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National Director of the Federal Theatre Project Hallie Flanagan called for theater to respond to current events. Social satire developed as the most important genre of the musical theater during the 1930s as anxieties stemming from the Great Depression found their voice. George and Ira Gershwin wrote music and lyrics for the satiric political musicals Of Thee I Sing (1931), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and its darker sequel, Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933). Satire was found in revues, including the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, in which Bob Hope appeared in a sketch satirizing government spending and Fanny Brice lampooned the “radical” dance movement. Hope starred that year in the political farce Red, Hot & Blue! that satirized Supreme Court rulings against the New Deal. The period’s most controversial satire, The Cradle Will Rock, a product of the pro-union and anti-fascist Popular Front coalition, challenged the middle class to join labor in confronting the capitalist class.

In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all forces, the theatre must grow up.—Hallie Flanagan, 1935


“Dance Is a Weapon”

The New Dance Group formed in 1932 as part of a workers’ dance movement. Adopting the slogan, “The dance is a weapon in the class struggle,” the founders reacted against modernist attempts “to make the subject matter of the dance abstract.” Their critically acclaimed “Van der Lubbe’s Head,” performed to the satiric poem by Alfred Hayes (1911–1985), memorialized a communist martyr guillotined by the Nazis for setting the Reichstag fire. The group continued to be influential into the 1960s.

Alfredo Valente, photographer. “Van der Lubbe’s Head,” 1934. Copyprint. New Dance Group Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (059.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0059]

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Musical Theater and Satire

Satire “had the automatic effect of adding weight” to 1930s musicals, Alan Jay Lerner (1918–1986) wrote. Of Thee I Sing and Let ’Em Eat Cake contrasted greatly with the Gershwins’ lighter 1920s shows. The former’s “Who Cares?” cynically asked “Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers /Long as you’ve got a kiss that conquers?” a line Ira replaced in the 1952 revival. The sequel offered the bleak vision of a proletarian dictatorship complete with guillotine.

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  • George (1898–1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896–1983). “Who Cares?” from Of Thee I Sing. New York: New World Music, 1931. Sheet music. Gershwin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (060.00.00) The Library of Congress does not have permission to display this image online.

  • Ira Gershwin. “Who Cares?” Lyric sheet for Of Thee I Sing, 1952 revival. Gershwin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (200.00.00) The Library of Congress does not have permission to display this image online.

  • George and Ira Gershwin. Ink doodles of heads by George Gershwin with lyric by Ira Gershwin from “No Comprenez, No Capish, No Versteh!” in “League of Nations Finale,” from Let ’Em Eat Cake, 1933. Gershwin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (201.00.00) The Library of Congress does not have permission to display this image online.

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Bob Hope’s Satire on the Stage

Bob Hope introduced two of the decade’s most popular show tunes in musicals that satirized topical concerns: “I Can’t Get Started,” sung with Eve Arden (1908–1990) in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and “It’s De-lovely” with Ethel Merman (1908–1984) in Red, Hot and Blue! Satirizing the Supreme Court’s nullification of key New Deal programs, the latter show depicted the high court decreeing a lottery unconstitutional because of its potential benefit to the public.

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The Cradle Will Rock

In 1935, President Roosevelt (1882–1945) created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided jobs for 8.5 million people, including artists, writers, musicians, and actors. Inspired by rank-and-file labor activism, Marc Blitzstein (1905–1964) intended his WPA Federal Theatre Project musical The Cradle Will Rock for a “new audience . . . clamoring for something vital.” After the federal government postponed its opening during a period of labor unrest, the production was moved and actors performed from the audience to avoid breaking union rules.

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  • Marc Blitzstein with cast. The Cradle Will Rock, 1937. Copyprint. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (062.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0062]

  • Marc Blitzstein. Script for The Cradle Will Rock, 1937. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (061.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0061] (061.00.01) (061.00.02)

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Sing for Your Supper

One of the Federal Theatre Project’s most ambitious musical productions, Sing for Your Supper, satirized congressional critics of the New Deal and stirringly dramatized the joy of a father finding work and the shock of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). The subject of congressional concern for its high cost and integrated cast, the revue abruptly closed when Congress halted funding for the project. The show’s finale, “Ballad for Uncle Sam,” however, achieved later renown as “Ballad for Americans” when Paul Robeson (1898–1976) sang it over national airwaves.

Poster for Sing for Your Supper. Adelphi Theatre, New York, 1939. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (196.01.00) [Digital ID # ppmsca-31186]

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South Pacific

In the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical South Pacific, Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960) and Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) brought the subject of racial prejudice to a mainstream audience. Though advised to drop the song that addressed the root cause of bigotry, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” they refused. James Michener (1907–1997), author of the book on which the show was based, explained “this number represented why they had wanted to do this play.” When the show played Atlanta, two state legislators charged that it “justifies intermarriage” and was “inspired by Moscow.”

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  • Oscar Hammerstein II. Lyric sheet for “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” 1949. Richard Rodgers Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (058.01.00) [Digital ID# bhp0058_01]

  • Richard Rodgers. “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Manuscript score, 1949. Richard Rodgers Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (199.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0199]

  • “Call South Pacific Racial Propaganda,” New York Herald-Tribune, March 1, 1953. Newspaper clipping. Oscar Hammerstein II Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (058.03.00) [Digital ID # bhp0058_03p00]

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The Origins of West Side Story

West Side Story originated with the idea of choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918–1998) to set Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in rival Jewish and Catholic New York slums. Annotations by composer Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) in his copy of the play described the show as “an out and out plea for racial tolerance” and suggested that a proposed “Song on Racism” be entitled “It’s the Jews.” The final version, transposed to white and Puerto Rican street gangs, retained Bernstein’s early aim to present “a tragic story in musical comedy terms.”

William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1940. Edited by George Kittredge. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (196.00.00) [Digital ID # bhp0196]

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Help from a Presidential Speechwriter

When the musical, Mr. President, by Irving Berlin (1888–1989), faced difficulties during its pre-Broadway run, director Joshua Logan (1908–1988) asked President Kennedy’s speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen (1928–2010), for help with a rewrite. Sorensen often consulted stories by humorists such as Will Rogers (1879–1935) and Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936) to help Kennedy establish audience rapport. Logan encouraged Sorensen to try playwriting, contending that the theater “is the strongest medium in the arts for expressing opinion.” Sorensen’s scene, though appreciated, was not used.

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  • Letter from Joshua Logan to Theodore Sorensen, October 23, 1962. Joshua Logan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (203.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0203]

  • Letter from Joshua Logan to Theodore Sorensen, October 12, 1962. Joshua Logan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (203.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0203_01]

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Purlie

Actor Ossie Davis (1917–2005) turned playwright with his 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, which satirized segregation. His characters, clichéd to the point of disturbing absurdity, provoked hilarity from audiences, who, he wrote, might “for the moment” share “the same point of view.” Laughter, he believed, could foster “mutual respect . . . on which all other relations including the struggle for freedom must ultimately depend.” The 1970 musical Purlie won acclaim, but Davis felt it lacked subtlety.

Purlie. Playbill, 1970. Lucy Kroll Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (204.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0204]

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Return to Causes and Controversies List Previous Section: Political Songs | Next Section: A Climate of Fear

Sections: Political Humor | Causes and Controversies | Blurring of the Lines