"A Bright Golden Haze"
In January of 1941, Arsenic and Old Lace opened; a tale of two elderly spinsters who genially poison lonely elderly gentlemen and the old ladies' three peculiar nephews. One envisions himself as Teddy Roosevelt, charging up the staircase as San Juan Hill and burying the victims of Yellow Fever (i.e. the aunts' elderberry wine) in the cellar while digging the "Panama Canal". A second nephew, a classic, murderous "gangster" whose plastic surgery has made him, "look like Boris Karloff, " is hiding from the police. The third nephew is a newspaper journalist. "[Mortimer]… was so happy writing about real estate, which he knew something about, and then they just made him take this terrible night position…," says one aunt. "…but, as he says, the theater can't last much longer and in the mean time it's a living." An exuberant farce AND a swipe at theater critics, it was a very popular vehicle. Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Allyn Joslyn and Boris Karloff (later replaced by Erich von Stroheim) kept the audience laughing for over 1440 performances.
In November of that year, Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit opened, with bickering ghosts and absent-minded psychics helping a husband sort out the aftermath of a fatal auto accident. Not a likely premise, but Brook Atkinson called the play "uproarious… insane farce." Peggy Wood, Clifton Webb, and Mildred Natwick kept audiences laughing for two years, and Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford expanded the favor of audiences of the play with the 1945 movie.
Farce continued to be a mainstay of Broadway, when One Touch of Venus opened in 1943. Mary Martin made her first starring appearance as the statue of a goddess that comes to life. Kurt Weill wrote the score for this play scripted by humorist and short story author S. J. Perelman and poet Ogden Nash. An original draft was written by Bella Spewack with Marlene Dietrich in mind for the role of "Venus", but her script was rejected and the role changed from earthy and exotic to young and innocent for Miss Martin. Basically it's the story of a young barber from "Ozone Heights, New York", who falls in love with a statue in an art museum. "Ozone Heights" was an "in joke" among New Yorkers, and a broader joke for outsiders. The statue comes to life and falls for the barber, but facing the reality of life in "Ozone Heights," returns to marble. Of course, the barber meets a girl who looks just like the statue who relishes the idea of life in "Ozone Heights". Directed by Elia Kazan and choreographed by Agnes DeMille, One Touch of Venus enjoyed a 567 performance run and was turned into the 1948 movie with Ava Gardner, Robert Walker and Dick Haymes.
Perhaps the biggest farce, and still a staple for High School thespians around the country is the 1944 Pulitzer Prize winning Harvey, by Mary Chase. Frankie Fay, an ex-vaudevillian played the role of Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend is a six-foot-tall, invisible white rabbit. Josephine Hull played his slightly neurotic sister. James Stewart will take the role briefly in 1947, while Frank Fay does a turn with a touring company of the show. Chemistry must have been very high between Stewart and Miss Hull (or between Stewart and the public) for they will repeat the roles in the 1949 film classic.
The fact that Europe was at war was not lost on Broadway on the first two years of the decade. Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer winning There Shall Be No Night about the Russian invasion of Finland opened on April 29th, of 1940, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Sherwood graciously donated his proceeds of the play to the American Red Cross and the Finnish War Relief Fund to further their resistance to Russia. Lillian Hellman's anti-fascist Drama Critic's Circle winner, Watch on the Rhine, opened just one year later. In October of 1941, a second performance of the play is scheduled after the evening's performance and broadcast in German to the people of Germany.
The American Theater Wing had volunteered its services and was serving as an auxiliary to the British War Relief. In December of 1941, Japan drew America into the War. There Shall Be No Night, which was touring, was withdrawn from production since Finland had allied itself with Germany against the Russian Front, and The Theater Wing came home as The American Theater Wing War Service. Rachel Crothers served as president. Selena Royle who was so energetic in organizing aid for actors during the Depression is equally as energetic with the war effort and the Theater Wing opened "The Stage Door Canteen" by March of 1942. In space provided by the Shuberts under the Forty-fourth Street Theater, American military personnel of any race or creed could eat and dance for free while being waited on, hobnobbed and entertained by Broadway stars. On that first day, Gertrude Lawrence, Walter Pidgeon, Tallulah Bankhead, Jane Cowl and Selena Royle, were the ones doing the entertaining, hobnobbing and the cooking. There were eventually 9 Stage Door Canteens in as many cities in three different countries entertaining Allied troops. When the original closed for the final time on October 28th of 1945, it is estimated that over 20 million people had been served and entertained by this group of establishments, and that the value of the talent that had appeared was somewhere in the vicinity of 16 million dollars.
Gertrude Lawrence, joined by numerous other luminaries sold war bonds in the lobbies of their respective theaters. While giving a performance at a Massachusetts Army base, Miss Lawrence is left in the dark in mid song when a blackout alarm is sounded. She didn't miss a note. Brook Atkinson took a leave from the New York Times where he served as drama critic, to serve as a war correspondent in Asia.
Irving Berlin produced This is the Army, which opened at the Broadway Theater in June of 1943. In it he reprised "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in The Morning", and introduced, "This is The Army Mr. Jones". The cast of 359 men played 113 performances and was the only racially integrated unit in the Army at the time. All proceeds for the entire run were donated to the Army Emergency Relief Fund and the post Broadway tour included frontline stations and continued until October of 1945. Burl Ives, Ezra Stone, and Gary Merrill were members of that unit. Stage unions raised some objections to the incorporated non-profit production, but were relieved to know that the show was incorporated to protect Berlin's rights to the music. Estimates of the amount that This Is The Army provided for the Relief Fund coffers hover around 10 million dollars. The play was so successful that the Army Air Force produced Moss Hart's Winged Victory in November of that year, also for the benefit of the Army Emergency Relief Fund. The show follows three ordinary guys through boot camp into combat. The guys weren't so ordinary: Edmond O'Brien, Don Taylor and Mark Daniels. The 44th Street Theater must have bulged, for the cast included 350 G.I.s including Lee J. Cobb, Red Buttons, and Barry Nelson, and James Nederlander served on the production staff.
This Is The Army wasn't the only integrated show on Broadway that season, however. Paul Robeson played the title role in Othello opposite Uta Hagen's "Desdemona" and Jose Ferrer's "Iago". In spite of some racially driven haggling over the quality of the play, it ran for 288 performances, a record for Shakespearean revivals and proved equally successful on the road. The Theater Guild, which backed the show, did defer to Robeson's request that Washington D.C. and Baltimore be removed from the tour calendar since these two cities still insisted on segregating their audiences.