Review of the Musical “Hooray for What!”

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by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

The musical “Hooray for What!” was presented in November by 42nd Street Moon Productions at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre. The company is noted for presenting concert performances of overlooked, classic, and “lost’ musicals.

“Hooray” is a delightful, rollicking 1930s musical satire about war profiteering. Its lyricist, Edgar Yepsil “Yip” Harburg, was born into an impoverished family in New York’s Lower East Side in 1896. The deprivations he suffered growing up influenced his dedication to left-wing causes, which eventually landed him on the infamous 1950s Hollywood blacklist.

When the company he worked for tanked in the 1929 crash, Harburg was inspired to write the social protest song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” After “Hooray!” which Harburg wrote with composer Harold Arlen, they both moved to Hollywood to write songs for “The Wizard of Oz.”

Harburg and Arlen wrote “Hooray!” during the late 1930s, when the U.S. was beginning to prepare for war. The Broadway run was cut short in 1938, as World War II approached and antiwar themes were no longer welcomed.

In fact, “God’s Country,” one of Yarburg’s and Arlen’s satirical tunes from the musical, ended up a patriotic anthem sung by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, who were stumping for War Bonds.

In “Hooray!” munitions manufacturer Breezy Cunningham gets wind of a scientist, Chuckles, who has invented a death gas. Breezy wants the formula; it’ll make him millions. But Chuckles won’t give it up. Breezy (and his enemy counterpart) then recruit trench-coated, multiple-identity-laden spies to steal the formula.

One of the zaniest scenes takes place at the Munitions Pavilion at a “Peace Conference,” where an oily-voiced Breezy touts ordnance to buyers. While the chorus sings “Fashion Girl,” sexy models, played by members of the ensemble, move seductively across the stage, miming cradling guns, rockets, and small bombs in their arms.

Forty-second Street Moon’s director, Greg MacKellan, points out, “[At the time] Harburg’s device of a death gas capable of killing thousands would soon be regarded as eerily prescient and inappropriate for a musical comedy.” Still, now that weapons of mass destruction, jingoism, and big-time profiteering by the likes of Lockheed-Martin, Halliburton, et al., are in the forefront again, all bets are off.

*This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.

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