In February 1918, George Gershwin was hired as a songwriter by the T. B. Harms music publishing company. At the age of 19, he still only had five published songs to his name (“Swanee” would come out a year later), but he was now working as a composer in the same company where his idol Jerome Kern was working (and later Vincent Youmans, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter).
When producer Edward B. Perkins told Harms’ Max Dreyfus of his plans to mount a review called Half Past Eight, Dreyfus recommended George to write the five new songs for the project. This would be George’s biggest break in stage musical songwriting up to that time.
Why have we never heard of Half Past Eight then? The variety show starred popular comedian Joe Cook and singers Sybil Vane and Ruby Loraine. Gershwin songs for the show were orchestrated by Harms staff and played by the Clef Club jazz band, the New York-based “syncopated orchestra” of about 20 black musicians who were led at various times by Will Marion Cook and James Reese Europe. Talented people alone, evidently, do not a hit show make.
Anatomy of a Flop
One Week Out 12/1/1918: The ad for the Empire Theatre boasts of an “Entire New York Cast,” which was fairly true, and of a “Broadway Beauty Chorus,” which the show did NOT have.
The Day Before Opening Night, Sunday 12/8/1918: A feature story appears (SyracuseHerald-Dec08-PDF) in the Syracuse Herald detailing the acts in Half Past Eight. Readers are told that there will be no plot – the script is burned on stage in the first scene – but there will be plenty of pantomime. (Not sure if that helps or hurts.) Gershwin’s song “Hong Kong” is singled out as a likely standout hit! Next to the article was an ad for the show with an even smaller ad stating that music and songs from the show could be purchased at Phoenix Klein Music. None of the new songs that Gershwin wrote for the show were ever published, so I would speculate that this refers to sheet music of composer Paul Rubens’ songs kept over from the original London production or, less likely, any of Gershwin’s five (at that time) published pieces that could have theoretically been incorporated into the show, though I’ve seen no definitive song list from the show due to its early demise. Additionally, it could refer to non-Gershwin songs played by the Clef Club.
Their ad that day says, “Direct from Nine Months Run in London,” which explains why producer Edward B. Perkins would keep the meaningless Half Past Eight title to a completely reworked show just to be able to hype its successful London run.
Opening Night, Monday 12/9/1918: The theatre is filled because it was bought out by Syracuse’s Loyal Order of Moose for their annual theatre party. The show called Half Past Eight, referring to the standard time that curtains rose, got a late start at 8:45 – a bad omen of things to come as it would turn out.
Tuesday 12/10/1918: The review of the show appears in the Herald, and it’s a lackluster review at best. The show was “Average Quality” vaudeville and too short at its 85 minutes running time with too long of an intermission.
Comedian Joe Cook’s “Rushin Symphony Orchestra” act was deemed particularly insipid. Singers Sybil Vane and Ruby Loraine get high praise for their singing and the Clef Club for their playing, but there was no mention of the quality of the Gershwin songs themselves. Most damning of all is the final word from the review: “People who are willing to pay first class prices to see a short bill of average quality vaudeville should not miss Half Past Eight.” Ouch.
Wednesday Matinee 12/11/1918: George Gershwin happens to be walking backstage just at the moment that an act had refused to go onstage because they hadn’t been paid. Given that this act was timed with a change of scenery, producer Perkins told 19-year-old George that he had to go out and play a medley of his hits on the piano – RIGHT NOW!!!
“I should loved to have played my hits, ” George recounted, “Except that I didn’t have any! But I walked on the stage to a very small and innocent audience and made up a medley right on the spot of some of my tunes. The audience must have thought it very queer. I finished my bit and walked off – without a hand!”
Closing Day, Saturday 12/14/1918: After 6 of the scheduled 8 performances that week, half of the 30 member cast demanded to be paid before Saturday’s matinee. Producer and lyricist of the show Edward Perkins was evidently unable to pay up and promised to pay after the Saturday evening show, presumably expecting a big weekend crowd that would help keep him and the show afloat. Unpaid, the cast members refused to perform, and that was the end of Half Past Eight. It’s unclear what attendance had been during the week and exactly how much the cast had been paid in the three weeks of rehearsal and one week of shows, but for the cast to walk out when they were so close to Saturday box office receipts, it seems likely that attendance was poor and pay had not been forthcoming for a while.
George left Syracuse happy to have train fare back home and to have seen his name on a show as THE composer. The last line in the Syracuse Herald article about the show’s early demise gives us some indication as to how things were going for the show’s producer at the end of the run: “The manager is ill at the Onandoga (Hotel).”
The song “Half Past Eight” was written as an instrumental piece for the show of the same name. The manuscript for solo piano is written with a vocal melody line and seems as singable as any other Gershwin song of the day, so why it went without lyrics is hard for me to understand. My recording below gives it a swing rhythm which isn’t called for in the sheet music, but when played with a straight rhythm it is unsatisfyingly rigid and march-like for my taste. Oh, what I would give to be there 100 years ago to hear the Clef Club Orchestra playing this and Gershwin’s four other songs in the show. If they invent a time machine, I’m going back to record it and I’ll be sure to post it here!
Download the PDF of the fake-book style sheet music to “Half Past Eight” here: Half Past Eight