell, a German-born artist with a fine eye (he would later retire and become a renowned art collector), had in the previous season, produced another extravaganza at the Center Theatre, White Horse Inn. It was an enormous show, but as opposed to Swingin' the Dream, an enormous hit. First produced in London (1931), Charell successfully brought it to Paris, Broadway, and then the world over. And just for the fun of it, White Horse Inn was the first musical the eight-year old Stephen Sondheim ever saw (and if you read somewhere that it's The Boys from Syracuse, that information is incorrect). He told me so himself. 😊
1939 was a heady time for Broadway. Just take this partial list of shows that appeared on the same page of the New York Times as Atkinson's November 30th review of Swingin the Dream:
Not only is there the matter of taking in that Swingin' the Dream boasted a "$2.20 TOP," but also (just for the asking) there were Paul Muni, Helen Hayes, Gertrude Lawrence, Tallulah Bankhead (in The Little Foxes, no less), Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson in the longest running revue in Broadway history, Hellzapoppin, James Barton in Tobacco Road (the second-longest run for a straight play ever) and the original cast of Life with Father, still the record-holder as the longest running play. If that's not enough, the musical Yokel Boy was at the Majestic, and though it may have starred Buddy Ebsen, how much fun would it have been to see a new guy named Phil Silvers stealing the show nightly in a supporting role? Not to mention Rodgers and Hart's Too Many Girls (featuring the debut of a twenty-two year-old Cuban-emigre Desi Arnaz) and the now-classic Kaufman and Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner. And if this list was expanded to all the shows being presented, you would see that Maurice Evans was performing as Hamlet, Ella Logan and Ann Miller were appearing in George White's Scandals, Abbott and Costello headlined a revue called The Streets of Paris with Carmen Miranda, and William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, "the original gay-mad comedy hit" (as advertised), was the season's future Pulitzer Prize winner, and featured Gene Kelly and Celeste Holm in minor roles that would help make them stars.
Gene Kelly as Harry the Hoofer in The Time of Your Life (1939).
But back to Swingin’ the Dream and one of the reasons why it’s still so intriguing, even after all these years. Sure, there is the sheer size of it all (which is a huge part of it), but more substantially, it afforded a host of unique opportunities to one-of-a-kind African-American performers at a time when they were usually forced to play servants and maids. In that less-enlightened time, Swingin’ the Dream (for whatever its faults) presented these immensely talented men and women at the peak of their powers. And that’s something … even if it was only for thirteen performances.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.