Fall 2013

Long Time, No Song: Revisiting Fats Waller’s Lost Broadway Musical

Author
John H. McWhorter
Abstract

Just before he died in 1943, Fats Waller wrote the music for a Broadway book musical with a mostly white cast, the first black composer to do so–and the only one ever to do it with commercial success. Yet “Early to Bed” is largely ignored by historians of musical theater, while jazz scholars describe the circumstances surrounding its composition rather than the work itself. Encouraging this neglect is the fact that no actual score survives. This essay, based on research that assembled all surviving evidence of the score and the show, gives a summary account of “Early to Bed” and what survives from it. The aim is to fill a gap in Waller scholarship, calling attention to some of his highest quality work, and possibly stimulating further reconstruction work that might result in a recording of the score.

JOHN H. MCWHORTER is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he also teaches in the Core Program and the Center for American Studies. A linguist who specializes in language contact and change, he also writes about race in America and is a Contributing Editor for The New Republic. His recent publications include Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity: Why Do Languages Undress? (2011), What Language Is–and What It Isn't and What It Could Be (2011), and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (2008).

In 1943 and 1944, if tickets to musicals such as Oklahoma!, One Touch of Venus, or A Connecticut Yankee were elusive, the theatergoer could drop in on another hit running at the time. Early to Bed was a musical about white people with a score by a black man–the first such musical on Broadway.1 It was one of only three ever, and the only one that was a success. (The other two were Duke Ellington’s short-lived Beggar’s Holiday and Pousse-Cafe.) It played for a year, a healthy and profitable run for a show in 1943, before then touring the country. And the composer of this show was none other than Fats Waller.

Yet Early to Bed is a footnote in histories of musical theater. Even the dedicated musical theater aficionado has typically never heard of it. Playwright and theater historian Thomas Hischak, in his Oxford Companion to the American Musical, includes no entry for the show; and in the general entry on Waller that he does include, there is still no mention of Early to Bed.

There is temptation to attribute this omission to race-related bias, but in truth, Early to Bed does not appear in this or other histories of musical theater .  .  .

Endnotes

  • 1J. Rosamond Johnson composed the music for Hello, Paris, which ran briefly in 1911; but this was a revue (and an abbreviated one) rather than a book show.
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