Cole Porter could not resist rhyming "gifted humans" and "Vincent Youmans" for his song, "You're the Top."
Over the years, both that alternate Porter lyric and the composer Youmans fell into a kind of obscurity, despite Youmans' classic score to the musical, No, No, Nanette, which gave us "Tea for Two."
Youmans' relative anonymity may change after William Youmans, the composer's great nephew, presents I Want to Be Happy: The Life and Music of Vincent Youmans Nov. 22 and Dec. 27 at Don't Tell Mama and Dec. 6 at the Garrick Cabaret Theatre in Manhattan.
Youmans was a contemporary of Porter and Gershwin, but because of his unsociability, his early death in 1946 at age 47, and his relatively low 96 song output, he is never spoken of in the same breath with the Big Three of American songwriting: Porter, Berlin and Gershwin.
"I think his obscurity may have to do with his own reclusive nature," the younger Youmans told Playbill On-Line Nov. 17. "He was not a guy who was into self-promotion; he hated the spotlight, in a big way. He hated appearing in public, he hated parties of all kinds. His notoriety paid a price for that." Youmans, 41, who appears in the Broadway ensemble of Titanic, conceived I Want to Be Happy in honor of his great uncle's centennial, Sept. 27, 1998. The older Youmans was born a day after George Gershwin, whose centennial has been celebrated around the world this year (50th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Manhattan will be renamed Gershwin Way, Nov. 18).
Although it sold out its three shows at the midtown cabaret venue Don't Tell Mama, Sept. 27 and Oct. 18, I Want to Be Happy isn't a cabaret act, Youmans said. He called it a book-musical biography with Youmans songs ("Tea for Two," "Great Day," "More Than You Know") used to express the story of the composer. The younger Youmans wrote the piece and plays the narrator and his great uncle. He is joined by Titanic colleagues Bill Buell and Emily Loesser, playing multiple roles.
Youmans said Vincent's son, Vincent Youmans Jr., saw the show and enjoyed it, but there is no formal arrangement with the estate at this time. Youmans said Tams Witmark, which administers stage rights to songs from No, No, Nanette and Hit the Deck told him that if the in-progress, still-forming show ever becomes a commercial venture, rights will have to be negotiated.
For now, scenes are being rewritten and the piece is still only being seen in small, nonprofit performances, with a portion of proceeds going to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Among subjects addressed in the show: The ironic contrast of "happy songs" and the unhappiness of Youmans' world (he died a tubercular alcoholic), the relationship with second wife Mildred Boots, the Hollywood offers, the shows with Fred Astaire (RKO's "Flying Down to Rio," Broadway's Smiles), the songwriting process and his relationship with Nanette lyricist Irving Caesar and the friendly rivalry with Gershwin, who wrote the sort of legit classical work that Youmans longed to create.
Youmans said he hopes the show (directed by Ted Sperling, music directed by Dan Riddle) will be picked up by a producer and put into a small Off Broadway space, or perhaps plugged into a second-stage of a major nonprofit theatre. At this point, he said, he's rewriting and working with Sperling.
Youmans said his major source for his great uncle's life is Gerald Bordman's Youmans biography, "Days to Be Happy, Years to Be Sad." The official relationship between William and Vincent is that the composer was the brother of William's great grandfather.
Among songs used in I Want to Be Happy: "Sometimes I'm Happy," "I Know That You Know," "Time on My Hands," "Flying Down to Rio," "Rise and Shine," "Through the Years," "The Carioca" (which became a dance craze after Astaire danced to it in the film, "Flying Down to Rio"), "Great Day" and "I Want to Be Happy."
Performances of I Want to Be Happy are 10 PM Nov. 22 and 9 PM Dec. 27 at Don't Tell Mama (353 W. 46th St.) Call (212) 757-0788 for tickets. The show will also appear 9 PM Dec. 6 as part of the new "Garrick Gaieties" cabaret series at the new Garrick Cabaret Theatre (242 W. 49th St.). Call (212) 489-8600 for tickets.
Youmans' Broadway shows include Two Little Girls in Blue, Mary Jane McKane, Oh, Please, Great Day, Rainbow, Hit the Deck, Through the Years, Lollipop and Smiles.
-- By Kenneth Jones