Early to Bed
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
March 19, 2009
Did you know that Fats Waller—one of the great singer-songwriters of the Jazz Age—wrote a musical? I didn't until recently, so I showed up pretty excited for Early To Bed, a concert-style revival of Waller's long-lost Broadway hit. It's disappointing then to learn that the show has been forgotten for a reason, and has been given an equally forgettable treatment in the Musicals Tonight! series at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre.
The show is a fairly by-the-numbers musical-comedy-of manners, a tried-and-true formula of countless Fred Astaire movies of the day. This one—which takes place at a brothel outside Martinique—was probably risqué for its time, involving a bunch of lovelorn travelers (an aging bullfighter, his son, a cute nightclub ingénue, and an American boys' track team) who mistake the house-of-ill-repute for a girls' school. The rest is as harmless and implausible as you'd think.
Of course I'd really shown up for the music, which is by turns fully rousing and a big let-down. Waller couldn't write a bad melody, and this show is chock-full of his effortlessly catchy turns-of-phrase. The songs also never really go anywhere lyrically (blame librettist/lyricist George Marion, Jr., not Fats), and would probably be more satisfying in a cabaret setting. As far as enhancing the story or characters, don't even bother. It's 1943, and dramatic cohesion in musicals isn't exactly on people's radar yet. The show's one bona-fide classic, swing dance favorite "The Joint is Jumpin'," is inexplicably burst into at—I kid you not—a track meet.
The team at Musicals Tonight! seems well aware of the show's shortcomings, but unfortunately they've dealt with them by trying to distract us with costumes and choreography, not by dealing intelligently with the material. The talented cast has been seemingly undirected, encouraged to simply ham it up with abandon, and with little guidance for their characterizations. Director Thomas Sabella-Mills's lack of trust in the material is evident, and even if the text doesn't give him a lot to work with, he still owes it to the audience to give it a fair shake.
Early to Bed is probably of greatest interest to musical theatre scholars, so it's worth noting that Waller's show—which was actually a hit, running almost a full year—came out the same year as a little show you might have heard of called Oklahoma! Context is everything, and perhaps Early to Bed is most valuable as a demonstration of how far musicals have come.