Synopsis by Brian D. Sweeny
"Of Thee I Sing remains unchallenged as the greatest American
ever written, and one of the masterpieces of the American stage."
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 Gershwins and their librettists, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, approached the crisis of the Depression with the gentle but pointed humor of Gilbert and Sullivan, and using themes and situations from The Mikado (there is more than a little of the scornful, jilted Katisha in Diana Devereaux), Iolanthe (with its mockery of the legislative branch of government) and Trial by Jury (compare the Wintergreen of "Some Girls Can Bake a Pie" and "Here's a Kiss for Cinderella" with Edwin, the roving defendant), the four authors Americanized operetta the way Gilbert and Sullivan themselves Anglicized the French opera-bouffes of Offenbach.
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 operetta, 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 The 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 Ira's 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 (such as the Gershwin's
Strike Up the Band) and after it (the Gershwin's own Let Them Eat Cake and Bernstein's Candide) 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.