A Foggy Day: Background information and production history

by John Mueller

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) is best known as a novelist (he wrote 75) and story writer (at least 379). But he also played a very significant role in the development of American musical theatre. He worked as lyricist or librettist on 32 musicals between 1904 and 1934, and he maintained an active interest in musical theatre all his life.

In particular he helped create a set of delightful musicals that proved to be major landmarks, essentially creating the notion of the integrated musical in which songs and script are blended to tell a coherent story. Wodehouse's collaborators on these musicals were another transplanted Britisher, playwright Guy Bolton, and composer Jerome Kern, and the most successful of their shows were Oh, Boy!, Leave It to Jane, Oh, Lady! Lady!!, and Sally, all produced between 1917 and 1920.

Moreover, Wodehouse deeply influenced a generation of lyricists. His lyrics, at once literate and conversational, are notable for their wonderfully unpredictable rhymes (New Haven/engraven, quarterback/support her back, if you please/BVD's), for their gentle wit, and, often, for their light aura of affectionate satire. The best-known lyric from among Wodehouse's 170 published songs is "Bill," a song written in 1917 and interpolated by Kern into Show Boat a decade later.

While working on these musicals, the prolific Wodehouse continued to turn out novels, and in 1919 he published A Damsel in Distress, a work which is still in print, has been translated into ten languages, and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It was made into a silent film in 1920 and, in collaboration with playwright Ian Hay, Wodehouse turned the novel into a play which opened on August 12, 1928, at London's New Theatre and ran an impressive 234 performances.

The central figure in this novel is a successful young American songwriter working in London who happens to be named "George." As it happens, George Gershwin had been a rehearsal pianist for Miss 1917, a musical Kern and Wodehouse had worked on, and the promising young composer may have been in mind when the whimsical novelist got around to dubbing his American songwriter-hero. Unlike his fictional namesake, Gershwin had not yet achieved fame when the novel was first published, but that condition was to change dramatically a few months later when Al Jolson interpolated Gershwin's "Swanee" into a show and the song quickly became an enormous hit--Gershwin's greatest, in fact.

Thereafter, Wodehouse worked with Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira, on two projects. He contributed to the book for the Gershwins' hit musical of 1926, Oh, Kay!, and he collaborated with Ira on the lyrics of several songs in Rosalie in 1928. As a lyricist, Wodehouse was one of Ira Gershwin's idols, and the two became lifelong friends.

Somewhere along the line, George Gershwin read, and became strongly attracted to, Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress. Moreover, he came to believe it could serve as the basis for a fine musical comedy.

It has been suggested by some (including Wodehouse) that Gershwin was beguiled by the book simply because its hero is a successful American composer of popular songs named George. But the parallels actually go quite a bit deeper. As it happens, the novel's George was beset with the same unease as the real George: an artistic and financial success, he is unable to find the right woman to marry. The fictional George has just had "a success of unusual dimensions...Yet he felt no elation...He was lonely...The solution of the problem of life was to get hold of the right girl and have a home to go back to at night...He seemed to be alone in the world which had paired itself off into a sort of seething welter of happy couples." Biographers of Gershwin repeatedly note that he experienced the same malaise and anxiety. "He complained to intimate friends...that his life 'was all mixed up,' and that, despite his material and artistic successes, he could not find a suitable mate." He "lamented again and again over the absurdity his own situation: 'Why can they get married and I can't?'"

In the novel the composer's problems are miraculously solved. While in London overseeing the British version of his hit New York show, he rescues a woman in distress by sheltering her from a determined pursuer. Although she soon vanishes as quickly as she had appeared, he almost immediately recognizes her as the woman of his dreams: "He was in love....A curious happiness pervaded his entire being....The sun was shining....It had come at last. The Real Thing." In one happy moment, then, his basic psychological problem is resolved, and all he has to do over the course of the next 200 pages is (1) find out who she is, (2) pursue her with charm and ardor, (3) overcome various obstacles of station, background, and mistaken identity, and (4) marry her and live happily ever after.

There is no evidence Gershwin spent a great deal of time in London questing for damsels to rescue nor can it be claimed that the personalities of the two Georges are similar in all respects. But the personal appeal of the novel to Gershwin seems obvious.

Then, in the mid-1930s, RKO sought to lure the Gershwins to Hollywood to write the scores for a pair of Fred Astaire films, and, knowing of George Gershwin's attraction to A Damsel in Distress, the film studio cagily purchased the film rights to the story as part of its incentive package. As Wodehouse put it, Gershwin "used his considerable influence to have it done on the screen."

When the Gershwins wrote the songs for the film in early 1937, however, no film script yet existed. Thus the songs were written primarily with the novel and perhaps the 1928 play version (published in 1930) in mind.

The incredibly high quality of the score may well have been inspired at least in part by George Gershwin's personal identification with the moods and motivations of the hero in the novel. Both Georges clearly considered a condition in which there is "someone waiting at the cottage door" to be nice work (if you can get it) and, using an image directly from the novel's text, the film's most famous, most atmospheric, song tells the central episode of the novel quite precisely: "A foggy day in London town, had me low and had me down" until "suddenly, I saw you there--and through foggy London town the sun was shining ev'rywhere." The same cloud-to-sun, depression-to-elation conceit is applied in a delicious sequence in another superb song, "Things Are Looking Up":

            See the sunbeams--
            Ev'ry one beams
            Just because of you.
            Love's in session,
            And my depression
            Is unmistakably through.

The songs are also a tribute from Ira Gershwin to his great friend. In his book, Lyrics on Several Occasions, he notes that "Stiff Upper Lip" is studded with the phrases Wodehouse characters tend to hurl about and that one of his favorite songs, "Things Are Looking Up," sounds best when sung in "Upper Pelham-Grenville, Wodehouse, England." (In "These Charming People," written earlier, he says he was trying to emulate the comedy trios Wodehouse did so well.)

When RKO's writers got around to producing a film script they were required to supply material not only for Fred Astaire (in this case operating without Ginger Rogers), but also for the popular comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. In the process, the film departs very substantially from the Wodehouse original and a considerable mismatch with the previously-composed songs emerges.

For example, the love-at-first-meeting theme of "A Foggy Day" and "Things Are Looking Up" is abandoned (perhaps because it had been used so much in earlier Astaire films), and the central character is never depressed nor is he haunted by an anachronistic zeal for rescuing damsels in distress--a notion that had inspired not only the novel's title, but also the sparkling Gershwin song, "Put Me To the Test," which is accordingly used in the movie only as background music for a dance.

Wodehouse happened to be working in Hollywood at the time, and RKO brought him in to contribute to the script, a job he found uncongenial, if lucrative. At the time, he thought the book "is going to make a good picture," but he professed to alter this opinion later: "Friends have often commented on the dark circles beneath my eyes and my tendency to leap like a jumping bean at sudden noises, and I find those phenomena easy to explain. It is only fifty years or so since I was involved in the shooting of A Damsel in Distress."

But, although its script does depart from the source material quite considerably, the film does have its own distinctive charms. The love story is less central than in other Astaire films, but it remains a wonderfully zany and yet affectingly memorable comedy frolic (with great music and dances) through which a pleasantly engaging love story is threaded. Throughout Gracie Allen keeps everybody off balance, brightens all her scenes, raises logic to new heights of absurdity, and inspires two fine dances--neither of which has much of anything to do with the plot.

George Gershwin never saw the film based on his suggested source. He died suddenly from a brain tumor on July 11, 1937. The script was not completed until September 25 and the film was first shown two months later.

In 1984, I had the idea of creating--or recreating--a musical along the lines George Gershwin had proposed over a half century earlier: I embedded the songs in an adapted version of the play and novel that had inspired them. Since stage musicals require more songs than film musicals, several additional Gershwin songs were incorporated and, to avoid distracting biographical implications, the central character's name was changed.

In 1987, the musical, under the title Reaching for the Moon, was given seven performances by the Eastman Opera Theatre of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. It was under the direction of Richard Pearlman and the songs were arranged by, or under the supervision of, the late Ray Wright who also conducted.

In 1998, George Gershwin's centennial year, the musical, now under the title, A Foggy Day, was produced by the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, as part of its regular season. The book was substantially re-written by the fine Canadian playwright, Norm Foster, and the show was ably directed by Kelly Robinson. It ran for 126 performances, all of them sold out, from May 5 to November 1. The production, with some additional re-writing, was also presented at the Shaw Festival in 1999 from April 29 to November 14, for 135 performances, all again sold out.

P.G. Wodehouse often referred to his novels as "musical comedies without music." In producing "A Foggy Day" we took him at his word--and in this case, it seems, George and Ira Gershwin happen splendidly to have supplied the missing ingredient.