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Broadway 101

The Great Depression

Part Three

A second important movement during these lean years of the Depression was the Group Theater. Considered by many to be a stepchild of the Theater Guild, the Group Theater was composed of a collection of Guild talent, who, for one reason or another, bonded to create a theater with a closer relationship to "art" than the Guild represented. Under the nominal leadership of Harold Clurman, the group included future theatrical luminaries Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, Stella and Luther Adler, Clfford Odets, Sanford Meisner, Morris Carnovsky, Franchot Tone, J. Edward Bromberg and Art Smith.

Idealistic and young (the average age was somewhere around 25), the group was united by a belief that theater was too involved with a "star" system, not particularly interested in the problems of "real life", too dependent on "hit or flop" commercialism, and that the art of acting itself was too artificial and fabricated. A group of 40 people from Broadway took off for the wilds of Brookfield, Connecticut, in the spring of 1931 to study, act and plan a new theater. The only pay involved for this experiment was room and board.

With a grant of $1,000 from the Theater Guild to help with expenses, rights to Paul Green's play The House of Connelly (also from the Guild) and deferred contract obligations for Franchot Tone and Martin Carnovsky, the group settled into a farmhouse and began creating their version of a theater company. When they returned to Broadway in the fall, the Group produced a successful run of The House of Connelly with more assistance from the Theater Guild. The idealistic Group Theater seemed to have succeeded in their attempt. The early success was followed by a series of less-than-successful presentations; Paul Sifton's 1931-, Maxwell Anderson's Night Over Taos and John Howard Lawson's Success Story. In 1933, however, the Group Theater had a major success with Men in White, a hospital drama by Sidney Kingsley.

A more important Kingsley entry of 1935 was Dead End. Reflecting the concern of the growing gulf in class structure, the play focused on life in the inner-city. Dan Duryea made his debut in that production, and the play was filmed in 1937 with Sylvia Sidney and Humphrey Bogart. The show also presented the original "Dead End Kids": Leo Gorcey, Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Gabe Dell and Bobby Jordan. Also among the street kids in the show were Sidney Lumet and Dane Clark.

By 1935, the Group Theater had developed its own voice in Clifford Odets. Originally an actor with the Group, Odets provided a number of winning scripts for the company. Waiting for Lefty, a pro-labor, one-act piece with Elia Kazan (as an actor), was coupled with an anti- fascist Till the Day I Die. Odets followed these the same year with Awake and Sing, which is considered by many to be his best work. The most financially rewarding for the Group was Golden Boy in 1937, in which Karl Malden made his Broadway debut. Harold Clurman directed this cast, which also included Frances Farmer, Lee J. Cobb and Martin Carnovsky. Other playwrights produced by the Group Theater include Robert Ardrey, Irwin Shaw and William Saroyan.

The Group Theater was disbanded in 1940 after a number of rifts and restructures had adulterated the Group's original concepts. It's true that Odets' Clash by Night is considered the last of the Group Theater's productions in 1941, but there were only two members of the original group involved. The Group Theater name had been dropped from all billing, and Billy Rose had taken over as producer. The behind-the- scenes politicking was a major influence in destroying the Group Theater, but another, perhaps more important, issue was one of economics. How could a project such as the Group Theater continue without a permanent home, and without an endowment or an audience who would support the bad shows along with the good? Basically, the Group Theater went the same way as Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory, and Le Gallienne had a permanent home.

Though Broadway was deeply wounded by the economic situation that swept the world in the Thirties, there is much to applaud. In 1931, Noel Coward's The Third Little Show opened with Beatrice Lillie singing "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" from a rickshaw. Coward followed this with a number of witty, cosmopolitan productions throughout the decade - from Design for Living, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, to 1937's Tonight at Eight-thirty, in which Coward starred with Gertrude Lawrence. Miss Lawrence closed out the decade by starring in Rachel Crother's final Broadway play, Susan and God. Lawrence gave what one critic called "her most incandescent performance", playing a superficial woman whose latest hobby is religion.

A songwriter of witty and urbane music who set his star in the Thirties is Cole Porter. Gay Divorce opened in November of 1932 with Fred Astaire dancing for the first time (and only time on stage) without his sister Adele. The show, which introduced the song "Night and Day", had a mildly successful run of 248 performances and became a successful motion picture, The Gay Divorcee, in 1934. Porter also gave us Anything Goes in 1934. This show introduced, "You're the Tops," "Blow Gabriel, Blow," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "All Through the Night" and, of course, the title Song, with a sensational performance by Ethel Merman. Miss Merman's performance is reported to have caused Arturo Toscanini to compare Merman to the castrati of Italian opera. Porter followed the hit Anything Goes with Jubilee in 1935, giving the world "Begin the Beguine" and "Just One of Those Things". In Jubilee, 14-year-old Montgomery Clift was introduced to Broadway patrons as the spoiled heir of spoiled royalty.

Red, Hot and Blue was Porter's entry for 1936. The stars were (again) Miss Merman and Jimmy Durante, with Bob Hope co-starring. The classic selection in that show was "It's De-Lovely". Porter ended the decade with the show, Leave It To Me starring Sophie Tucker, William Gaxton and Victor Moore. Cabaret singer Mary Martin stepped in to replace actress-singer June Knight, who had left the show during the rehearsal period to get married. Porter had written a little tune for Miss Knight called "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", the song that would become Miss Martin's signature. Another debut in that show was that of chorus boy Gene Kelly.

Scandals Eleanor Powell had her first Broadway dance role in George White's Scandals of 1931. Also in that cast were Ethel Merman, Ray Bolger and Rudy Vallee. With George Abbott directing, Billy Rose produced the leviathan circus-musical Jumbo at the leviathan Hippodrome Theater in 1935. This Rodgers and Hart musical, starring Jimmy Durante, had a book by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Serious redesign of the theater interior to reproduce a genuine circus arena didn't help the show, and, though it had a somewhat successful run, it closed deeply in the red. The Hippodrome was just too expensive a venue to run, and, after a few years of vacancy following the close of Jumbo, it was razed in 1939.

Lillian Hellman had a stellar debut as a playwright when her The Children's Hour opened in 1934 at Maxine Elliott's Theater on 39th Street. What could have been an exercise in homo-erotic titillation became a sensitive and sensible study of the destructive power of slander and ignorance in a small town. Hellman closed the decade with equal force with The Little Foxes, starring Tallulah Bankhead as Regina Hubbard. A show that could have become another expose of social structure and politics in the Deep South became - at Hellman's brilliant hand - a social comment on the power of greed. Theater was finally taking itself seriously. The intellectual claims of writers like David Belasco, Edward Sheldon and Arthur Hornblow were finally finding fruition in Hellman and O'Neill.

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