CLOSE
Getty
Getty

A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut

Getty
Getty

In 1982, dozens of crates containing handwritten musical manuscripts—inked with the scribbles of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin—were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever. In an interview with The New York Times, Miles Kreuger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, called it "one of the monumental discoveries in the history of American musical theater."

Included in the crates were about 70 Gershwin tunes, including an autograph score to his largely forgotten 1924 musical, Primrose.

George Gershwin was one of the most popular, and important, American composers of the 20th century. His music, prized for being equally adventurous and accessible, was chameleonic. It seemed to fit in everywhere, comfortably toggling the jazz, theatrical, and symphonic worlds. In the theater, Gershwin helped establish a musical idiom that dominated for decades. (Fun fact: His Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) In basement jazz clubs, much of his work became the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, the launching pad for generations of jazz musicians. In the classical concert hall, his symphonic work remains wildly popular—the pillar of Pops concerts.

But Gershwin’s reputation as the "All-American" composer belies the fact that a significant number of early staged scores remain missing. Some of Gershwin's Broadway music has not been heard in nearly a century. In the case of Primrose, it's been 92 years.

That's not unusual. During Gershwin's heyday, most showtunes vanished the moment the final curtain closed. "Musicals back then were like comic books," Michael D. Miller, founder and president of the Operetta Foundation, tells Mental Floss. "People waited and waited for the next one, and when it came out, the public devoured it. And when it was all said and done, they threw it out."

Take Gershwin’s other early Broadway shows: Many parts to the scores of Dangerous Maid (1921), Our Nell (1922), The Rainbow (1923), and Half Past Eight (1918) have disappeared. "If they didn't make it into one of the warehouses that belonged to companies that rented out scores, the scores might have just been destroyed," says Michael Owen, Consulting Archivist to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. The practice has left behind a trail of musical breadcrumbs. "That's the case with Gershwin's pre-1924 shows," Owen said. "There might be one fully-orchestrated song from a musical that still exists. Or there might be half a show that exists, but only as a piano with vocals. Or there might be some lyrics without piano, or piano without lyrics."

The same goes for recordings. The truth is, despite Gershwin's popularity, you can't listen to much of his work as it originally sounded. According to Miller, even recordings of tunes that Gershwin wrote at the height of his popularity, like those in Treasure Girl and Show Girl, are AWOL. Owen estimates that 25 percent of both George and his brother Ira Gershwin's oeuvre has not been recorded. "If you're talking 1923 and earlier, it gets very skimpy."

Primrose is lucky in that regard. A complete piano-vocal score was published when the show debuted in London, and cast recordings were sold. The musical simply slipped into obscurity, and the score plunged with it. It has never been performed in America—until now.


At its heart, Primrose is a tale of unwanted relationships—and a tribute to the lengths people will go to find happiness. In it, the novelist Hilary Vane uses his imaginative talents to cook up real-life schemes to unchain a web of unhappy characters from undesired paramours, freeing them to run off with their true loves. (Along the way, there are some cheerful Arthur Sullivan-esque songs, including one about the headless Mary, Queen of Scots.)

The play, which debuted on London's West End, brought Gershwin to Britain in 1924. He sailed the Atlantic with seven polished tunes already stuffed in his suitcase, many of which were attempts to write in the style of classic Edwardian romps. "I have inserted several numbers in 6/8 time, because the English are a 6/8 nation," he told the London Standard. "The Americans are a 4/4 nation and their music is essentially the fox-trot. But the English, who are used to good lyrics, like the 6/8 rhythm, which approaches most closely to ordinary speech."

The result—a unique fusion of brassy across-the-pond blue notes and British patter song—was distinctly different from anything playing on either side of the Atlantic. The English playwright Noël Coward was gobsmacked. He called the score's variety "extraordinary."

The great significance of Primrose, however, is that Gershwin not only wrote the music—he also orchestrated three tunes himself. Gershwin's orchestration skills have long been a point of controversy. Classical critics, in a fit of anti-showbiz snobbery, griped that he lacked the knowledge to write for large ensembles. Indeed, Gershwin's first stab at opera, Blue Monday, and his famed Rhapsody in Blue were orchestrated by other musicians.

It's here, on Primrose, that Gershwin cut his teeth writing for large ensembles. "These orchestrations are considered to settle a scholarly controversy—when did George learn orchestration?" writes theater expert James Ross Moore in the The George Gershwin Reader. These newly honed orchestration skills would make history, helping Gershwin write pieces that eventually cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of American composers: his "Concerto in F," American in Paris, and all of Porgy and Bess.

Primrose saw 255 performances on the West End and even hopped to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. But the Great American Composer's show never appeared in the United States. After premiering down under in 1925, Primrose was forgotten—interest wasn't rekindled until the handwritten scores popped up in that Secaucus warehouse 57 years later.

In 1987, the Library of Congress dusted off the recently discovered score and hosted a performance of Primrose. The play itself, however, was not staged: The dialogue-rich script was cut. Conversely, in 2003, Musicals Tonight!—a New York City group dedicated to reviving classic musicals—performed the musical, but, this time, the orchestrations were cut in favor of a lonely piano. Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote that, "Enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition."

Well, pros have finally gotten their hands on it. Michael Miller and his colleagues spent days sifting through the Gershwin archives at the Library of Congress and reassembled the entire original score.

Now, for the first time in 92 years—and the first time in the United States—the curtain has finally opened on a fully-orchestrated, fully-staged production of Primrose, revived under the care of the Ohio Light Opera. Based in Wooster, Ohio (about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, and a shorter jaunt from Cuyahoga National Park), the Ohio Light Opera will put on seven more performances between now and August 11. I had the privilege of taking in a dress rehearsal, and I can verify that it's a hoot.

As for the sea of other incomplete Gershwin works, there is hope. Scholars are currently working to bring them—all of them—back. At the University of Michigan, folks leading The Gershwin Initiative are working to publish critical editions (including full scores) to all of George and Ira Gershwin's works—including their embryonic stage pieces. (Perhaps they will resurrect the missing score to The Rainbow, which now stands alone as the only Gershwin musical to never enjoy an American premiere.)

In the meantime, Gershwin fans and music history buffs looking to take a road trip should look no further than Ohio: Click here for dates and tickets.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
King Features Syndicate
arrow
Comics
10 Things You Might Not Know About Hägar the Horrible
King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

For 45 years, the anachronistic adventures of a Scandinavian Viking named Hägar have populated the funny papers. Created by cartoonist Dik Browne, Hagar the Horrible is less about raiding and pillaging and more about Hägar’s domestic squabbles with wife Helga. If you’re a fan of this red-bearded savage with a surprisingly gentle demeanor, check out some facts about the strip’s history, Hägar’s status as a soda pitchman, and his stint as a college football mascot.

1. HÄGAR IS NAMED AFTER HIS CREATOR.

Richard Arthur “Dik” Browne got his start drawing courtroom sketches for New York newspapers; he debuted a military strip, Ginny Jeep, for servicemen after entering the Army in 1942. Following an advertising stint where he created the Chiquita Banana logo, he was asked to tackle art duties on the 1954 Beetle Bailey spinoff strip Hi and Lois. When he felt an urge to create his own strip in 1973, Browne thought back to how his children called him “Hägar the Horrible” when he would playfully chase them around the house. “Immediately, I thought Viking,” he told People in 1978. Hägar was soon the fastest-growing strip in history, appearing over 1000 papers.

2. HE COULD HAVE BEEN BULBAR THE BARBARIAN.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Working on Hi and Lois with cartoonist Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) gave Browne an opportunity to solicit advice on Hägar from his more experienced colleague. As Walker recalled, he thought “Hägar” would be too hard for people to pronounce or spell and suggested Browne go with “Bulbar the Barbarian” instead. Browne brushed off the suggestion, preferring his own alliterative title.

3. A HEART ATTACK COULD HAVE CHANGED HÄGAR’S FATE.

When Browne came up with Hägar, he sent it along to a syndicate editor he knew from his work on Hi and Lois. According to Chris Browne, Dik’s son and the eventual artist for Hägar after his father passed away in 1989, the man originally promised to look at it after he got back from his vacation. He changed his mind at the last minute, reviewing and accepting the strip before leaving. Just days later, while on his ski vacation, the editor had a heart attack and died. If he hadn’t approved the strip prior to his passing, Browne said, Hägar may never have seen print.

4. THE STRIP HELPED BROWNE AVOID VANDALS.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Chris Browne recalled that Halloween in his Connecticut neighborhood was a time for kids to show their appreciation for his father’s work. While trick-or-treaters were busy covering nearby houses in toilet paper or spray paint, they spared the Browne residence. The only evidence of their vandalism was a spray-painted sign that read, “Mr. Browne, We Love Hägar.”

5. BROWNE’S DAUGHTER TALKED HIM OUT OF KIDNAPPING PLOTS.

Vikings were not known for being advocates for human rights. Hägar, despite his relatively genteel persona, still exhibited some barbaric traits, such as running off with “maidens” after a plundering session. Speaking with the Associated Press in 1983, Browne admitted he toned down the more lecherous side of Hägar after getting complaints from his daughter. “Running off with a maiden isn’t funny,” she told him. “It’s a crime.”

6. HÄGAR ENDORSED SODA.

A soda can featuring Hägar the Horrible
Amazon

Despite his preference for alcohol, Hägar apparently had a bit of a sweet tooth as well. In the 1970s, King Features licensed out a line of soda cans featuring some of their most popular comic strip characters, including Popeye, Blondie, and Hägar. The Viking also shilled for Mug Root Beer in the 1990s.

7. HE WAS A COLLEGE MASCOT.

In 1965, Cleveland State University students voted in the name “Vikings” for their collegiate basketball team. After using a mascot dubbed Viktorious Vike, the school adopted Hägar in the 1980s. Both Hägar and wife Helga appeared at several of the school’s sporting events before being replaced by an original character named Vike.

8. HE EVENTUALLY SOBERED UP.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

When Dik Browne was working on Hägar, the Viking was prone to bouts of excessive drinking. When Chris Browne took over the strip, he made a deliberate decision to minimize Hägar’s imbibing. "When my father was doing the strip, he did an awful lot of gags about Hägar falling down drunk and coming home in a wheelbarrow, and as times go on that doesn't strike me as that funny anymore,” Brown told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “Just about everybody I know has had somebody hurt by alcoholism or substance abuse.”

9. HE HAD HIS OWN HANNA-BARBERA CARTOON.

It took some time, but Hägar was finally honored with the animated special treatment in 1989. Cartoon powerhouse Hanna-Barbera created the 30-minute special, Hägar the Horrible: Hägar Knows Best, and cast the Viking as being out of his element after returning home for the first time in years. The voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, performed the title character. It was later released on DVD as part of a comic strip cartoon collection.

10. HE SAILED INTO THE WIZARD OF ID.

A Wizard of Id comic strip
King Features Syndicate

In 2014, Hägar made an appearance in the late Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id comic strip, with the two characters looking confused at the idea they’ve run into one another at sea. Hägar also made a cameo in Blondie to celebrate that character’s 75th birthday in 2005.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Pop Chart Lab
arrow
infographics
Every Emoji Ever, Arranged by Color
Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

What lies at the end of the emoji rainbow? It's not a pot of gold, but rather an exclamation point—a fitting way to round out the Every Emoji Ever print created by the design experts over at Pop Chart Lab.

As the name suggests, every emoji that's currently used in version 10.0.0 of Unicode is represented, which, if you're keeping track, is nearly 2400.

Each emoji was painstakingly hand-illustrated and arranged chromatically, starting with yellow and ending in white. Unicode was most recently updated last summer, with 56 emojis added to the family. Some of the newest members of the emoji clan include a mermaid, a couple of dinosaurs, a UFO, and a Chinese takeout box. However, the most popular emoji last year was the "despairing crying face." Make of that what you will.

Past posters from Pop Chart Lab have depicted the instruments played in every Beatles song, every bird species in North America, and magical objects of the wizarding world. The price of the Every Emoji Ever poster starts at $29, and if you're interested, the piece can be purchased here.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios