America in the 1920’s was an era of uninhibited fun, celebrating newfound freedoms and a prosperous national economy. The Great World War of the previous decade was fading into memory, and everyone was convinced there would never be another. Unemployment was as a record low of 3%, cash flowed freely, and an American dollar went a long, long way. True, Prohibition made liquor illegal, but drinking seemed a lot more fun when it had to be done on the sly. Speakeasy clubs, famous for great entertainment and homemade booze, prospered openly without out much interference from law enforcement.
America’s women, enjoying their newly acquired right to vote, also choose to assert their independence with short haircuts and short skirts. Dance crazes like the Charleston and the Black Bottom swept the nation regularly, each more outrageous then the one before. In an ever escalating search for fun, daredevils climbed flagpoles, scaled skyscrapers, and danced on airplane wings.
And no place seemed more fun than a college campus. College life in the Twenties was depicted as a country club atmosphere, where academics played second fiddle to more socially oriented activities. College songs and college humor were wildly popular, and assorted campus hijinks were immortalized in the distinctive cartoons of John Held, Jr. A new craze known as college football was also sweeping the nation, but few people predicted that it might actually have some staying power.
This party atmosphere was also a highly creative time for the songwriters of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. In 1927 no fewer than 48 musical shows premiered on Broadway (compared with 8 in 1993), and Broadway shows needed Broadway songwriters.
For a few miraculous years, the trio of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson turned out a string of hit shows and hit tunes. Although their creativity overlapped and specific credit for music or lyrics were seldom given, in general Desylva and Brown worked on words and Henderson worked on music.
Taking them in order of their billing, B.G. (Buddy) DeSylva, (born in New York in 1895) was a child performer who easily made the transition to songwriter, and eventually to film producer. With various partners he had written such famous songs as “April Showers”, “Somebody Loves Me”, and “California, Here I Come”. Then, in 1925 producer George White needed to replace composer George Gershwin on a new edition of his Scandals, and teamed with DeSylva with the team of Brown and Henderson.
Lew Brown (born in Odessa, Russia, in1893, and brought by his immigrant parents to America when he was five) published his first succesful tune, “I’m the Lonesomest Girl in Town”, when he was only nineteen. Ray Henderson (born in New York in 1896) was also successful at a young age, supplying melodies for such songs as “Bye Bye, Blackbird”, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”, and “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”.
The special gift of the DeSylva-Brown-Henderson triumvirate, as noted by historian Stanley Green, was the ability to take an up-to-date topic - - be it college life or aviation or whatever was in the headlines - - deck it out with a serviceable plot and youthful energy, and then make it overflow with hummable, durable songs, brimming with personality and great catchy phrases and melodies.
Good News!, opening in 1927, centered on college football, and was the team’s greatest hit. (Walter Winchell - the best-known newspaper columnist and radio personality of his day - pronounced it “flip, fast, furious, free and flaming festive”) Football was followed by a boxing theme n Hold Everything (1928), then golf in Follow Through (1929), and then an aviation race in Flying High. They also contributed songs to early talking pictures like Sunny Side Up (1929) and Just Imagine (1930), before ging their separate ways. This collaboration lasted just seven years, but produced a rich legacy of songs that have never lost their poularity.
A Personal Note About This 1993 Production
In 1927 Good News! was a sassy contemporary musical comedy, with a loose, almost non-existent plot, a cluster of stereotypical characters, a stageful of youthful energy, and a collection of wonderful songs that would prove to be timeless.
In 1973 producer Harry Rigby (who revived No, No, Nanette for Broadway with Ruby Keeler, and Irene with Debbie Reynolds) announced a Broadway revival of GoodNews!, starring film legends Alice Faye and John Payne, with Stubby Kaye as the comic sidekick. Although most of the roles were cast out of New York, one young Los Angeles actor [Wayne Bryan] was cast in the role of Bobby Randall, making his Broadway debut. This actor was also thrilled that the production took his audition song, “Never Swat A Fly”, and added it to the show. The production opened in Boston in December of 1973, traveled the country for a year (to generally favorable reviews and good grosses), underwent constant cuts and revisions, and finally arrived on Broadway December 23, 1974. But when New York critics saw the finished product, they quickly vetoed it and it closed 16 performances later, and has rarely been performed in the 18 years since.
What went wrong? Two big mistakes, we think.
First, by starring three mature stars (who, by the way, were lovely people and supremely talented), the audience was led to expect that their characters were actually the main focus of the story. Unfortunately, these three characters had little function in the plot, which still revolved around the young characters on campus. By putting the three adult characters center stage for most of the show, the youthful energy and zany collegiate fun were greatly diminshed and everything was thrown off balance.
Second, the revival transposed the setting from the carefree, freewheeling Twenties into the Depression era Thirties. The idea was to cash in on nostalgia for John and Alice's late 1930’s movies at Fox, but the result robbed the show of its sassy ambience, its short-skirted madness, and its colorful language (terms like flapper, sheik and bootleg hooch all had to be eliminated, since they were no longer appropriate).
But Good News! has always had great songs and wonderful energy, and has never lost the power to entertain audiences. Believing that a new script could bring this show back to life, we began to dream of a new Good News!, to be initially presented in Wichita, with the hope that other new productions may follow. We completed lengthy negotiations wit the Tams-Witmark Library, Inc., which licenses the rights to perform Good News! (and we greatly appreciate their cooperation in making this new version possible).
Through the fall of 1992 and the spring of 1993, a brand new script was written by director Mark Madama and producing director Wayne Bryan, using characters, songs and a few lines of dialog from the original, but streamlining the action and giving the characters real backgrounds and clearer motivations. New vocal and orchestral arrangements by Craig Barna (and his hardworking associates) have been fashioned to restore the jazzy spontaneity of these classic songs, and choreographer Linda Goodrich has spent hours in film archives studying the dizzying, unpredictable dance styles of the late 1920’s.
Set designer Charles O’Connor has taken his inspiration from authentic art designs found in posters, sheet music and magazines of the era, creating a stylized Tait College with a sophisticated color palette, wildly irregular angles, and strong suggestions of Cubism and Art Deco. Similarily the costumes by Peggy J. Kellner are brand new interpretations of fashion layouts, photographs, catalog illustrations and paper dolls of the era.
It’s quite unprecedented for a summer theare like Music Theatre of Wichita to undertake such an enormous project – especially given the limited 2-week rehearsal and construction time, and our short run of only seven performances. But we have been excited by the challenge and have enjoyed and learned from the whole adventure. We're terrible proud of the results and we hope you’ll enjoy them too. We also hope that> our version of Good News! will introduce the great songs of Desylva, Brown and Henderson to a whole new generation of theatregoers.