ON THE RECORD: Rodgers and Hart's Early Musical Dearest Enemy

By Steven Suskin
October 27, 2013

This week's column examines the studio cast restoration of Rodgers and Hart's first complete musical comedy Dearest Enemy.



Dearest Enemy [New World]
Imagine that you're a pair of young songwriters who have just found overnight success on Broadway, with an instant-classic-of-a-song-hit to your credit. "Hey, maybe now we can find backers for one of those unproduced musicals we've been trying and trying to get on!" One of those older shows does indeed get on. Odds are, though, there is a reason they couldn't get it on in the first place.

The tune-happy songwriters in this case were Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, whose contributions for the 1925 revue The Garrick Gaities — including "Manhattan" — were bright, pert and light as air. "Hello, boys!" said Broadway, and there was seemingly no stopping them, with six consecutive hits (of varying degrees) in a mere 18 months.

Mind you, Dearest Enemy — as the show in question was called — wasn't a failure. It was what we'd call a moderate success. It opened Sept. 18, 1925 during a momentous ten days on Broadway: The Lunts in Shaw's Arms and the Man on Monday, Kit Cornell in the scandalous Green Hat on Tuesday, No, No Nanette and Noël Coward's The Vortex on Wednesday, Dearest Enemy on Friday, Rudolf Friml's Vagabond King on Monday and Kern and Hammerstein's momentous Marilyn Miller vehicle Sunny on Tuesday. It's not any wonder that Dearest Enemy got lost in that crowd.

This was a Revolutionary War love story, based on a factual occurrence in little old New York: On Sept. 15, 1776, a lady on Murray Hill — Mrs. Murray, in fact — entertained General Howe and his troops long enough to enable George Washington and his army, fleeing from their crushing loss in the Battle of Brooklyn, to meet up with reinforcements. Despite its novel provenance, the musical was a by-the-book affair, with Mrs. Murray's niece falling for a British soldier (of course) but tricking him to save the Republic. With songs.

Rodgers and Hart were embarking on a happy spree of hits, and Dearest Enemy did well enough. But the show and the score — written before The Garrick Gaieties — were tame. The boys' two 1926 musicals, The Girl Friend and Peggy-Ann, were rambunctiously lively. I contend that if we were to hear either of these latter scores, we would think: "That's got to be Gershwin, Youmans, Rodgers or somebody." Listening to Dearest Enemy, I doubt many diehard Rodgers enthusiasts would be able to identify their man.

You now have the opportunity to listen to Dearest Enemy, mind you; hence this column. Orchestrator Larry Moore, who is mighty good at unearthing, reassembling and providing the missing pieces of vintage musical comedies, has done just that. New World Records has provided the resources and come up with a full two-disc recording of the score, and fans of early Rodgers and Hart have every reason to be grateful. (There is also in existence what seems to be a semi-professional studio recording from 1981, without a full orchestra.) This new recording, I imagine, couldn't be bettered. But some listeners are likely to wonder: Why? Why Dearest Enemy, which I'd have to classify as one of the least interesting of the team's 24 book musicals? The Girl Friend, Peggy-Ann, Present Arms!, Ever Green — none of which have full recordings — are bursting with melody; at least, they all sound like Rodgers and Hart.

This studio cast album of Dearest Enemy, which was recorded in Dublin with a mostly English-Irish cast (including America's own Kim Criswell, as Mrs. Murray), gives us as good a representation of the score as anyone could want. But there's not much here that you're going to want to hear more than once. Some interesting things, yes: A song ("I Beg Your Pardon" ) which features one of Rodgers' deliciously "wrong" notes; a couple of amusingly offbeat comedy songs from Mr. Hart: "The Hermits" and "Old Enough to Love"; and a wry dance number called "Sweet Peter" which tells of old man Stuyvesant. (He couldn't fool his wife when he came home drunk, because she could always hear the "Boom! Boom! Boom!" of his wooden leg.) The two big ballads — "Here in My Arms" and "Bye and Bye" — were moderate hits at the time, but within two years they were displaced in the Rodgers and Hart catalogue by stronger and better songs.

The musical restoration by Moore appears to be excellently done, and New World Records, which years ago gave us a splendid recording of Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms, has done a fine job. (New World has also released important recordings of the Gershwins' Tip-Toes, Kern's Sitting Pretty and Porter's Fifty Million Frenchmen.) In the present case, I am grateful for the careful reconstruction of an early Rodgers and Hart musical, but I churlishly wonder whether they might have profitably chosen a more significant one.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)