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This report is taken from PN Review 250, Volume 46 Number 2, November - December 2019.

Plum and Porter William Poulos
In the early twentieth century, musical theatre on Broadway was as American as apple strudel. Producing shows about Parisian hatters and Viennese milkmaids singing waltzes and gypsy songs, Broadway needed someone to write stories and lyrics that were quintessentially American. Further proof that the United States of America is the greatest product of the British Empire, the man to do this was P.G. Wodehouse.

As the theatre critic for Vanity Fair, Wodehouse saw a show composed by Jerome Kern, who had already given Broadway a musical facelift. Complaining about the poor lyrics, Wodehouse was hired as Kern’s new lyricist, and with Guy Bolton the trio produced their shows at the Princess Theatre. The ‘Princess Theatre’ style was instantly successful; in 1918 Dorothy Parker, Wodehouse’s successor at Vanity Fair, wrote: ‘Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern are my favourite indoor sport. I like the way they go about a musical comedy… I like the way the action slides casually into the songs.’ Eschewing the euphemisms and puns of the Hapsburg-influenced lyricists, Wodehouse deftly played with American vernacular. Here are his lyrics about Cleopatra from the 1917 Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern show Leave it to Jane:
She gave those poor Egyptian ginks
Something else to watch besides the sphinx

From these two lines you quickly learn what a ‘gink’ is, how dull life must be for one, and how seeing a beauty like Cleopatra would liven things up. All good songwriters have this talent for economy because they know they must get all the information across at once; the ...


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