I used to startle people by including Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes among the great American novels, along with The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby (that last published the same year as Loos's work, 1925). All three deal with the false innocence, feigned or self-willed, that seems to nest at the core of the American myth—Dimmesdale's piety, Ahab's sanity, Gatsby's gentlemanliness—and so make it a prime target for comic debunking. Dimmesdale, Ahab, and Gatsby are destroyed; Lorelei Lee, Loos's dumb-like-a-fox heroine, hilariously triumphs.
Anita Loos receives an Encores!: Hilty and Jones
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
By Joseph Fields, Anita Loos, Leo Robin, and Jule Styne
Encores! at City Center
And back when America could laugh at itself, Lorelei's triumph became part of the myth. Judges as astute as Edith Wharton and H.L. Mencken shared my high evaluation, as did the American public, which made Loos's epic of faux-naivete a runaway bestseller, keeping it in print for the next half-century. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes immediately spawned a 1926 stage version, by Loos and her director husband, John Emerson. A silent-film version, now lost, followed in 1928, also scripted by Loos, along with, inevitably, a follow-up novel, . . . But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.
After a hiatus during the 1930s and early '40s, while Americans became preoccupied with peripheral matters like the Depression and World War II, the 1920s came back into fashion, bringing along Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, this time as a spiffy 1949 Broadway musical, just revived for a brief run by City Center's Encores!, with a book co-written by Loos and Joseph Fields, and catchy tunes by Jule Styne to smart, pungent lyrics by Leo Robin. The musical, too, spawned a movie version, as a result of which most Americans know Lorelei Lee only as Marilyn Monroe. The targets of Loos's good-natured satire, having dwindled steadily with each successive version, have almost vanished.
Not that the 1949 musical offered much satiric bite, never a Broadway specialty. Tracing Lorelei's antics as she hunts millionaires for herself and her carefree sidekick, Dorothy (despite the latter's disinterest), the Fields-Loos script sticks to broad burlesquing of familiar types. As trimmed down for Encores!, it often seemed to consist mainly of mere setups for songs, some of them dragged in on the most preposterously thin excuses.
Luckily, John Rando's production caught the jovial, burlesque tone with easy amiability, and a batch of skilled comic hands—Deborah Rush, Sandra Shipley, Steven Boyer, Brennan Brown, and Simon Jones—gave fresh zest to their conventional tasks. This cleared the way, as the comedy in old-style musical comedy must, for the music to take over. And the music was generally in very good hands indeed, as was evident the minute conductor Rob Berman's orchestra struck up the overture. Don Walker's original orchestrations are notably brass-heavy, but the Encores! brass played with a tenderness rare in today's Broadway pits.
The quality held good all evening, bringing out the best in Trude Rittman's inventive dance arrangements and supporting the exceptionally strong choral singing in Hugh Martin's stunningly extravagant, Kay Thompson–influenced vocal arrangements. One of the show's exceptionally good ideas was to restore the traditional division of the chorus into singers and dancers. (Both do both, but each has to do less of the other's specialty.) Nearly all the solo singing was first-rate, too, especially Aaron Lazar's, his ultra-romantic Henry Spofford serenading Rachel York's Dorothy with heart-melting cantabile phrases.
And there was Megan Hilty as Lorelei, now much-acclaimed. I'm of two minds: After a fake-funny Kristin Chenoweth start that put me off, Hilty found her own way into the role and displayed an appealing comic personality. Her way, though, is the hard-edged, assertive one common in today's female comedy playing. But Lorelei, a dainty doll with a concealed tiger inside, is not one of today's females. Hilty brought the work off forcefully; I'd love to see her try it with that force concealed. In American icons, the mask of innocence is everything.