When you take your seat on November 21st at Carnegie Hall, you’ll be part of the first audience to see Let ‘Em Eat Cake since its premiere at the Imperial Theatre in 1933. (The closest thing was a 1987 concert version, combined with Of Thee I Sing, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)
But there’s a good reason for that: very little of the original material survived!
Lucky for us, in 1983 a Broadway musical scholar named John McGlinn found a trove of Gershwin materials in a storage attic belonging to publisher Samuel French. Working with microfilm of Gershwin’s sketches, held at the Library of Congress, he was able to create a detailed vocal score. Music historian Russell Warner then constructed a new orchestration, based on clues from other Gershwin scores and the first-hand remembrances of composer and Gershwin friend Kay Swift, who died in 1993. Working from 11 bars in George Gershwin’s handwriting, she was able to reconstruct tempos and even an entire number from memory.
Flash forward 35 years, when Artistic Director Ted Sperling began to pursue his long-cherished dream to reconstruct the show using more of Kaufman and Ryskind’s antic libretto. He turned to Kaufman scholar Laurence Maslon, of Broadway to Main Street podcast fame, and the rest is (about to be) history! We caught up with both of them to ask a few questions…
What’s significant about our production?
LM: Well, of course there’s the rarity of it – CAKE is a big show, and honestly speaking, it’s not likely to get the full revival treatment. So I think this is really the perfect way to do it – not as truncated as a concert version, but not as unwieldy as a full reconstruction either. Audiences will get just the cream in this version – the best of the humor, the best of the music. And it’s a lot of music!
TS: Absolutely, that lavish opening number is a real stunner. But I really agree about the humor, that’s a big part of why this production is so special. We’re inserting more of the book scenes, letting audiences see more fully developed characters, and we’re really doubling down on the spirit of fun!
What should the audience expect from CAKE?
TS: I think folks will be pretty awed by the complexity and beauty of the score. One of Mary Turner’s songs, ‘The Mothers of the Nation,’ is so beautiful – it’s in the same operatic league as Porgy and Bess. There are Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired numbers, contrapuntal dueling anthems, and exquisite songs. It’s a straight-out hoot of a show, but it’s also rather revelatory, musically speaking.”
LM: For those who hold dear the memory of Of Thee I Sing, they should definitely expect a more bitter satire representing more desperate times. Kaufman et al. were students of American history, and what they predicted didn’t seem so unreasonable at the time. I mean, for them, The Russian Revolution wasn’t that long ago!
What drew you to this material?
TS: Well, I always love the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before, so that’s one thing. And this music holds a grand place in the Gershwin canon. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the timeliness of the material – happily for theatergoers but sadly for the nation, the creators of this show were warning us about things that are now closer than ever to reality. I think humor is a potent way to fight the system.
Also, Groucho Marx was one of my father’s favorite comedians, and you can definitely feel that Marx Brothers spirit through the show [ed. note – Kaufman and Ryskind wrote for the Marx Brothers]. So being immersed in that spirit reminds me of him – of being a kid and watching those movies with him.
LM: It represents a world that was funny, zesty, and free. And of course the notion that entertainment, marketing, business, politics, and middle-class mores often fail to live up to their own standards or pretensions… well that’s eternal. I also love the sophistication of some of the humor – the show maintains a meta-understanding of its being a sequel, with funny musical and plot references to Of Thee I Sing. Sophisticated wit intertwined with silly antics – what’s not to love? But above all, I think it’s about honoring the antecedents. That’s something I think Ted and I both share.