Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater

By Jeffrey Magee | Go to book overview

8
STATE OF THE UNION
BERLIN, LINDSAY AND CROUSE, 1 950–62

He collected lots of ordinary phrases
Like “I love you, dear,” and “You’re for me,”
But he found that when he set them all to music,
They were just as good as poetry
.
from “Once Upon a Time Today”

On November 14, 1945, in the week that Berlin began writing the score for “Annie Oakley,” a new play opened at the Hudson Theatre on West Forty-fourth Street presenting a populist vision of postwar, post-FDR American politics. In it, an airplane industry executive named Grant Matthews gets drafted to become the Republican presidential candidate. Matthews is a decent if somewhat gullible man with strong feelings about his country, whose postwar climate, he believes, has encouraged fragmentation into small interest groups. With his marriage on the rocks, Matthews wants to restore the spirit of shared sacrifice for a larger good that, he believes, ended with the war. But he finds that his presidential bid makes him feel “torn between ambition and integrity.”1 The campaign, driven by cynical, manipulative political bosses and an alluring newspaperwoman who represents the chief challenge to his marriage, forces him to say and do things that he does not believe. In the end, rather than risk compromising his ideals, Matthews abandons his presidential run and reconciles with his wife, vowing to become an active agent of American democracy, “yelling from the sidelines” and “asking questions” because, as he exclaims in the optimistic curtain line, “we’ve got something great to work for.”2

The writers did several things to enhance the show’s uniquely contemporary feel and comedic impact—for the Times critic had called the play a “comedy with a serious purpose.”3 They peppered the script with allusions to people and issues in the news, referred to Harry Truman as the incumbent, revised lines daily during the run of the show to keep it current (much to the delight of the cast and audience), and called for a newspaper prop—and the line referring to its headline—to be changed at every performance to reflect that day’s news.4

The name of the play was State of the Union, and it would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for its authors, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and to become a 1948 film directed by Frank Capra and reuniting Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. By the time the play appeared in 1945, Lindsay and Crouse had thrived in collaboration for more than a decade, and their well-crafted scripts would help define an intelligent style of popular theater in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The partners

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