One of the two or three best evenings we ever spent in the theatre – competing with, say, Fonteyn and Nureyev in Giselle and Olivier’s Otehllo - was, you may think ludicrously, a revival of the 1920s musical No, No, Nanette!
It was the producer Harry Rigby who conceived the idea of reviving this very popular show, over half a century after its first production in New York in 1924. All that audiences of the early 1970s knew of it was the awful 1950 film starring Doris Day – and that was retitled Tea for Two, with most of the numbers cut. The show was considered rather scandalous when it was first produced; Rigby excised any suspicion of slease, and the evening was simply the best possible example of a good night out in the musical theatre. Julia and I were fortunate enough to get seats during the first week or two of the show, and from the first notes of the overture (a huge orchestra, with grand pianos to left and to right) it was a riot. The production was by Busby Berkeley, probably the greatest of directors of stage musicals (53 of them, from Whoopee in 1930 to Rose Marie in 1954). He came out of retirement to direct and choreograph No, No, Nanette! and whatever the degree of his participation (it’s said he actually did little of the work) the magic rubbed off. The other great star of film musicals who leaped lithely onto the stage was of course Ruby Keeler, who came out of retirement to play the lead, and who at the age of 71 did two tap numbers - in ‘I want to be happy’ and ‘Take a little one-step’, and having finished the latter, came on to ringing applause and did it again! Bobby Van was remarkable in ‘Call of the Sea’ and Helen Gallagher’s ‘You can dance with any man you like’ brought the house down about her ears and properly won her several awards - as did the show itself.
Alas, as far as I know there is no visual record of the show, though the original cast recording is excellent (and four DVDs have been worn out in our house). The real joy of the evening was that sublime silliness which no modern musical embraces – thirty chorus boys coming on dancing and playing ukuleles – and the wonderful idiocy of the whole thing. You can keep your Miserables and Phantoms and the rest of the productions which seem to emanate from a production company entitled Gloom Inc. Where’s all the pleasure gone?