The Truly Turbulent Thirties: 22 Female Solo Ideas From The Great Depression

Written by Jackson Upperco

June 14, 2017

So you’re auditioning for the role of Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes (1934)? Miss Hannigan in Annie (1977)? Dorothy Brock in the stage adaptation of the 1933 film 42nd Street (1980)? Then you need some authentic and not overdone material from the ‘30s in your repertoire – starting with this collection of Musical Theatre solo suggestions for audition and study from the Great Depression. 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 decade. From classic entries in the Great American Songbook to bluesy (seldom sung) gems waiting to be rediscovered, this EXCLUSIVE list is one to be bookmarked and studied!

1. “Ten Cents A Dance” from Simple Simon (1930)

Introduced by famous chanteuse Ruth Etting in a vehicle for comic Ed Wynn (Mary Poppins), this Rodgers and Hart anthem for a beleaguered taxi dancer has become a Depression era standard. Although the number had little bearing on the show’s fantastical plot, it left a lasting impression. Classic.

Find the sheet music here.

2. “Nobody Breaks My Heart” from Fine And Dandy (1930)

Fine And Dandy is notable for being the first competitive Broadway musical with a score by a woman, Kay Swift, whose husband (under the pseudonym Paul James) served as lyricist. From another vehicle for a star comic, this leading lady torch song is a lesser known bluesy delight.

3. “Boy! What Love Has Done To Me!” from Girl Crazy (1930)

Notable for being the third of three solo numbers introduced by Ethel Merman in her Broadway debut, this Gershwin gem is her 11 o’clock torch spot, as she laments her own love for a bum. “I Got Rhythm” became Merman’s signature, but this was the show’s most character-y.

4. “Sweet And Hot” from You Said It (1931)

Composer Harold Arlen would become best known for crafting the music for The Wizard Of Oz (1939), but his early Broadway work shows impressive range. This sassy ditty, introduced by Polish starlet Lyda Roberti, extolls her preference for music – and men – that are “sweet and hot.”

5. “A Lady Must Live” from America’s Sweetheart (1931)

With the arrival of talking pictures in the late ‘20s, Broadway developed a fixation on spoofing Hollywood and the movie-making industry. America’s Sweetheart was Rodgers & Hart’s contribution, and this risqué number for a French movie star is filled with delicious double entendres.

6. “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” from George White’s Scandals of 1931

In the face of the suffering brought about by the Great Depression, which officially began in 1929 and had becoming increasingly worse by 1931, the American musical theatre tried optimism – evidenced here in this simple advice introduced in a musical revue by Ethel Merman.

Find the sheet music here.

7. “She Didn’t Say ‘Yes’” from The Cat And The Fiddle (1931)

Jerome Kern, whose work with Oscar Hammerstein II in Show Boat cemented his standing as an ambitious musician, reaffirmed his intentions with this frothy operetta, blending elements of both jazz and opera (propagated in the book by two dueling composers). This is the lady’s jazzy hit.

Find the sheet music here.

8. “Should I Be Sweet?” from Take A Chance (1932)

A relatively obscure number from a “backstager” that went through a lot of out-of-town turmoil, this tune came back into some favor when Kristin Chenoweth recorded it for her first solo album. Once again, musical styles are contrasted as an ingénue wonders whether she should be sweet or hot.

9. “Supper Time” from As Thousands Cheer (1933)

An ideal number for black women looking to explore material in this era of slowly changing racial sensibilities, this classic, about a woman whose husband has been lynched, was introduced by the legendary Ethel Waters in a topical Irving Berlin revue. She was the first black headliner allowed to take an equal curtain call with her white co-stars.

Find the sheet music here.

10. “The Physician” from Nymph Errant (1933)

The ‘30s is the decade of Cole Porter’s dominance, for in the face of financial tragedy, his upper class wit (especially when voiced by Average Joes) was unique and delectable. This song comes from a British comedy about a woman who travels the world hoping to lose her virginity. Yes, that’s right.

11. “I’ll Be Hard To Handle” from Roberta (1933)

Polish diva Lyda Roberti played a Slavic chanteuse in this Jerome Kern classic about an American football star who inherits his aunt’s famous Parisian dress shop. In this divine character number, vampy Roberti warns the boys as to why she’s definitely not ideal wife material.

12. “I Couldn’t Hold My Man” from Life Begins At 8:40 (1934)

For as earnest and bleak as the decade otherwise looked for most people, its art and entertainment had a pronounced sense of alleviating satirical humor, evidenced here in this spoof of torch songs, introduced by Luella Gear in this lighthearted, star-filled mid-‘30s revue.

13. “Thief In The Night” from At Home Abroad (1935)

Another terrific character piece introduced by early African American superstar Ethel Waters, this amusing Dietz & Schwartz torch song comes from a woman who tells us about one of her rotten beaus. The show was a revue that took the audience on a cruise around the world.

14. “Begin The Beguine” from Jubilee (1935)

One of Cole Porter’s most indelible standards, this gem comes from his first post-Anything Goes stage work, the plot of which concerns a royal family who, fearing an uprising, hides among the commoners.  In this number, the Prince meets an American singer, who tells of the evocative power of a French island dance known as the Beguine.

Find the sheet music here.

15. “The Economic Situation” from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936

Following the death of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in 1932, his wife Billie Burke assumed the role of producer. The ’36 edition was one of the series’ best. Comedienne Eve Arden introduced this droll ditty, detailing how the Depression has negatively affected her dating life.

16. “Down In The Depths (On The 90th Floor)” from Red, Hot, And Blue! (1936)

Ethel Merman became Cole Porter’s muse, and after 1934’s Anything Goes, she would star in four more of his hits, including this initial follow-up, Red, Hot, And Blue!, in which she played a widowed manicurist who rehabilitates ex-convicts and falls for her best friend. This was her stunning torch song.

Find the sheet music here.

17. “Nobody Makes A Pass At Me” from Pins And Needles (1937)

This musical comedy is notable for being the first produced by a labor Union – the striking International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The show was topical and left-leaning, but many of its numbers, composed by Harold Rome, were charming, funny delights – such as this one.

Find the sheet music here.

18. “Down With Love” from Hooray For What! (1937)

The Wizard Of Oz’s Arlen & Harburg crafted the score for this farcical Ed Wynn comedy about a farmer who invents poison gas. This standard, the first act finale, is led by an embittered foreign spy (initially played by Kay Thompson, but replaced before the opening by I Love Lucy’s Vivian Vance).

Find the sheet music here.

19. “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” from Leave It To Me! (1938)

Legendary Broadway diva Mary Martin made her Broadway debut here, and like Ethel Merman, rose to stardom on the basis of one song – this iconic Cole Porter specialty about a stranded gold-digger in Siberia who does a strip tease for the boys in honor of her daddy. Loaded with innuendo!

Find the sheet music here.

20. “Falling In Love With Love” from The Boys From Syracuse (1938)

From Rodgers and Hart’s musical retelling of Shakespeare’s comedy The Comedy Of Errors about the hijinks that befall two sets of identical twins, this entry in the Great American songbook is a skeptical waltz by a jaded Greek wife. Beautiful, hard, sophisticated.

Find the sheet music here.

21. “This Is It” from Stars In Your Eyes (1939)

A vehicle for Ethel Merman and comedian Jimmy Durante, Stars In Your Eyes boasted a score by Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Dorothy Fields. Merman played a spoiled Hollywood starlet, and this was her first big number in the score – a rouser in the “I’m in love” variety.

22. “Give Him The Oo-La-La” from Du Barry Was A Lady (1939)

Merman’s third go-‘round with Cole Porter occurred in this farce that co-starred her with Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion), whose character dreams that he’s Louis XV and she’s Madame Du Barry. This is saucy Porter fun, as Merman’s Du Barry gives advice on how to get a man.

Find the sheet music here.

For more information on the scores and composers of this era, visit the author’s blog:

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Jackson Upperco is a lover of retro television, forgotten Broadway musicals, and Pre-Code Hollywood. He boasts a Bachelors Degree in Film and Television from Boston University. You can keep up with all of his entertainment interests at
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