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I'd Rather Be Right

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 8, 2011

Mel Miller's invaluable Musicals Tonight! series—which is now in its 14th season producing concert-style revivals of musicals from the (mostly distant) past—hits another bullseye with its latest offering, I'd Rather Be Right. This choice musical comedy first appeared on Broadway back in 1937, when its two pairs of creators—book writers George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and score writers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart—were the hottest names on the Great White Way. This, their one and only collaboration, does not represent either team at their peak; but even second-best Kaufman & Hart and Rodgers & Hart is well above par in musical theatre, and the chance to see this light-hearted satirical romp on stage for the first time in more than 70 years is one you will not want to pass up.

The title of the show is an allusion to something Henry Clay is supposed to have said (the rest of the quote is "...than president"). The main character of this show gets to be both: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is at the center of this very funny script, which focuses on his battle to balance the budget at the height of the Great Depression. Here, his reason for wanting to zero out the national deficit is pressing indeed: on a stroll in Central Park, FDR has happened upon Phil Barker and Peggy Jones, a couple of thoroughly charming and decent young Americans who are deeply in love but unable to get married. The reason: Phil's boss refuses to give him a raise until the President balances the budget.

I should mention, I guess, that this meeting with FDR occurs in a long dream sequence that comprises almost the entire running time of the show. Phil, bereft at not being able to marry Peggy, falls asleep in Central Park, his head in her lap. And in the dream, he conjures not only his Chief Executive but also the entire Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and a bunch of other notable figures.

Kaufman & Hart's book is loose as can be (in fact they bill the piece as a "musical revue" rather than a musical comedy, which is apt). Mostly the play is an occasion for various sketches that poke gentle though often pointed fun at the incongruities and mishaps of FDR and his New Deal. There's a running joke about Roosevelt's feud with the Supreme Court (they hide in the bushes to keep tabs on him); a couple of funny bits involving the President's famously domineering mother; and more than one swipe at the world of finance (at one point, Postmaster General James Farley has this too-resonant line: "Frank, we can't fool around with Wall Street. To hell with the country!").

By the second act, it's pretty much devolved into a vaudeville, with a sketch about the Wagner Labor Relations Act taking the form of a comic dialogue that wouldn't have been out of place in the mouths of Chico and Groucho; followed by a warm comic turn for FDR called "Off the Record" (which one can easily imagine original star George M. Cohan turning into a gigantic show-stopper; I need to check out Cagney's performance of it in Yankee Doodle Dandy); which is in turn followed by a faux-radio show featuring a hillbilly band made up of Cabinet members, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins delivering a gossip report a la Walter Winchell, Secretary of State Cordell Hull doing a bit of standup, and Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau crooning a song about government savings bonds. Great stuff.

There are some songs, of course, though no real hits. Phil and Peggy have two charming numbers, "Have You Met Miss Jones?" and "Sweet Sixty Five," and FDR leads the first act finale, "We're Going to Balance the Budget." Rodgers' melodies are, as always, tuneful and smart. Lyricist Hart really hits his stride though only one time, in the deliriously witless sendup "Spring in Milwaukee":

It's spring in Milwaukee
And spring when I sing;
It's spring in the hilltops,
And spring in the spring.

Miller, with frequent collaborator/casting director Stephen DeAngelis, has assembled a fine cast of 17 to put over the show. Steve Brady stars as the likable FDR, with the appealing Brent Di Roma and Laurie Hymes making an easy-to-root-for couple as Phil and Peggy. Standouts among the supporting cast include Lydia Gladstone as FDR's mom, Peter Cormican as a glad-handing Jim Farley, and Rob Lorey, who brings a splendid tenor to Morgenthau's eleven o'clock number "A Baby Bond." James Stenborg is at the piano, and Thomas Sabella-Mills at the helm, doing their usual sturdy work to guide the company smoothly through the script-in-hand presentation. (The pacing, especially on some of the gags, was a little slack at the opening night performance I saw; hopefully that will improve as the run progresses.)

I'd Rather Be Right is a delightful entertainment; even though many of the topical references are dated, the engine of this well-crafted comedy is in excellent shape. They knew how write a musical comedy in 1937. I wonder if anyone would dare to put on stage in 2011 something at once so gentle and good-natured and smart and sharply satirical about our current government leadership?