If you’re a fan of Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller, the ebullient stride piano player and jazz composer whose work has been forever enshrined in the Tony Award winning Best Musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin’, then it might come as a surprise that once upon a time he composed the score for a hit Broadway musical Early to Bed, that opened in June of 1943. This was only three months after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! had arrived, changing forever the way audiences perceived musicals, with its songs interweaved dramatically and that began sixteen years earlier with Showboat (also with a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein). The times they were a-changing, and even though Early to Bed broke no new ground in style or form, it was revolutionary in that it was the first time a composer of color created a Broadway score for an all-white cast—not insignificant.
Early to Bed, which opened June 17, 1943.
By 1943, Fats Waller was already one of the most celebrated recording artists in the country and the composer of more than 400 songs, although that number is probably greater, since he was forced to sell many tunes for cash (and for no credit) when times were bad. Born in 1904 in New York City, his grandfather, mother and father were all musicians, though they confined their playing to church (his father was also a Baptist minister). Waller took to the piano at the age of six and never looked back, dropping out of school at fifteen when he was hired as an organist at a Harlem silent movie theatre for $23 a week. A full professional by eighteen, one of the more shocking aspects of his output is that it encompassed not much more than twenty years. Waller was dead by age thirty-nine (more on that later).
His hits were many including “Black and Blue,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” and “The Joint is Jumpin’." He was also a marvelous performer, with a seductive, quirky singing voice and a mastery of the eighty-eight keys. He can be seen in a number of early musical shorts and films like King of Burlesque and Hooray for Love. Here he is singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from 1943’s Story Weather.
Waller had contributed songs to Broadway revues for years, but it wasn’t until what would turn out to be the end of his career that he composed a complete score to a book musical all on his own. He brought along George Marion Jr for Early to Bed, one of his longtime lyric-writing partners, who also took on the task of the show’s book. Primarily a screenwriter, Marion shared screenplay credits on such films as the Astaire and Rogers vehicle The Gay Divorcee (1934) and W.C. Fields’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939). Robert Alton, who had choreographed everything from the original productions of Anything Goes to Pal Joey, provided Early to Bed with its dances, and production photos indicate a lavish production. The scenery and costumes were designed by George Jenkins and Miles White, respectively, two of the greatest who worked on Broadway in its Golden Age. In fact, Jenkins was ahead of the curve utilizing mechanized scenery for Early to Bed, as opposed to stagehands pushing and wheeling things on and off. Wilella Waldorf (how's THAT for a name) writing in the New York Post stated that "the first time it [the scenery] moved the audience was in such a state of ecstasy that we were surprised they didn't do the routine over again by way of an encore. If songs can be reprised, why can't scenery be moved twice when it gets a big hand?"
Early to Bed (1943) with scenery by George Jenkins, Costumes by Miles White.
As far as a plot goes, Early to Bed would never be mistaken for anything like what Oklahoma! inspired it creators Rodgers and Hammerstein to go on to do with Carousel in 1945, which further revolutionized the American musical. Early to Bed was happy to concern itself with a house of ill-repute on the island of Martinique that pretended it was a girls' school for its cover. As they say: "mayhem ensues." There was always room for good old-fashioned fun in those days and Early to Bed provided just that during its 390-performance run. "It undoubtedly has the most beautiful chorus in the land," wrote Lewis Nichols in the New York Times, before going on to call its book "one of the most tedious on record." But it didn't matter, as some reviewers praised it highly, like the World-Telegram critic who claimed it "takes its place alongside Oklahoma! and Something for the Boys as girls-and-music entertainment of a superior sort." In those days audiences didn't mind mindless entertainment, so Early to Bed enjoyed a healthy run of just under a year, which presumably allowed it to pay off its investors and earn some profit. The cast list features no names that would mean anything to anyone today; its leads played by Muriel Angelus, Mary Small and Richard Kollmar, who is also credited in the Playbill with both "produced" and "staged by" credits (it's nice when you can hire yourself). Frankly, that's unfair: Kollmar had been the juvenile lead in the Broadway hits Knickerbocker Holiday, by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, and Rodgers and Hart's Too Many Girls.
Ethan Mordden, in his essential book Beautiful Mornin': The Broadway Musical in the 1940s, hones in on what contributed to Early to Bed being a hit: "It was art when art is out of ideas, and this show was made notorious only because its no-no subject matter and grinning title suggested a bawdy night out." As for its songs, this being the days before cast albums were routinely made, it should be noted that seven of the eleven composed by Waller and Marion eventually found their way to be being recorded by singers of the 40s and 50s, such as the fine jazz vocalist Teddi King, as well as by Waller himself. "When the Nylons Bloom Again" and "The Ladies Who Sing With the Band" were part of the the nearly three dozen tunes that made up Ain't Misbehavin' (seen here performed by the original cast on the 1978 Tony Awards broadcast). And yes, this show was every bit as delightful and tuneful as this clip suggests.
As for Waller's dubious death, it occurred while he was traveling on the Santa Fe Chief, eastbound from Los Angeles. Known as the "Train of the Stars," because of the numerous celebrities who travelled on it between L.A. and Chicago, Waller was not feeling well on the trip (always overweight, he was subject to illnesses related to that). One night he took to his berth—and died, discovered the following morning on December 15, 1943, six months shy of his 40th birthday. The coroner’s statement reported that “acute left influenzal bronchopneumonia” was “the immediate cause of death," with his place of death given as Union Station, Kansas City, Missouri. In a fanciful and ironic bit of timing, when Waller was being taken off the train at Union Station, Louis Armstrong was getting off a westbound one heading in the opposite direction.
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