Tthe genesis of Let’s Face It!, under veteran Broadway producer, Vinton Freedley, had actually preceded America’s involvement in the war, having been set into motion in early 1941.
Freedley had produced (and co-produced in partnership with Alex A. Aarons) plays and musical comedies in the Manhattan theatre district as far back as 1924 and had enjoyed considerable success with such productions as the Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good, Tip-Toes, Oh, Kay!, Funny Face and Girl Crazy, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson’s Hold Everything, and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, Red, Hot and Blue and Leave It to Me! over the intervening years. In the casual manner that American musical comedies were put together in the pre-war years, Freedley had contracted Cole Porter to provide the score for his next Broadway musical to be staged in the US Autumn season, even before the libretto had been written or the plot of the show been determined. To provide the latter (at Porter’s suggestion) Freedley then signed veteran librettist, Herbert Fields (whose book-writing credits extended back to the early Rodgers and Hart musicals of the 1920s, which included Dearest Enemy, The Girl Friend, Peggy-Ann, A Connecticut Yankee, Present Arms and Chee-Chee) and also suggested that he share the writing duties with a collaborator (as Fields had done with his previous two Porter shows, Dubarry Was a Lady in 1939 and Panama Hattie in 1940.) Eschewing his previous collaborator, B.G. ‘Buddy’ DeSylva (who had also produced Dubarry and Hattie) Fields decided instead to ‘keep it in the family’ and enlisted his Broadway and Academy Award-winning Hollywood lyricist younger sister, Dorothy Fields to co-write what would be her first book for a musical comedy (but not her last; the siblings would later collaborate on Porter’s Something For the Boys and Mexican Hayride, Sigmund Romberg’s Up in Central Park, Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and Albert Hague’s Tony Award-winning ‘Best Musical’ Redhead, as well as two less-successful shows: Morton Gould’s Arms and the Girl and Arthur Schwartz’s By the Beautiful Sea.)
According to a contemporary New York Times article (published on the front-page for the issue of 16 November 1941)—'Easy Did It, For a Change: The Career of Let’s Face It!’ written by Theodore Strauss, the nascent musical comedy then developed along the following lines:
Crunching celery and olives in the Louis XIV Restaurant, which is only a short parachute jump from Mr. Freedley’s office in the RCA Building, the producer and the Fieldses mulled over possible ideas. Mr. Freedley, who usually provides at least the locale or a main character for a show, was then toying with a play about Boy Scouts. The Fieldses turned up a collective nose. Some other ideas were dissected and dismissed before Mr. Freedley came across an item in Variety which told of an epidemic of requests from various patriotic ladies anxious to build Army morale by inviting personable privates to their homes for week-ends and sending them back to camp on Monday mornings morally and spiritually refreshed.
At first the Fieldses shook their heads dourly. Everybody, they said, would be doing an Army show this year and why stick your neck out? But Mr. Freedley, remembering the story of Cradle Snatchers and its three middle-aged female philanderers, began to argue eloquently. Gradually the Fieldses cozened to the idea and the rest was work. On the first of June Mr. Porter tuckered off to Hollywood to escape the heat; the Fieldses after an ill-fated journey to Fort Dix, where they were suspected of being fifth columnists, began to bang out a first draft of the script in Dorothy's Chinese Chippendale Study.
Meanwhile, no one knew who the performers would be. Then one day Danny Kaye’s agent walked in and let it be known that his client’s obligations to Lady in the Dark would be acquitted when that show suspended for the Summer and that Kaye would not be unwilling to better himself in the Fall, provided—but he got no further. In a short while Mr. Freedley had whispered the plot of the show to Danny and his advisers who in turn went into a huddle and came back to say yes. A few days later the Fieldses went West to begin revisions with Kaye in mind for the central role and to discuss song cues with Mr. Porter.
On July 4, after vainly casting about for other players in New York, Mr. Freedley went West too. He took quarters in the Beverly Hills Hotel, set appointments for every half hour, went down to the swimming pool in his bathing trunks, ordered a highball and waited. In six days he had accumulated most of his principals between splashes in the pool—Eve Arden, Edith Meiser, Sunnie O'Dea, Benny Baker, Nanette Fabray and Jack Williams. Harry Horner agreed to do the sets and Bob Alton, then teaching Garbo how to move her feet, couldn’t get away but recommended Charles Walters, who could. Returning East, he signed the others: Mary Jane Walsh to sing and John Harkrider to sketch the costumes. Vivian Vance strolled into a grill in Skowhegan where he had gone for a brief jaunt. Looking up from his hot cakes Mr. Freedley said: ‘How'd you like to be in a show I'm doing?’ Miss Vance said: ‘Love to.’ And that was that.
By August the decks were cleared of all except minor matters with costumers and scene builders. From his Connecticut diggings Mr. Freedley conferred by long-distance with Mr. Porter and the Fieldses until they arrived in the East two days before rehearsals began on Sept 4. Rehearsals lasted only four weeks instead of the usual five it takes to assemble a musical, and this despite one last-minute bottleneck—the second act wasn't funny enough. So five days before the show tripped off to Boston the Fieldses sat down and despite babies, husbands, hell and high water turned out an entirely new second act.
In the Boston tryout the show did a rare thing. Instead of the usual tryout loss, it made money. Mr. Freedley began to worry that the show would be oversold before it reached New York—a waste of energy because three weeks later Let’s Face It! became the first top-ranking new hit of the season. Since then, the actors have all taken out long-term leases on their apartments, Danny Kaye has moved to a sumptuous new hogan overlooking Central Park, and Mr. Freedley tries to make polite excuses to his friends as to why there aren’t any more house seats available.
Following its Boston tryout season, which commenced at the Colonial Theatre on the 10 October, Let’s Face It! received its Broadway premiere at the Imperial Theatre on the evening of Wednesday, 29 October 1941 and (as indicated in Strauss’s article) subsequently became a critical and box-office hit. Leading the critical approbation in the following day’s newspapers was The New York Times’ influential reviewer Brooks Atkinson, who gave the show a positive rave:
THE PLAY IN REVIEW
Let’s face the facts of Let’s Face It! which was staged at the Imperial last evening. It is a wonderfully joyous musical show. Taking an old remainder, once known as Cradle Snatchers, Herbert and Dorothy Fields have run it up into an impudent knockabout book that keeps all the performers congenially at work. Cole Porter has shaken some good tunes and rhymes out of his sophisticated juke-box. And Danny Kaye, who was the white-headed boy in Lady In the Dark last season, has twisted his sharp fingers and aquiline profile into some highly original musical mummery. Everything about Let’s Face It! is bright and brisk and continuously enjoyable.
After all, it is the people who count. You will not be devastated to learn that the libretto recounts the alarming adventures of three married ladies who decide to freshen their lives by hiring three soldiers to strut with them. It is more to the point that Eve Arden, a lovely and rangy clown with a droll style of fooling, is first lady of the masquerade, and Edith Meiser and Vivian Vance trail along with her. As for Uncle Sam’s uniformed forces, Benny Baker, the moon-faced minstrel, and Jack Williams, who was dancing in Meet the People last season, meet temptation with antiseptic forbearance. Toss in Mary Jane Walsh, who can sing with exhilarating assurance, Sunnie O'Dea, Nanette Fabray and a number of new shapes and faces, and you have a singing society well suited to merry-making.
For let’s face this eerie fact: the songs are designed for enjoyment. ‘Jerry, My Soldier Boy’ is resounding band music. ‘You Irritate Me’ is ‘You’re the Tops’ turned upside down. In ‘Farming’ Mr. Porter shakes a wry stick at the sport of smart people. ‘Let’s Not Talk About Love’ restores the patter song to its ancient eminence as a test of memory and wind. Last year Mr. Kaye disclosed an uncanny skill in racing through the names of Russian composers without stumbling over the vowels, and here he Is in high fettle again. It is amazing. Since there are other accomplishments in his bag of tricks, Sylvia Fine and Max Liebman have written him a travestied ‘Fairy Tale’ that is compact with hilarity, and a double-talk finale that is uproarious. Mr. Kaye conquered every ermine in the house last evening.
Although Mr. Kaye is a lean and likable virtuoso (who looks like a startled Julius Caesar, in case you care) he does not swindle the other performers. For Edgar MacGregor, who has contrived the staging, has whipped Let’s Face It! into a swift and dry-humored comedy that races through the night with no concession to favorites. Jangled as the world may be today, chorus girls still come in attractive designs, looking as though they never worried about anything, and Charles Walters has found a number of ways to keep them in impish motion. Trust Harry Horner to fantasticate milk farms and country estates into gay-colored settings. The Army uniform, which was not invented primarily for the musical stage, must have puzzled John Harkrider, who designed the costumes, but luckily for all of us, women still dress like peacocks in the mating season. It’s a good thing. And so is Let’s Face It! In fact, a mighty good thing in the vein of high-pressure fooling.
The New York Times, Thursday, 30 October 1941, p.26
Edith Meiser (as Cornelia Pigeon), Vivian Vance (Nancy Collister), Danny Kaye (Jerry Walker) and Eve Arden (Maggie Watson)
Photo by Vandamm Studio, New York. Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library.
The rapid rise of Danny Kaye to Broadway stardom was recounted by his capsule biography published in the show’s New York Playbill:
DANNY KAYE (Jerry Walker) has climbed from comparative obscurity to his present place at the head of the cast in less than eighteen months. For ten years he had trouped tirelessly. In China, Japan, India and England, he dodged earthquakes and typhoons, learning to regale myriads of Orientals with pantomime when language barriers became insurmountable. In these United States he had touched many a fresh water town, hoofing, playing straight-man and being one-fourth of a male quartet. A year and a half ago he finally burst onto a Broadway stage in Straw Hat Revue, a pot-pourri written by Sylvia Fine, now Mrs. Kaye, and Max Liebman, co-author with Miss Fine of Danny’s special material. It was the start of a rather precipitate ascent for the tow-headed young comedian, though when the revue folded its tents, after ten weeks of braving Broadway, he was not exactly overwhelmed by his initial experience in the Big Town. It led, however, to an engagement in La Martinique, where the Kaye comicalities began to attract attention. Came a memorable telephone call from Moss Hart and in January of this year somewhere in the second act of Lady in the Dark, the 28-year-old comedian launched unconcernedly into a tongue-twisting recital that left everybody gasping but Danny. It took fifty-four Russian-named composers and forty seconds to stop a show and step up a career into high speed. The lad from Brooklyn, Bombay and points in between had come the long way around; but, finally, he had really arrived.
In addition to its usual quota of romantic ballads and tongue-in-cheek comedy numbers, Cole Porter’s score also included a couple of specialty numbers written to showcase Danny Kaye’s facility for vocalising tongue-twisting lyrics with aplomb: ‘Let’s Not Talk About Love’ and ‘Farming’, which satirised the fad of American celebrities engaging in rural pursuits. Renowned for his risqué lyrics, Porter included such double entendres in the latter song as: ‘Dear Mae West is at her best in the hay’ and also the first use of the slang term ‘gay’ to denote ‘homosexual’ in a Broadway show, in the couplet: ‘Don’t inquire of Georgie Raft, why his cow has never calfed, Georgie’s bull is beautiful, but he’s gay! (doesn’t fray in the hay, take it a-way)’ a reference which (doubtless) went over the heads of most audiences at the time. (Both numbers were subsequently recorded by Danny Kaye in late June 1942 and released by Columbia on two 78 rpm records backed by other songs.) The score also included (with Cole Porter’s consent) two additional numbers for Kaye penned by his wife, Sylvia Fine, with music by Max Liebman: ‘Fairy Tale’ and ‘Melody in Four F’ (thereafter abbreviated to ‘4-F’.)
Let’s Face It! would prove to be Danny Kaye’s last Broadway musical for the next 27 years (until he returned to play ‘Noah’ in Richard Rodger’s Two By Two in 1970.) He left the show in late February of 1943 and departed for the West Coast to commence his Hollywood film career, under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, with Up in Arms (released in the US in February 1944) in which he reprised ‘Melody in 4-F’ in the role of a hypochondriac army draftee (‘4-F’ being the rating assigned by the US Selective Service System to draftees who are classified as unfit for military service due to physical, medical or mental disability.)
- Danny Kaye entertains the troops with his rendition of ‘Melody in 4-F’
- ‘Melody in 4-F’ as performed by Danny Kaye in Up in Arms