The following post is by Mark Eden Horowitz, Senior Music Specialist.
On March 22nd, the Music Division of the Library of Congress will present a concert of the 1934 musical revue, Life Begins at 8:40. Though the show and score may not sound familiar, five years later four of the original participants joined forces for the film, The Wizard of Oz, with Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg writing the score, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. This concert is the culmination of several years work to have the original score painstakingly reconstructed. For the first time in 75 years, the original orchestrations will be performed . Accompanied by a full orchestra will be a roster of contemporary Broadway stars, including Kate Baldwin, Rebecca Luker, Brad Oscar, and Faith Prince. PS Classics will take the entire ensemble into the recording studio the following week. The funding for all of this is made possible by The Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust for the Benefit of the Library of Congress.
Life Begins at 8:40 opened at the Winter Garden on August 27, 1943, ran a respectable 237 performances, and was considered a rare success in Depression-era Broadway. Lavishly produced by the Shuberts, the satirical sketches by several authors were much praised, and to give a sense of the embarrassment of riches the show represented, the show was so overstuffed, that the only George S. Kauffman skit was cut. But it is the original cast that tends to draw the most attention—particularly the clowning of Bert Lahr and the dancing of Ray Bolger. Less remembered are comedienne/singer, Luella Gear, and the “blue-voiced and lissome” Frances Williams.
The show marked an unexpected collaboration between composer Arlen, and lyricists Gershwin and Harburg. By 1934, Arlen was best known for the songs written with Ted Koehler for a series of shows at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. They developed a jazz and blues influenced style, epitomized by “Stormy Weather.” Arlen and Harburg collaborated previously on a song for the ill-fated play The Great Magoo—though the show failed, the song, “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” became a standard. Ira had long been known for his collaborations with his brother George, but the timing happened to coincide with George’s research and work composing Porgy and Bess, so this new tripartite partnership was possible. Both lyricists were known for their wordplay, and were particularly suited for a satiric topical revue. Ira had previously written lyrics for three political satires (Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing and Let ‘em Eat Cake), and Yip’s passionate interest in social issues was most famously expressed in the unofficial anthem of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1932).