by Laura Frankos
Immigrants in Musicals, Part Two: Cinderellas Rampant
Last column, we looked at some early shows (1870-1910) that featured immigrants. The next twenty years saw two simultaneous developments. First, the immigrants who came to the United States in vast numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became more assimilated while immigration quotas cut the flood of newcomers to a trickle in the twenties. Second, the American musical was finding its unique form, something distinct from Viennese operettas or English imports. Shows featuring immigrants continued to be popular, though in most cases, their ethnicities weren't as starkly depicted as in Harrigan and Hart. These immigrants, paralleling their real-life counterparts, were well on their way to becoming part of the general populace.
(I should perhaps include an exception here for the growing numbers of Jewish performers of this period, especially Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Willie Howard and Lou Holtz, who often played characters of ostensibly WASP backgrounds while spouting gags clearly revealing their true origins.)
The shows of 1910-1930 that featured immigrantsor characters of immigrant heritage tended to follow two basic plots. The overwhelming favorite was the Cinderella story, in which a poor immigrant girl, usually Irish, goes from rags to riches. The queen of these is 1919's Irene, which ran for 675 performances, for years the longest-running musical of all time. Another type featured the heroine choosing domestic coziness with an honest but humble man, often a fellow immigrant, over fame and fortune in the big, bad city.
While most of the Cinderellas were Irish, Nina Corelli, the little Italian street singer played by Emma Trentini in The Firefly (1912, music by Rudolf Friml, book and lyrics by Otto Harbach) predates the fair colleens. Seeking to escape her cruel guardian, Nina disguises herself as a local boy, Antonio Columbo, on a yacht to Bermuda. Also on the yacht are handsome, rich Jack (with whom she'd shared an innocent flirt); Jack's snooty fiance, Geraldine Van Dare (the yacht owner's niece); and Herr Franz, a noted choirmaster. Franz hears "Antonio's" voice, and wants him in his choir. When "Antonio" is accused of a crime and Nina must reveal herself, Franz adopts her. Three years later, when she has become a prima donna with Franz's guidance, she meets Jackwho had apparently broken up with Geraldineagain in New York.
The Firefly, while a comic romance, does show some of the bad side of immigrant life along with the good. Nina's guardian is an abusive drunkard; her tenement neighborhood has its own pickpocket in Antonio, whose name Nina adopts. Nina finds fortune not merely through marriage to a rich guy, but through her own skills, aided by Herr Franz (who seems to be thoroughly European, not an immigrant). Interestingly, Geraldine's family, the Van Dares, obviously came from the Netherlandsthough it may have been back in the seventeenth century, like the Roosevelts!
We find another Italian immigrant in the Jerome Kern vehicle Head Over Heels (1918). Here acrobat Mitzi Bambinetti falls in love while in Europe, and follows her intended to America, with her father and other acrobats in tow, only to end up with the man's business partner.
But the biggest Cinderella of all was Irene (1919, music by Harry Tierney, lyrics by Joseph McCarthy, book by James Montgomery), whose long run wasn't surpassed until Oklahoma!. The show begins with poor shop girl Irene O'Dare (Edith Day) dreaming of a better future on the fire escape of her tenement, a set that attracted much praise. On an errand to a mansion in Long Island to reupholster cushions, she and wealthy Donald Marshall fall for each other. He gets her a better job (working as a model for his friend "Madame Lucy," a flamboyant male fashion designer), but both families oppose their relationship. Donald's mother thinks he'd be marrying beneath him, while Irene's mother doesn't trust rich people. When Irene poses as a socialite in "Lucy's" gowns, her sweet nature wins over the upper classes.
Given Irene's success, imitations soon abounded. Some of these Cinderellas had no last names at all. Sally, the hit of 1920, was "Sally of the Alley," a foundling, not an immigrant, though her love interest, the Duke of "Czechogovina" could be considered one. Many had names and backgrounds most likely white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, e.g., Laura Lamb, Jane Lee, Mary Thompson, Joyce Baxter.
But plenty of Cinderellas came from hard-working immigrant families. They include:
How well do our immigrant Cinderellas reflect reality? Generally, they're much better off than the real women. In 1920, 75% of all women factory workers were immigrant or first-generation Americans, but most of them were working on the line, not in clerical jobs. (See Rags for a show detailing the often horrible conditions these workers faced. And they came from everywhere, not just Ireland: the factories in Lawrence, Massachusetts, mentioned in Ragtime, reported over forty languages spoken.) It's true that clerical jobs for women, including more assimilated immigrants, were on the rise throughout the twenties, but a genuine Cinderella would probably have been a seamstress or assembly-line worker rather than taking memos for the boss' son! Yet we see little of immigrant factory workers in these shows, save in Mary Jane McKane. Although Mary is a secretary, the supporting cast includes Joe McGillicudy (whose emphasis on efficiency is a clear forerunner to Hines in The Pajama Game three decades later) and workers like Maggie Murphy and "Cash and Carrie," the Keene twins, who sing about punching the time clock. There's also a charming opener with the ensemble riding the subway as a messenger boy, a shop girl, a stenographer, a laundry worker, a banker and a stock broker, designed to give a real-life feel to the production.
Domestic service was the most common occupation for immigrant women, especially Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Mexicans, Bohemians, and Slovaks through the twenties. As time passed, more of these housekeeping/nanny positions went to black women. Yet only two of the Cinderellas were in domestic service. The titular heroine of the Rodgers and Hart flop, Betsy (played by Belle Baker), was a cleaning woman in a theatre, and Molly Shannon, The Girl in the Spotlight, was a housemaid. Betsy progresses from singing "A mop! A broom! A pail! The stuff my dreams are made of!" to success on stage, and Molly also ends up in show business. Maybe it was something in the soap!
Many immigrant women worked in family businesses, most often in retail stores catering to their ethnic group. A few of our CinderellasIrene, the upholsterer's assistant, and Mary Brennan, the restaurant workerworked for their families; Molly Ricardo got her start in her father's music store; and Mitzi's dad also was in the circus.
Given that musicals of this era tended to be frothy and fun rather than gritty and grim, it's not surprising that we don't see the realism present in later shows, especially those that featured immigrants in historical context (more on that in Part Four). The real world of the early twentieth century was harsh, especially for immigrants, and an accurate depiction of their lives would not have made for cheery musical production numbers. But it's interesting to note what the musical creators of this time thought were acceptable occupations for their heroines.
A "Little White House" over a Marble Palace
While less common than the rags-to-riches tale, a good number of immigrant heroines in musicals made a point of settling for a humble home, rather than a mansion. Their beaux, shown as having modest incomes but plenty of moral character, contrast with wealthy suitors from the big, bad city. These include:
1947Two Different Examples of Immigrants
Aside from a few cases like Toplitsky of Notre Dame (1946), a failed attempt to cater to Jewish and Irish audiences, there were fewer portrayals of immigrants and less emphasis given to ethnic background in the musicals of the thirties and forties. For example, Ethel Merman's "Nails" O'Reilly Duquesne in Red, Hot and Blue (1936) or Hattie Maloney in Panama Hattie (1940) and Patricia Morison's Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate (1948) are simply Americans, not Irish- or Italian-Americans. (Though I admit "Lilli Vanessi" could be a stage name.)
A notable exception would be 1947's Street Scene (book by Elmer Rice, music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes). Based on Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it focuses on the lower-class and immigrant families in a New York neighborhood. The families include Irish, Swedes, a German-Italian couple, Jews, and blacks. One faces eviction, another expects a new baby, and jealousy tears another apart. The action of Rice's original play was little changed: the shared sorrows and joys of the neighborhood played out as they had nearly twenty years before.
In stark contrast to Street Scene, that same year saw the arrival of the most famous Irish immigrants in musical history, Finian and his daughter Sharon, who move from Glocca Morra to the state of Missitucky (Finian's Rainbow, music by Burton Lane, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, book by Harburg and Fred Saidy). Maybe the fantastic nature of Finian's Rainbow means it shouldn't be included in a study of this sort, but I couldn't resist the chance to close with one of Senator Rawkins' lines: "My whole family has been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this county."