The Gershwins and George S. Kaufman had collaborated on a satirical musical in 1927 entitled Strike up the Band, which played in Philadelphia. The show concerned a cheese manufacturer who sponsors a war against Switzerland because it will be named after him. A version of Strike Up the Band, with the book altered by Morrie Ryskind, played on Broadway in early 1930. Much of the satire was replaced in the new version by silliness, leading Ryskind to recall, "What I had to do, in a sense, was to rewrite War and Peace for the Three Stooges."
Later that year, Kaufman and Ryskind conceived a new musical focusing on satire about rival political parties battling over a new national anthem. The Gershwin brothers agreed to write the score, although they were scheduled to be in Hollywood writing songs for the film Delicious. Kaufman and Ryskind soon realized that their concept did not provide sufficient plot for a musical. They crafted a libretto inspired by the timeless battle of political idealism with corruption and incompetency, creating the first American musical with a consistently satiric tone. The writers and the cast were unsure of what the public's reception would be, prompting Kaufman's now-famous statement, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."
Musical and dramatic analysis
Of Thee I Sing was the most musically sophisticated of the Gershwin shows up to then, inspired by the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and boasting a varied score including extensive recitative, choral commentary, marches, pastiches, elaborate contrapuntal passages, and ballads. Most songs were lengthy and included a large ensemble. In addition, as an integrated song-and-story production it produced fewer hit songs than many of the Gershwins' musicals. Ira Gershwin explained, "In the show there are no verse-and-chorus songs; there is a sort of recitative running along, and lots of finales and finalettos." Ira Gershwin recalled that the title song, inspired by the final phrase of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee", was somewhat controversial among the production staff. "When we first played this sentimental political campaign song... there were objectors who thought that juxtaposing the dignified 'of thee I sing' with a slangy 'baby' was going a bit too far. Our response was that, naturally, we'd replace it with something else if the paying audience didn't take to it. Opening night, and even weeks later, one could hear a continuous 'Of thee I sing, baby!' in the lobby at intermission time." The music was "employed throughout in what was unquestionably the most closely integrated maner of any Broadway show to that time...Almost everything ...was created with a skill that had rarely been equaled in the musical comedy theatre."
Of Thee I Sing was the first American musical with a consistently satirical tone. Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Presidency, and the democratic process itself were all targets of this satire, prompting original stars William Gaxton and Victor Moore to wonder if they would face government repercussions for their portrayals of President Wintergreen and Vice President Throttlebottom. Specific political parties are not identified in the musical, as Kaufman and Ryskind believed that absurdity was bipartisan in Depression-era politics.
The original Broadway production, directed by Kaufman, opened at the Music Box Theatre on December 26, 1931 and ran for 441 performances. The cast included William Gaxton as John P. Wintergreen, Lois Moran as Mary Turner, Grace Brinkley as Diana Devereaux, Victor Moore as Alexander Throttlebottom and George Murphy as Sam Jenkins. It was produced by Sam H. Harris. Sets were designed by Jo Mielziner, costumes by Carles LeMaire, and dances staged by Georgie Hale. It was Gaxton and Moore's first comedic pairing; they would collaborate on six more Broadway musicals, including Anything Goes. The orchestrations were by Robert Russell Bennett, William Daly (including the "Overture"), and Gershwin ("Hello, Good Morning"). Of Thee I Sing was the longest-running Gershwin show during George Gershwin's lifetime.
There were Broadway revivals in 1933 at the Imperial Theatre and in 1952 at the Ziegfeld Theatre, both directed by Kaufman. A concert production of Of Thee I Sing was mounted by Ian Marshall Fisher's Lost Musicals series at the Barbican Centre in London in August 1996. Fisher's series examines the Gershwins' lesser known works (as well as others) and has been based at London's Royal Opera House and Sadler's Wells. The musical was presented in May 2006 as part of the New York City Center Encores! staged concert series. Directed by John Rando and choreographed by Randy Skinner, the cast starred Victor Garber as John P. Wintergreen, Jefferson Mays as Vice President, Alexander Throttlebottom, and Jennifer Laura Thompson as First Lady.