Today is President’s Day in the U.S. Over the past few years, here at The Listeners’ Club, we’ve marked the occasion with musical portraits of Washington, Lincoln and even Richard Nixon. Today, let’s consider the fictitious presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen who runs on a “love” platform. He’s the goofy protagonist of the 1931 Pulizer-Prize-winning Broadway musical satire Of Thee I Sing, with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind.
Wintergreen promises “to marry the winner of a beauty contest in Atlantic City and to woo her through all forty-eight states.” Outside New York’s Madison Square Garden, the crowd at a rally declares that Love is Sweeping the Country. But then, in the ultimate political “flip-flop,” Wintergreen refuses to marry the selected winner, the beautiful Diana Devereaux, instead falling in love with Mary Turner, the “sensible” woman running the pageant.
Michael Tilson Thomas’ 1987 studio cast recording restored the scores for Of Thee I Sing and Let ‘Em Eat Cake, another nearly-forgotten Gershwin satire from the 1930s. Here is the title song from Of Thee I Sing with Larry Kert (best known for creating the role of Tony in the original Broadway production of West Side Story) and Maureen McGovern. The song’s introductory bars seem to give a subtle nod to An American in Paris. I love the warm, weaving harmonies in the saxophones. It’s an iconically “American” Broadway sound, filled with nostalgia. Then there’s Gershwin’s melody, which seems to take flight, soaring in the bridge and then, at the last possible moment, sliding back into the “A” section.
Here is the Of Thee I Sing Overture from a 1977 recording Michael Tilson Thomas made during his tenure as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: