Of Thee I Sing

Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind

October 12 - 14 at 8 PM
October 15 at 2 PM
Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre

background |from our newsletter | press release | synopsis
program | photographs | designs

Background Information
The year was 1931. The United States was embroiled in its greatest economic crisis in history, the Great Depression. In the midst of this dark hour for the young democracy, there appeared upon the stage one of the liveliest, most delightful pieces of musical theater ever written. "Of Thee I Sing" is widely hailed as one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever staged, as much for its clever lyrics and melodic score as for its brilliant satirical thrust.

The play's targets are as varied as they are skillfully attacked; nor does the play attempt a one-sided view. The play mocks the ineffective politicians with their empty campaign slogans, but even more so it points the finger at the American populace that is willing to accept them and even elect them to office. Wintergreen's road to success is a tribute to surface politics; he excites the voters out of apathy with his "love" campaign; he avoids impeachment by appealing to his appending fatherhood; and in singing his ballad-anthem "Of Thee I Sing, Baby" he woos both Mary and the nation, as the ambiguous lyric suggests. In the most sublime moment in the opera, John disentangles himself from his engagement to Diana Devereaux by posing the question: "Which is more important? Corn Muffins, or Justice?" In a comic masterstroke, the justices of the Supreme Court reply: "Corn Muffins!" It is the turning point of the show, and the key to its satirical genius; love has swept the country, and now even the Supreme Court has fallen under the sway of the Wintergreen campaign.

"Of Thee I Sing" was the longest running musical of its decade, with "Anything Goes" a close second: interestingly so, for while "Anything Goes" urged audiences to put the Depression out of their minds for two entertaining hours, "Of Thee I Sing" delivered entertainment that never let its audience forget the crisis at hand. With its plot and characters almost fully revealed within skillfully executed finaletti, "Of Thee I Sing" is one of the very first dramatically integrated musicals. The songs are as crucial to the aesthetic value of the show as the libretto, in fact even more so; the most timeless satire is captured not in the dialogue, but in IraÕs lyrics, the finest of his career. The score was George's finest so far, brilliantly combining a popular idiom with recitative and the patter song. Ironically, when the Pulitzer Prize committee chose "Of Thee I Sing" as the greatest American play of 1931, it considered the music to be of secondary value, and the prize was split between Ira, Kaufman and Ryskind alone. Today, with the clarity of vision hindsight affords, we can see wherein the true aesthetic dignity of "Of Thee I Sing" lies. There were American operettas before it and after it but after almost seventy years, "Of Thee I Sing" remains unchallenged as the greatest American operetta ever written, and one of the masterpieces of the American stage.
by Brian D. Sweeny, Savoyard Light Opera Company

From our Newsletter
Another presidential election is fast upon us, and do we have a show for you! It's all about electing a new president and it doesn't miss a beat. If you think things have changed in the world of American politics, you'll need to see this show, 'cause some things never change. From October 12 through 15, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, the ever-exciting U-M Musical Theatre Department will present "Of Thee I Sing," one of the brightest, most nimble spoofs ever written about American politics. In 1931, the Gershwin brothers joined forces with two of America's best storytellers: the great George S. Kaufman, and the incomparable Morrie Ryskind. "Of Thee I Sing" offers wise and humorous insights into the political arena that are applicable to this day. In it we find well-seasoned, cigar-smoking pols who wheel and deal, red-hot sex scandals, and even a bumbling attempt at impeachment. Filled with catchy Jazz-Age tunes, sprightly show-stopping dances, and an almost ridiculous story about corruption in the Halls of Power, "Of Thee I Sing" is one of the Gershwin Bros. funniest and sunniest works for the stage.

What makes "Of Thee I Sing" so much fun (besides the Gershwins' thoroughly enjoyable score) are the contributions made by Kaufman and Ryskind. In case you're not familiar with these two giants of the American stage, perhaps this will help: KaufmanÕs opus includes two Marx Brothers' comedies, "Cocoanuts" and "Horsefeathers," as well as such classics as "The Royal Family," "Dinner at Eight," and "The Man Who Came to Dinner." Ryskind wrote "Animal Crackers" (another Marx Bros. hit), "Merry-Go-Round" and "Strike up the Band." It's an all-star, all-American creative team that can't be beat!

So, c'mon out and see "Of Thee I Sing." You'll be whistling all the way to the polling site.

Press Release

Proving that political intrigue is timeless, the University of Michigan Musical Theatre Department presents "Of Thee I Sing," one of the brightest, most nimble spoofs ever written about American politics. Filled with catchy Jazz-Age tunes by George and Ira Gershwin, sprightly show-stopping dances, and a madcap story about corruption in the Halls of Power, "Of Thee I Sing" will play for four performances October 12 through October 15 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. A timely foil to the current Presidential election campaign, the show is "funnier than the Government and not nearly so dangerous," according to the New York Times.

In 1929, George and Ira Gershwin teamed with two of America's best storytellers, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, to write a trio of satirical musicals addressing social issues. The second in the triad (the other shows being "Strike up the Band" and "Let'em Eat Cake"), "Of Thee I Sing" focuses on the political arena. Well known for his witty and satirical dialogue, Kaufman's other works include two Marx Brothers' comedies, Cocoanuts and Horsefeathers, as well as such classics as "The Royal Family," "Dinner at Eight," and "You Can't Take it with You." Ryskind also worked with the Marx Brothers' on Animal Crackers. Kaufman and Ryskind's book combined with George Gershwin's sweeping music and Ira's clever lyrics made "Of Thee I Sing" a highlight of the 1931 Broadway season. The New York Times declared it "the happiest and most successful native music-stage lampoon to come the way of the American stage." The show went on to win the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama ever awarded to a musical and played for 441 performances, a record at that time.

In contrast to most musicals of the 1930s, "Of Thee I Sing" spawned few popular hits, since the integration of book with music was so complete - a feat rarely matched in musical theatre until the 1950s. Three songs from the show did achieve widespread popularity and are staples of jazz singers to this day: "Love is Sweeping the Country," "Who Cares," and the title song.

Director Brent Wagner has wanted to stage the musical at UM for many years. "The musical showcases a sensational Gershwin score, while the book is equally strong. The story is amazingly relevant to the issues and concerns prevalent in today's Presidential elections - the similarities in political parties, backroom decisions at political conventions, unfathomable Supreme Court decisions, and ambiguity over the role of the Vice President - while maintaining the romance and sentiment of an earlier time."

The musical is built around an almost absurd - but mostly believable - plot offering humorous insights into the political arena. Presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen and his running mate Alexander Throttlebottom are nominated by a bunch of old boys scheming in a back room, win the presidency by sham political issues, then find themselves assailed from all sides. During the campaign, Wintergreen's advisers had staged a beauty contest, promising that the winner would marry the candidate if he were elected. The lucky contestant is Diana Devereaux, who comes to claim her prize when Wintergreen is elected. The new president, however, has fallen in love with one of the contest organizers, Mary Turner, thereby setting the stage for a nasty scandal, possible impeachment, and an international conflict with France. A surprising outcome results when the Supreme Court is asked to arbitrate.

Joining Wagner on the artistic team are musical director Grant Wenaus ("A Little Night Music") and choreographer Lisa Catrett-Belrose ("Candide"). The production team for "Of Thee I Sing" includes two Department of Theatre and Drama faculty members: scenic designer Gary Decker whose recent designs include "A Little Night Music," "The Magic Flute" and "Grand Hotel" and costume designer George Bacon who recently designed "Candide." Undergraduate theatre student Aaron Sporer, whose last work was seen in "The Daughter of the Regiment," will design lights.

Ticket prices are $20 and $15 depending on seat location with students only $7 with ID. Tickets are available at the League Ticket Office, located within the Michigan League on UM Central Campus. The Ticket Office is open from 10am Š 6pm, Monday through Friday. Reservations may be made by phone at (734) 764-0450 using MasterCard, Visa and Discover.

The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, located within the Michigan League at 911 N. University, is handicapped accessible and equipped with an infrared listening system for hearing enhancement.
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Of Thee I Sing opens on an election year in the yearly 1930s as National Party campaigners herald their presidential nominee, John P. Wintergreen. Inside the campaign sure, however, Party Committee members are less than jubilant. Public trust in the Party is low (especially since they sold Rhode Island), and their candidate's only qualification is his presidential-sounding name. Newspaperman Matthew Fulton suggests they adopt a platform that "everybody is interested in, and that doesn't matter a damn." What could be better than a platform based on love, already a national obsession? Plans are laid: The party will sponsor a beauty contest in Atlantic City, and Wintergreen will marry the winner.

On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, bathing beauties from every state vie for the title of Miss White House. But while the judges are deliberating, Wintergreen falls in love with Mary Turner, a secretary at the pageant, and proposes. The announcement of the winner - the fairest flower of the South, Diana Devereaux - comes too late: Wintergreen has pledged his heart to Mary, a girl who can make corn muffins - even with corn. One taste of Mary's muffins and the Committee and judges rally around Wintergreen.

The campaign is a joyous one. National Party secretaries Jenkins and Miss Benson observe that "Love is Sweeping the Country" as John and Mary reenact their courtship in each of the forty-eight states. On election day, the Wintergreen ticket wins by a landslide.

Appropriately, John and Mary choose the Inauguration as their wedding day. After Wintergreen bids a musical farewell to his bachelor days, he and Mary exchange vows. Diana Devereaux shows up to serve Wintergreen a summons for breach of promise, but even the Supreme Court turns a deaf ear to her complaints.

Months pass, and the new Administration settles into a comfortable routine. The most pressing item on Wintergreen's agenda is picking a horse to bet on at Pimlico. But Diana has been spreading her tale of woe across the country and has turned public sentiment in her favor. Wintergreen manages to appease the press with his old campaign strategy until the French Ambassador arrives to join Diana's cause: Diana Devereaux, it seems, is of French descent, and France insists that Wintergreen declare his current marriage invalid and marry her. Wintergreen refuses, and the National Party threatens to have him impeached.

At the Senate impeachment proceedings, Vice-President Throttlebottom leads the roll call. Following testimony by the French Ambassador, Diana tells of the suffering she has endured. Before the Senators can vote on the impeachment, in bursts Mary: "I'm about to be a mother!" The Unites States has never impeached an expectant father; the charges against Wintergreen are dropped, as he assures everyone that "Posterity is Just Around the Corner."

Months later, Americans everywhere anxiously await the baby's arrival. When Mary delivers twins, congratulations flood the White House, but the French Ambassador is still unwilling to forget how his country has been slighted. With the President unable to fulfill his duty, Wintergreen reasons that responsibility for Diana should fall to the Vice-President. Throttlebottom happily agrees, and the company bursts into song.

Click here to view the Of Thee I Sing program as a PDF file

Production Photographs

Production Designs
Costume design by
Mary Turner Act II Scene 1 Diana Devereaux Mary Turner Act II Scene 3

Miss Benson & Jenkins The French Ambassador Throttlebottom

The Senators The Supreme Court
Scenic design by Gary Decker
United States Senate The White House Campaign Headquarters