The Flyin’ Fightin’ Forties: 16 Female Solo Ideas From The WWII Era
Written by Jackson Upperco
August 31, 2017
So you’re auditioning for the role of Ado Annie in Oklahoma! (1943)? Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (1949)? Margie Frake in a production of the 1996 stage adaptation of the 1945 film State Fair? Then you need some authentic and not overdone material from the early ‘40s in your repertoire – starting with this collection of Musical Theatre solo suggestions for audition and study . from the first six years of the flyin’, fightin’ decade (before and during America’s participation in the Second World War). (For material from the late ‘40s, check out our Golden Age posts for men, women, and duets for two men or two women, and male/female couples!)
All the selections below, chosen by a self-proclaimed expert on the scores of this era, are guaranteed to put you in the mind and flavor – the real mind and flavor – of this iconic time in history. With classic entries from the Great American Songbook to rousing (seldom sung) gems waiting to be rediscovered, this EXCLUSIVE list is one to be bookmarked and studied!
1. “The Rhumba Jumps” from Walk With Music (1940) (mezzo)
As Europe was embroiled in a new war, the U.S. put up a public front of non-interventionism (for a while, anyway). Distractions, however, were vital, and this bawdy musical comedy, scored by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, about three gals looking for rich husbands, served this function. Here’s the show’s attempt at evoking the latest dancing craze – the Rhumba! Swingin’, big band-y.
2. “Taking A Chance On Love” from Cabin In The Sky (1940) (mezzo)
Introduced by the legendary Ethel Waters, this is the most famous number from this all-black production (still a relative novelty for 1940) that boasted a score by Vernon Duke and John LaTouche. Waters played the wife of a man who’s been given a second chance on life – but both the Lord and the Devil are after his soul. A wonderful selection for women of color – part of the Great American Songbook.
3. “I’ve Still Got My Health” from Panama Hattie (1940) (mezzo)
Ethel Merman’s fourth (of five) musicals with composer-lyricist Cole Porter, Panama Hattie was the first time the iconic diva got solo star billing. The story concerned a night club singer who’s engaged to a wealthy Navy man – a romance of which many disapprove. In this number, Hattie thinks their engagement is off, so she gets drunk and toasts to the fact that she’s still got her health! A belter.
4. “Zip” from Pal Joey (1940) (alto)
Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey has been revived several times in the decades since its debut, but its gem-filled score tends to overshadow the narrative innovation: the fact that the plot is driven by an unlikable heel of a protagonist (played originally by Gene Kelly), who’ll do anything to get his way. This number is a mock strip tease (à la Gypsy Rose Lee) performed by a no-nonsense reporter. How fun!
5. “The Saga Of Jenny” from Lady In The Dark (1941) (soprano)
More innovation came in this musical drama about a high-powered magazine editor (Gertrude Lawrence) who visits a shrink when her dreams are haunted by a mysterious melody. This number is the climax of her third and final dream, in which she’s put on trial by her beaus for being unable to choose one. This is her literate defense: the story of a woman who made up her mind. Showstopper.
6. “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) from Jump For Joy (1941) (mezzo)
Another song ideal for women of color, this ditty comes from a black musical revue (co-composed by Duke Ellington, who wrote this number) that didn’t technically make it to Broadway, but nevertheless played Los Angeles in the summer of ’41. It’s an achingly terrific ballad for a woman who’s scared to find herself so in love with her latest paramour. Introduced by Ivy Anderson.
7. “Shady Lady Bird” from Best Foot Forward (1941) (mezzo)
Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine crafted the brassy score for this peppy musical comedy about a boy at a prep school who jokingly invites a B-movie actress to be his date to the upcoming dance – and, for publicity, she accepts! This blazin’ number is for the aforementioned boy’s regular girlfriend, who’s not happy to be jilted! Youthful, energetic, and a great representation of this era’s music.
8. “Jerry, My Solider Boy” from Let’s Face It! (1941) (mezzo)
Although Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It! opened six weeks before the U.S. officially joined the war, you can see that combat was on the culture’s mind, as this farce centered around three lonely wives who decide to make their husbands jealous by cavorting around with young Army inductees. But this doesn’t sit too well with the G.I.’s regular gals, one of whom sings this number of her “soldier boy.”
9. “Nobody’s Heart” from By Jupiter (1942) (mezzo)
The first number here from a show that opened after the United States was officially at war, Rodgers & Hart’s “Nobody’s Heart” is actually a tender ballad sung by the warlike daughter of an Amazon Queen. Yes, this is a period piece – a burlesque telling of The Warrior’s Husband, about the romance between this young woman and Theseus, who’s led the Greeks in battle against the Amazons.
10. “Something For The Boys” from Something For The Boys (1943) (mezzo)
Merman’s fifth vehicle with Cole Porter, the comical plot of Something For The Boys found three cousins turning their inherited Texas ranch into a boarding house for soldiers’ wives. The rousing title number reveals the country’s then-unwavering patriotism during wartime. It’s sure to evoke the era – with genuine spirit! (This score contains a couple of other delights too; see also: “I’m In Love With A Soldier Boy,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “He’s A Right Guy.”)
11. “Foolish Heart” from One Touch Of Venus (1943) (soprano)
Mary Martin played a statue of Venus come to life in New York City in this romantic drama featuring a score by German composer Kurt Weill and American poet Ogden Nash. In this number, Venus decries her foolish heart after having fallen in love with a barber. There’s genuine elegance and dramatic weight to the music in this show, making it ideal for those interested in pieces for vocal study.
12. “I Wanna Get Married” from Follow The Girls (1944) (mezzo)
One of three numbers on this list previously highlighted in our series of musical suggestions from Broadway’s Golden Age (which we defined as starting after the premiere of Oklahoma! in 1943), here’s how I described the song last time: “A burlesque queen at a servicemen’s club longs to walk down the aisle. Great nostalgic character piece.” It’s a funny lyric that’s definitely of this specific era.
13. “The Love I Long For” from Sadie Thompson (1944) (mezzo)
“A hooker in Pago Pago doesn’t think she’s worthy of being loved by a good man. Terrific ballad.” Based on the hit play Rain, this musical adaptation (by Duke and Dietz) of the classic drama was originally written for Ethel Merman, who quit during tryouts. June Havoc (yes, Baby June) stepped into the role. Though not a hit, there are a few beautiful standouts – like this honest, emotive piece.
14. “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” from Seven Lively Arts (1944) (mezzo)
A classic contribution to the Great American Songbook, this Cole Porter gem is far more famous than the show from which it originates – a flop musical revue that starred Bert Lahr and Beatrice Lillie. Although this plainly but sorrowfully wistful piece doesn’t have explicit wartime connotations, forming them isn’t a stretch. So, it’s an ideal embodiment of this period – and a gorgeous one, at that.
15. “I Can Cook, Too” from On The Town (1944) (mezzo)
Perhaps the best-known showtune on this list – from a work revived on Broadway not that long ago – here’s what I wrote about it in our Golden Age series: “Rambunctious taxi cab driver Hildy tries to seduce a sailor on a 24-hour shore leave. Lots of swinging fun.” Introduced by singing comedienne Nancy Walker, this brilliant character number is spunky, funny, and a Broadway staple.
16. “Send Us Back To The Kitchen” from Are You With It? (1945) (mezzo)
Opening three months after the cessation of combat in the Pacific, this musical comedy, set at a touring carnival, subliminally deals with the emerging social tension. That’s most explicit in this comic number, to be performed tongue-in-check now (but maybe it also was then), in which a working-woman longs to be sent back to the kitchen and her domestic duties. If you want 1945, here it is.
Visit the author’s blog, jacksonupperco.com, for more on the scores of this era!
Listen to a Spotify playlist of these audition songs from The WWII Era here:
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