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Musicals / Prowling with the Alley cats: Ring Lardner's June Moon celebrates a world he despised. Rhoda Koenig on Tin Pan Alley revisited

Rhoda Koenig
Tuesday 25 August 1992 23:02 BST

'June Moon looms,' says director Alan Strachan, showing how well he has absorbed the pithy phrasing and assonant rhyme of the world of popular song. Strachan will soon be presenting the London premiere of Ring Lardner and George S Kaufman's 1929 comedy, a look at struggle and romance on Tin Pan Alley. But the world of the play is hardly the sweet, moonstruck one of Dennis Potter's singing detectives and travelling salesmen. It is, in Strachan's words, 'a place of boundless expectation corroded by accidie'.

Between the wars, the lyricists and composers of Tin Pan Alley (the name for West 28th Street and, later, the Brill Building at 50th and Broadway) turned out many of the world's best-loved and best-selling songs. Yet they were despised by the creme de la creme of songwriters - the ones who wrote for Broadway. Lorenz Hart was most likely speaking for Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, the Gershwins and Jerome Kern when he called the men who pounded the Alley's metallic-toned uprights, creators of 'sloppy versification, sophomoric diction, cliches, maudlin sentiments, and hackneyed verbiage'. Although, in the theatre, 1929 was the year of Vincent Youmans's 'Without a Song', Rodgers and Hart's 'With a Song in My Heart' and Cole Porter's 'What Is This Thing Called Love?', it was, on Tin Pan Alley, the year of 'The Duck's Yas-Yas-Yas' and 'I Got a 'Code' in My 'Doze' '.

The Alley songwriters, who were employed by music publishers, were not troubled by scorn from on high: they were interested in mass-appeal sentiment and optimism that sold massive stacks of records and sheet music, and could bring in royalties, in the Twenties, of more than dollars 100,000 a year. Their hero was Benny Davis, the author of 'Margie', 'Baby Face' and other inane bouncy numbers that gave rise, among more ambitious tunesmiths, to the couplet, 'Heaven save us / From Benny Davis'. Davis was also responsible for the popular 'Indiana Moon' and 'Carolina Moon', whose success is alluded to in June Moon: a songwriter eagerly pushes his new composition, 'Montana Moon' ('I'm always dreaming of your eyes gleaming / Beneath the beaming Montana moon'). Told that Fred, the new boy in town, has 'a fresh slant', a jaded pianist asks, 'What does he do - write about counties instead of states?'

lt is not surprising that Ring Lardner was drawn to this world of infinite self-confidence allied to garrulous semi- literacy. Lardner was the Buster Keaton of 1920s humorists - a tall, formal, saturnine Midwesterner in a porkpie hat. He was recognised as a master of the short story by admirers ranging from H L Mencken ('No other American of his generation, sober or gay, wrote better') to Virginia Woolf, who said he wrote 'the best prose that has come our way' about 'people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls'. For Lardner, the prosperity and freedom of his era had not produced a society of people expressing and fulfilling themselves but one wallowing in self- indulgence and vulgarity.

His stories are populated with brutal husbands, selfish children, mindless flirts, heartless gold-diggers, vulgar show-offs, penny-pinching millionaires, bullying employers, domineering hostesses and irrepressible busybodies. It is Prohibition, so everyone drinks a great deal, especially the characters' victims - the downtrodden wives, the depressed husbands, the librettist whose producer changes his story from one about love among the New York Irish to a melodrama involving a Spanish girl and an Italian count on a yacht, a Saratoga racetrack, and a plantation in Alabama. The librettist calls his bootlegger, who says, 'I can sell you some good Scotch, but I ain't so sure of the rye. In fact, I'm kind of scared of it.' The librettist orders a case of the rye.

Generally, however, the glum or sardonic observers in Lardner's stories are not surprised by megalomania, ruthlessness, or monumental self-absorption; they do not expect most of the world to be motivated by aesthetic or ethical considerations, or even by normal emotions or common sense. One Lardner character describes another by saying only, 'His wife was a woman he had found in San Bernardino and married for some reason.' One can see why Lardner went in for surrealism and nonsense-writing. He composed a number of skits whose wild dialogue is not so far removed from that of his realistic imbeciles. The best known is I Gaspari, or The Upholsterers, in which one character, asked, 'Where was you born?' replies, 'Out of wedlock.' The first character comments, 'That's a mighty pretty country around there.' You can imagine it being growled by W C Fields.

Just as the ballplayers Lardner wrote about in the stories collected as You Know Me Al were based on his experience as a sportswriter, his tales of the horrors of Broadway reflected his mostly fruitless work in the theatre. He wrote several shows that were never produced, including an American version of Orpheus in the Underworld. One play, about baseball, was accepted only on condition the producer could rewrite it - it closed after 40 performances.

Lardner had more success as a songwriter, though the term is relative. He managed to place such numbers as 'I Wonder What My Stomach Thinks of Me' and 'Prohibition Blues' but, for the most part, his lyrics remained in his stories, where they parodied the vulgar and inept songs of the time ('New York fields are rotten fields. / Give me those forgotten fields. / I mean those there cotton fields').

One of those stories, 'Some Like Them Cold', was a series of letters between a beginner songwriter in New York ('Well, girlie, I am the handsome young man that was wandering round the Lasalle St station Monday and 'happened' to sit down beside of a mighty pretty girlie') and a girl back home who, desperate for marriage, barrages him with testimonials to her virtue, thrift, natural beauty, good taste, domesticity, and sense of humour ('Am still laughing at some of the things you said in the station though they probably struck me funnier than they would most girls as I always see the funny side and sometimes something is said and I laugh and the others wonder what I am laughing at as they cannot see anything in it themselves, but it is just the way I look at things so of course I cannot explain to them why I laughed and they think I am crazy'). The correspondence abruptly ends when he writes that he is engaged to an extravagant gadabout who refuses to do housework and whose beauty is so unnatural that, 'I have been out in a rain storm with her and we both got drowned but her face stayed on.'

George S Kaufman thought the story would be adapted into a play, and Lardner agreed to collaborate. It did reasonably well out of town, but its producer said it would do even better if the characters were made more sympathetic and the boy and girl fell in love. Though sentiment was against their nature (Kaufman would tell his co-writers to do the love scene while he walked around the block), they complied, and June Moon opened on Broadway in October 1929. Despite the unlucky timing, June Moon ran to the end of the season and then went on the road for two years. One of the actresses in its replacement cast was Constance Cummings who, more than 50 years later, told Strachan of the existence of the play, which, though a Lardner fan, he had never heard of.

What was even more ironic than the success of a play lampooning the entertainment world that had made Lardner so miserable, was the success of its title tune. A writer who abhorred sensuality and romance, Lardner could never produce the kind of passionate or tender song the public wanted. But the plot of June Moon demanded that its hero write a hit, and so Lardner turned out the words and music for a number about a man listening to the summer winds in the trees and asking, 'Sweetheart, how can you resist their plea / And the moon you used to share with me?' It became a modest hit offstage as well, a fact which must have bitterly amused Lardner, who was himself corroded by accidie, as well as by the alcoholism and tuberculosis that would kill him less than four years later, at 48. Did he think the wistful, yearning 'June Moon', its mood reflecting the obverse of his cynicism, was really a good song? Or perhaps his verdict on it was the one he gave to his spokesman in the play: 'It's a tune that's easy to remember, but if you should forget it, it wouldn't make any difference.'

'June Moon' opens at Hampstead Theatre on 3 September

(Photograph omitted)

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