Online Exhibits@Yale

“Fine and Dandy”: On the New York Stage (1928-1939)

Photograph of actor Joe Cook in <em>Fine and Dandy</em>

Actor Joe Cook
in Fine and Dandy

As she began to immerse herself more and more in the genre of popular song, Swift found a collaborator and lyricist in her husband James Warburg. Fearing the stain of show business upon his respectable family and banking career, Warburg wrote under the pseudonym “Paul James”—the reverse of his first and middle names. After a year of unsuccessful pitches to publishers and producers, two “Paul James and Kay Swift” songs were incorporated into the 1928 musical Say When, which ran for a total of three short weeks. 1929 and 1930 brought more success for the Swift-James songwriting team, with three more of their songs appearing in Broadway revues. “Can’t We Be Friends?” from The Little Show (1929) has since become one of Swift’s most enduring jazz standards.

Following their success writing for Broadway revues, Swift and Warburg were hired to write the music and lyrics for a musical comedy that would feature the popular vaudeville and Broadway comedian Joe Cook. The show was later titled Fine and Dandy, and became the first successful Broadway musical to feature a complete score by a female composer, running for over 250 performances. The musical’s title song, “Fine and Dandy,” has come to define Swift’s oeuvre, recorded by numerous popular and jazz artists from 1930 on. Fine and Dandy told a story of mismanagement, love, and mayhem at the “Fordyce Drop Forge and Tool Factory.” Here, Joe Cook is pictured with three “horses” that he put through various “tricks” in one of the show’s many Cook comedy routines.

Program from premiere performance of Kay Swift's ballet <em>Alma Mater</em>, choreographed by George Balanchine Program from premiere performance of Kay Swift's ballet <em>Alma Mater</em>, choreographed by George Balanchine

Program from premiere performance of
Kay Swift’s ballet
Alma Mater
Choreographed by George Balanchine

Between Fine and Dandy’s success in 1930 and the year 1934, Swift did not work on any new professional projects of her own, instead dedicating much of her time to assisting George Gershwin on major projects including his Second Rhapsody, Cuban Overture, and Porgy and Bess. When George Balanchine approached Gershwin about writing music for the premier performance of his “American Ballet Company” (now the New York City Ballet), Gershwin declined, recommending Swift instead. Swift’s ballet Alma Mater premiered in 1934, alongside what are now two staples of the New York City Ballet’s repertoire, Serenade and Mozartiana. Alma Mater was Balanchine’s first ballet to deal with “American” themes, satirizing the Ivy League through a mockery of the Yale-Harvard football rivalry. Swift’s score incorporated a number of university fight songs, including Yale’s own “Boola Boola.”

Swift received news of Alma Mater’s successful premiere in New Haven from George Gershwin over the phone. She was in Reno at the time, fulfilling the six-week residency period necessary to file for divorce in Nevada (the state with the most lenient divorce laws). The end of 1934 marked a new phase of independence in Swift’s personal life and career.

"Sawing a Woman in Half" / Music by Kay Swift ; Lyrics by Al Silverman [i.e., Al Stillman]

“Sawing a Woman in Half”
Music by Kay Swift
Lyrics by Al Silverman
Published vocal score
(New York: Edward B. Marks, 1935)

From 1935 to 1936 Swift worked as a staff composer at the relatively new “Showplace of the Nation,” Radio City Music Hall. She collaborated with lyricist Al Silverman (later, Stillman) to write songs and dance numbers for Radio City’s weekly variety shows, which would play four times a day, seven days a week, to a house with a seating capacity of 6,200. “Sawing a Woman in Half” (1935) is the only one of Swift and Silverman’s Radio City numbers that was published as sheet music and performed regularly beyond the Radio City stage. Like most of the musical numbers Swift and Silverman crafted, the song was grounded in spectacle. As a baritone “magician” sang in an easy waltz style about sawing a woman in half—“an interesting game, kinda rough on the dame”—costuming and strobe lighting created the illusion that the Rockettes had each been split in two. Through her time at Radio City, Swift learned the mechanics of curating an exhibition and the beauty of deadlines: “All kinds of changes that one has to make … often it ruins your best number and in the Music Hall there was no time to change.” (Swift Interview with Vivian Perlis, 1975)

“Fine and Dandy”: On the New York Stage (1928-1939)