NEW YORK, NY.-
It was as dark a time as Broadway had ever seen. Multiple stages were shuttered, uncertainty abounded, and a beleaguered theatrical season was limping along, desperate for a hit. But then a Hollywood movie star who was also a uniquely magnetic performer on the musical stage rode into town, bestriding a vehicle perfectly suited to his outsize talents. He had retreated to a film career for nearly a decade, and frequently hinted at a Broadway return, but then, in his 50s, he finally did so and it didnt hurt that a beloved musical comedy ingénue was at his side.
Consumers tossed money over the box-office transom by the sackful, creating one of the biggest box-office advances in memory. It was a triumph that prompted one critic to conclude: Broadway is beginning to look like Broadway again.
While this may sound an awful lot like Hugh Jackmans highly anticipated return to Broadway in The Music Man (co-starring the captivating Sutton Foster), this précis also captures another Broadway comeback: Al Jolsons star turn in Hold On to Your Hats, a long-forgotten show that took a forlorn town by storm 82 years ago. And, though The Music Man grossed $3.5 million the other week the most of any show since theaters reopened after the long pandemic shutdown Jolson, it should be noted, got better reviews.
By the end of the 1930s, Jolsons eight-cylinder performance persona had been idling over in Hollywood. Although he had dominated Broadway in the late teens and the 1920s, usually in rickety vehicles that accommodated his performances in blackface, the phenomenon of talking pictures which he had exploded with The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talkie with musical sequences, in 1927 had changed over the following decade.
His kind of all-devouring star personality was no longer the kind that would thrive on film; Jolson was instrumental in creating the movie musical, but it had left him behind by then, Richard Barrios, the musical film historian, recounted in a phone interview. His earlier films had been commercial blockbusters, showing off his ebullient and narcissistic way with a musical number, but Hollywood musicals were pivoting from such personality-pounding packages to more ensemble-driven stories and gentler stars such as Fred Astaire or Judy Garland. This transition made Jolson feel as if he was being put out to pasture on the West Coast not to mention his fraying marriage to Warner Bros. tap-dancing ingénue Ruby Keeler. As the new decade began, Jolsons primary passion was for playing the ponies out at Santa Anita Park.
And it was a pony that would carry him back to the East Coast.
Producer Alex Aarons had an idea for a stage show that would star Jack Haley, who had just starred as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. The shows concept was pretty clever by the standards of the day: a Western action hero for the Nationwide Broadcasting Co., named the Lone Rider (and his faithful companion, Concho get it?), is recruited by denizens at the Sunshine Valley Rancho to defend them against bandits; they dont realize hes a radio entertainer playing a fictional character. The scenario provided for plenty of high jinks and heroism for the performer playing the Lone Rider, whos so tough, he uses a rattlesnake for a whip. Spoiler alert: in real-life, hes not. (This is an original concept, though, borrowed subsequently for such films as Three Amigos and Galaxy Quest.)
Aarons recruited the Wizard of Oz lyricist, Yip Harburg, and composer Burton Lane, who was also working in Hollywood at the time, to collaborate with Anything Goes writer Guy Bolton (abetted by a few errant gag men). When Haley bowed out, Jolson was immediately interested, piqued by the comic and musical potential offered by the Lone Rider character. (Jackman, of course, has his own resonance with an action hero, having played Wolverine in the X-Men movies.) He signed on for a fall 1940 Broadway opening of Hold On to Your Hats and agreed to front 80% of the shows nearly $100,000 investment.
That meant Jolson was calling most of the shots, and he cannily shaped the new musical around his strengths. Thankfully, he eschewed any of his blackface routines (though, typical of its time, the shows script embraced the casual racist stereotypes of Mexicans, Native Americans and Jews). But Jolson for whom the fourth wall was a mere inconvenience managed to stop the show each night, usually at its climax, to sing a medley of his popular hits. Audiences were given a vague context for such digressions the Lone Rider was a radio entertainer, after all and his interpolations so offended Harburg and Lane that they refused to leave Hollywood to watch Jolsons antics once the show hit Broadway. (They would return to New York in 1947 for Finians Rainbow.)
Another of Jolsons creative decisions was downright deranged: He offered the ingénue role to Keeler, who had just filed for divorce back in California. According to Lane, in an interview decades later, Jolson expressed this: Shes never been on the stage with me. I think that if she works with me on the stage, shell see how wonderful I am and she wont want to divorce me. Somehow, Keeler agreed to sign on for the thankless role and off the show went to out-of-town tryouts in the summer of 1940.
Thankless seemed to have been the key word in the Jolson-Keeler marriage; there was a 24-year age difference between the two, and Barrios recalled a comment made by Keeler to a commentator in the 1970s: Al was the worlds greatest entertainer. He used to tell me so every day. Jolsons anxiety about the incipient rapprochement got the better of him during the Chicago leg of the tryout; during their duets, Jolson would make cracks about their marriage, Keelers talent, Keelers mother. That was it. Keeler stormed off the stage, quit the show and divorced Jolson within months.
None of this mattered to the cheering throng that greeted Jolson when he sidled up to Broadways Shubert Theater on Sept. 14, 1940. (He had wanted his cherished Winter Garden Theater where Jackmans The Music Man is currently playing but it was occupied by the manic comedy Hellzapoppin.)
Al Jolson is back on the home grounds, wrote John Anderson of the New York Journal-American, in celebration whereof I toss my own critical headgear over the moon and over the dictionary.
John Mason Brown wrote in the New York Evening Post: Mr. Jolsons rainbow shines as brightly as it ever did. The moment he steps onstage he catapults himself into the affections of his audience. He is his old breezy Broadway self.
In his New York Times review, Brooks Atkinson reassured his readership with the opening line: Its all right, folks.
Hold On to Your Hats became a hit for the town that sorely needed one. Sixty-nine shows debuted in the 1940-41 season, which was half the number from four years previously, the least of any season in Broadway history up to that point. The Theater Guild had almost gone bankrupt; George Gershwin had recently died and his brother, Ira, had retired; the previous two shows by Rodgers and Hart, Too Many Girls and Higher and Higher, were mediocrities; Irving Berlin had decamped to Hollywood. Across the country the effects of the Great Depression lingered, and the news from Europe was even worse.
The year 1940 was a precarious time, the future seemed uncertain, Jeanine Basinger, the historian and author of The Movie Musical, said in a phone interview. Someone like Jolson comes along, returns to his stage roots, just the way Hugh Jackman has, and the audience doesnt care how old they are. Its in-person electricity, its ageless.
When youre paying your money for a star, its reassuring you know what youre going to get, she added.
Jolson, having received the reviews of a lionized lifetime and sold-out houses every night to boot, apparently got bored with the show once it made its money back after a few months. Having proved the point that he was still relevant, he closed the show. A nine-month strike by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which began on Jan. 1, 1941, kept all of the witty scores potential hits off radio airwaves, and Jolson, who had a major record contract with Decca, never recorded one note from the show he brought so triumphantly to 44th Street.
You aint heard nothin yet! Jolson would famously exclaim when the audience would beg for more and then keep performing, way past the stagehands overtime call. After corralling a hit for a desperate Broadway, Jolson, having nothin left to say or sing, rode back into the California sunset, passing the torch to other Hollywood stars and their own rescue missions along the Broadway trail.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times