Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bring on the Girls by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton

P.G. Wodehouse never wrote an autobiography of his whole life, but he did engage in memoir-making several times. The most focused of those pieces of memoir -- at least as far as I know -- is Bring on the Girls, the story of how he wrote a lot of musicals with Guy Bolton during the interwar years.

(Note 1: the book Bring on the Girls is also co-written by Wodehouse and Bolton, very naturally.)

(Note 2: "the interwar years" is slightly imprecise, since the first Wodehouse-Bolton (with music by Jerome Kern) production was Oh, Boy! in 1917. The end is vaguer, since Bring on the Girls is a chatty showbizzy book without much in the way of dates, but it seems that Bolton and Wodehouse ceased Broadway musical-making and decamped to Hollywood sometime in the '30s, and this book ends on that note.)

This was a deliberate piece of nostalgia when it was published in 1953, looking back three and four decades to an earlier era of Broadway and teasing many names who became more famous during those days and afterward. And it is a showbiz book, telling only happy stories about happy people who worked well together...well, except for producers, since no one ever liked them. (Producers are both the bosses and the ones who keep an eye on the money, so employees and creative types hate them. And audiences are always happy to blame the business types for any failures of art, so it works for the readership as well.)

It generally works through their career chronologically, slightly hampered, as I said, by not listing dates except on very rare occasions. Some shows were massive successes, and some were not quite so successful, but all were fun to work on and the casts were all wonderful people. And the reader almost believes that's all true. Most of those shows are little-known these days, except to serious Broadway historians, but that's only natural: Bolton and Wodehouse created the "Princess Theater show" as a musical comedy subgenre -- small, light shows designed to be done on a tight budget in a small house. That's an ephemeral thing at the best of times, and Broadway has been afflicted with giganticism pretty much continuously since then. More importantly, theatre is an art of production, rather than of quiet reading and study. Shows are only real when they're produced.

The prose style is not quite pure Wodehouse, since Bolton is responsible for a lot of it. And so much of Wodehouse in in his plots, which obviously doesn't come into play here. So anyone hoping for a book that sounds like Wodehouse will be somewhat disappointed. But it's a pleasant run through some interesting years in American musical theatre -- and before the years that most of us know anything about, which can be a nice bonus.

Bring on the Girls is probably more for a Broadway historian audience than a Wodehouse audience, I suppose, but Wodehousians can find interesting things in it, and many of us like the theatre as well.

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