By JENNIFER GAVIN
An all-star Broadway cast, backed by a 24-piece orchestra and an 11-member chorus, delivered the first live performance in 75 years of the musical revue “Life Begins at 8:40” in a concert production at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium—to the laughter and delight of the packed house.
The evening’s sensation was a triumph of preservation: Staff of the Library’s Music Division, with support from the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust for the benefit of the Library of Congress, worked for five years to reassemble the show from scores, lyrics and other materials scattered following the original 237-performance run at New York’s Winter Garden Theater. The original cast featured Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger (preceding their appearance in “The Wizard of Oz”), Luella Gear and Frances Williams.
On the evening of March 22, Broadway and recording veterans Kate Baldwin, Philip Chaffin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Montego Glover, Rebecca Luker, Brad Oscar, Faith Prince, Graham Rowat and Jessica Stone delivered 19 songs by Broadway greats Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg as the orchestra—led by Aaron Gandy—batted out the snappy music.
The singers and orchestra are scheduled to make a recording of the revue, to be released by the PS Classics label.
“We’re very happy the production of this wonderful ‘lost’ revue was so successful, and we’re looking forward to the recording sessions next week,” said Elizabeth Auman of the Library’s Music Division. “This was a labor of love for all of us who have spent much time over the past five years in the musical archaeological work of finding the pieces of the puzzle and putting them back together.”
The restoration of “Life Begins at 8:40” was supervised by Larry Moore. Auman and Robert Kimball, artistic adviser to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts, are overseeing the restoration, concert and recording process.
As a revue, “Life Begins at 8:40” had no particular story line that carried through the evening’s singing; instead, it was a collection of largely comic songs and shtick, laced with a few warm love songs, calculated to just-plain-entertain.
The title song was about the lives of theater creatures who sleep by day and sing, dance or act by night: “We’ve been sleeping all day—dancing girls are funny that way,” the chorines sang.
One of the revue’s best-known tunes was a fractious back-and-forth argued in song by Christopher Fitzgerald and Jessica Stone: “You’re a builder-upper, a breaker-downer, a holder-outer, and I’m a giver-inner—sad but true, I love it, I do, being broken by a builder-upper like you!”
Another memorable number asked the musical question: “What can you say in a love song that hasn’t been said before?”
Auman said it was not unusual for original performance materials from musicals of the early 20th century to become scattered following a show’s initial run. Some of the pieces of “Life Begins at 8:40” were discovered in the 1980s in the “Secaucus warehouse find,” which uncovered a huge trove of show materials in New Jersey; those materials now are housed at the Library. Other portions of the show were found in the Shubert Theater Archives in New York.
The Library of Congress holds the collections of George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, Charles Strouse, Jonathan Larson, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and dozens of other composers, lyricists, performers, directors, producers and designers.
Jennifer Gavin is senior public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.