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Forgotten Broadway classics: St. Louis Woman January 30, 2008

Posted by Jeff in Harold Arlen, Musicals, Nicholas Brothers, Theater.

“St. Louis Woman” sheet music

Forgotten by myself, amongst others.

When I did my series of non-posts about the Nicholas Brothers, I forgot that they co-starred in a musical by one of my favorite Broadway composers.

The book for St. Louis Woman was by Harlem Renaissance stalwarts Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps, based on Bontemps’s novel God Sends Sunday. This was considered a Significant Novel, appropriate for the post-Oklahoma age of Significant Musicals. It was, in fact, a rather tawdry turn-of-the-century melodrama of black jockeys and horse-race hangers-on. It even has a shooting in the middle of the second act … just like Oklahoma.

Except that no one had told composer Harold Arlen or lyricist Johnny Mercer how to write Significant Songs. Which is just as well, because their work is far and away the most memorable thing in the show.

The show was staged by Rouben Mamoulian, director both of Oklahoma and Porgy and Bess, who took over as director from Oklahoma‘s designer, Lemuel Ayers. During pre-production, the leader of the NAACP condemned the novel as offering “roles that detract from the dignity of our race.” At which point, Lena Horne, the star for whom the show was being created, pulled out. And Cullen died just before rehearsals began.

For reasons not entirely clear, Mamoulian fired ingenue Ruby Hill in the middle of rehearsals … and then rehired her after a cast revolt led by co-star Pearl Bailey. Based on her opening number, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would have wanted to get rid of her:

Fayard Nicholas and Pearl Bailey in “St. Louis Woman”Harold Nicholas played the lead role, jockey Lil’ Augie, paired romantically with Hill, while Fayard played the second lead with Bailey (left). Augie and Della pledge to love each other …

Lil’ Augie shoots Della’s former lover, Biglow Brown, who curses Augie and causes him to fear he has lost his luck. But after he wins the big race, Augie says he’s “Ridin’ on the Moon” …

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1. Jeff - May 18, 2007

In the same CD package with the reissue of the original cast of St. Louis Woman, Decca Records is offering Harold Arlen and His Songs.

2. George - August 21, 2009

Hi –
Would you have any idea as to the value of an original cast 78rpm album?
I saw one once in mint condition but did not buy it – I had heard of the show but had not been aware that a recording had been made at the time of production and I have never seen it issued on LP.

3. Denise Johnson - August 12, 2010

I have the original Play St. Louis Woman 78rpm’s in the St. Louis Woman Binder which gives description of play with pictures. 2 of the 78’s are broken/chipped…but 3 of the 78rpms are in great condition…. Any one know the value ???? This is the original from 1946.

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