This Saturday, 42nd Street Moon’s new production of the Broadway Musical Hooray for What! opens in San Francisco. This will be the first time the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg show has been performed in its entirety since its original run and tour in 1937-38, and its return is long overdue.
For Hooray for What! is not just a Broadway hit of yesteryear; it is also a razor-sharp examination and dissection of war—uniquely topical in 1937, and still surprisingly relevant today. Under its light and bubbly romantic-comedy surface brew themes of misguided and jingoistic patriotism, war profiteering, international conflict, the all-too-often empty gestures of treaties and peace conferences, and the importance of the individual in standing up for peace.
In the small (and small-minded) town of Sprinkle, Indiana, a mild mannered and naïve scientist named Chuckles accidentally invents the most powerful and dangerous death gas the world has ever seen (while trying to come up with a humane gas to keep worms out of apples). Chuckles is immediately co-opted by a huge munitions manufacturer with a slick front man named Breezy Cunningham, who bribes the scientist with the promise of continued support for his peaceful research. Chuckles refuses to give up the death gas formula, however, and international spy Stephanie Stephanovich is hired to steal it from him. Convinced she will soon wrest it from Chuckles’ grasp, Breezy takes them all to the League of Nations Peace Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, knowing he can find a willing buyer for the new death gas among the many bickering delegates from the worlds’ most powerful nations, who are all arguing and trying to get the upper hand and start another world war for excitement and profit. Stephanie does manage to steal the formula, and Breezy hopes to sell it for a huge profit and make his getaway, but when he finally makes a deal giving it to the entire League of Nations, he quickly realizes the dire consequences of his actions, as what threatens to be the deadliest war in history immediately begins all around him.
This is, of course, the fantasy world of old Broadway, and so there does come a happy ending by the time the curtain falls, and there are plenty of hilarious antics, sweet songs, romantic subplots along the way. But the light framework of the play does not lessen the weight of the ideas contained therein. If anything, the contrast between the levity of tone and the life-and-death issues explored gives the issues more weight, and the laughter at the expense of the greedy, short-sighted profiteers and childish, petty world leaders and spies makes it a bit easier to confront and consider these difficult issues, which people might ordinarily choose to ignore. Additionally, it is almost shockingly easy to see parallels between the some of the events and players on today’s world stage (not to mention those involved in the then-imminent WWII) and the characters and events which are presented as bordering on lunatic in this 1937 classic. Looking back from today’s post-atomic, post-holocaust world of Halliburton, terrorism, International Intelligence Organizations and powerful nations’ continuing lust for global hegemony, the foresight of Hooray for What! is tragic but impressive.
For more behind-the-scenes background on this production and the show’s history, check out the 42nd Street Moon Blog.
For more information on the original Broadway production, click here.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area:
42nd Street Moon’s Hooray for What! plays November 10-28th at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Battery St. at Jackson in San Francisco. For more information on the production dates, times and tickets, please visit www.42ndstreetmoon.org or call (415) 255-8207.