On the Twentieth Century

On the Twentieth Century
On the Twentieth Century
Original poster artwork
Music Cy Coleman
Lyrics Betty Comden
Adolph Green
Book Betty Comden
Adolph Green
Basis Unpub. Play:
Charles Bruce Millholland
1932 Play:
Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
1934 Film:
Twentieth Century
Productions 1978 Broadway
1980 West End
2010 London Off West End
Awards Tony Award for Best Book
Tony Award for Best Original Score
Drama Desk Outstanding Music

On the Twentieth Century is a musical with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman. Part operetta, part farce, part screwball comedy, the story involves the behind-the-scenes relationship of a temperamental actress and a director.



Comden and Green based the musical on three works: the 1934 Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century; the original 1932 play of the same name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; and Hecht's and MacArthur's inspiration, Charles Bruce Millholland's unproduced play about his experiences working for theater producer David Belasco, Napoleon of Broadway.

Cy Coleman, when asked to compose the score, initially refused. "I didn't want to do twenties pastiche – there was too much of that around," he recalled. "But when I realized the main characters had these larger-than-life personalities, I thought – ah, comic opera! Even the tikka-tikka-tikka patter of a locomotive train has the rhythm of comic opera."[1] Coleman agreed to write the music for the show and produced an operetta-style score reminiscent of the works of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml.[1] Coleman's music often evokes the movement of a train in its orchestration and rhythms. At times it echoes the chase music that used to accompany Mack Sennett's silent comedies,[citation needed] and traces of operatic Kurt Weill and romantic Jacques Brel can be heard as well.[citation needed]

Plot summary

Act I

Egomaniacal impresario Oscar Jaffee is on the skids after four flops in a row. His actors mournfully realize they've been "Stranded Again". Oscar orders Owen O'Malley and Oliver Webb, his press agent and business manager, to meet him on the Twentieth Century Limited to New York and to get tickets for Drawing Room 'A'.

On the La Salle Station platform the next day, the passengers praise the wonders of a journey "On the Twentieth Century". Owen and Oliver, bursting into Drawing Room 'A', discover Congressman Grover Lockwood in a compromising position with his secretary Anita. Oliver easily persuades them to abandon Drawing Room 'A'. Oscar tells Owen and Oliver that he will soon regain his riches and success ("I Rise Again"). He reveals the reason they had to get Drawing Room 'A': at the next stop, his former lover and protegee, Lily Garland (née Mildred Plotka), now a temperamental film star, will board the train and will be staying next door in Drawing Room 'B'. Oliver and Owen doubt that she will agree to be in Oscar's new play now that she's a movie star; Oscar insists that she will.

In a flashback, Oscar remembers the time he auditioned spoiled actress Imelda Thornton for the leading role in a play. Oscar discovered that the gawky young accompanist, Mildred Plotka, could sing "The Indian Maiden's Lament" much better than Imelda, even finishing with an operatic cadenza. Oscar immediately decided to cast Mildred in the leading role as "Veronique," a French street singer who wouldn't sleep with Otto von Bismarck and thus instigated the Franco-Prussian War. Mildred insisted that she did not want to be an actress, but Oscar convinced her to take the part, renaming her Lily Garland.

The conductor warns the passengers in Drawing Room 'A' that a lunatic is on board the train. He then announces "I Have Written a Play", titled Life on a Train. Oscar sends the conductor away. The train arrives at Englewood, Illinois and all the passengers, especially Oscar, are thrilled that they and Lily Garland will be on the train "Together". Lily's costar and lover, Bruce Granit, fails to get off the train before it departs, and must come along for the ride.

Owen and Oliver stop by Drawing Room "B" and beg Lily to return, revealing that Oscar is so poor, his theatre will be repossessed the next day. She replies, "Never". Bruce, suspicions aroused by Lily's passionate tirade, asks if she ever had a relationship with Oscar. She recites a long list of former lovers and insists that Oscar was never one of them. Still, in their separate drawing rooms, Oscar and Lily recall the relationship they once had ("Our Private World").

In the observation car, passengers complain that the religious lunatic has stuck "Repent for the time is at hand" stickers everywhere. The conductor assures them that they will catch the lunatic soon. This turns out to be Mrs. Letitia Primrose, who says it is her mission to warn sinners to "Repent." These stickers inspire Oscar with an idea for his new play: he will direct The Passion of Mary Magdalene, a role so good that Lily could not possibly refuse it. Bruce is equally confident that Lily will continue to act opposite him in Hollywood. In their respective drawing rooms, each prepares to meet with Lily again and vows that she will be his ("Mine"). As Oliver and Owen prepare a press release for the new play, Letitia remarks that she sponsors creative endeavors. She declares that she is the founder and president of Primrose Restoria Pills, and she does good works with her extra capital.

Lily enters Drawing Room "B" in a sexy negligee, and as Bruce and she begin playing, Oscar walks in. Oscar reveals his former relationship with Lily, and Bruce, outraged, walks out. Lily angrily recalls Oscar's jealousy and possessiveness in their former Svengali-like relationship. She is rich and successful without him; but Oscar retorts that she has lost her art by selling out to Hollywood ("I've Got it All"). Lily tells Oscar she plans to sign with successful producer Max Jacobs, Oscar's former assistant stage manager. Oscar furiously returns to Drawing Room "A", but he is mollified when Oliver and Owen introduce him to rich and religious Mrs. Primrose. Congressman Lockwood enters and announces, "I Have Written a Play", titled Life on the Hog Market Committee. They send him out and Oscar and Mrs. Primrose shake hands as Bruce and Lily sit down to dinner in the next car ("On The Twentieth Century" (reprise)).

Act II

In an entr'acte, four porters philosophically declare that "Life is Like a Train."

Owen, Oliver, and Oscar congratulate themselves on obtaining Mrs. Primrose's check with "Five Zeros" preceded by a two and a dollar sign. Lily's maid, Agnes, brings Oscar a message: Lily wants to see him immediately. Dr. Johnson detains him, however, declaring, "I Have Written a Play", titled Life in a Metropolitan Hospital. Oscar ignores her and enters Drawing Room 'B'. Lily tells Oscar that she has decided to give him money to help him with his financial situation. Oscar proudly reveals Mrs. Primrose's check and describes the Mary Magdelen play to Lily. Lily is transfixed and begins acting the part, ending with Oscars arms around her waist. She jolts back to reality and insists on meeting Mrs. Primrose. Owen and Oliver escort Lily to Drawing Room "A", where they, Mrs. Primrose, and Oscar all attempt to persuade Lily to sign the contract. Bruce enters and tries to convince her not to sign it ("Sextet"). Lily resolves not to live in the past and refuses to sign, deciding to continue in movies with Bruce. Oscar suggests a compromise; if Lily does the play, Mrs. Primrose can pay for the movie too. Lily finds this very exciting and informally agrees. She insists on a few minutes alone before signing the contract.

The train has stopped in Cleveland, Ohio, and some officers have boarded the train. They are looking for Mrs. Primrose, who escaped from the Benzinger Clinic mental institution that morning, and they have come to take her back. The news soon spreads throughout the train: "She's a Nut!" Oscar suddenly has no money again, and Lily, who has not yet signed the contract, angrily confronts him. Max Jacobs arrives with a new play, and Lily joyously greets him. She reads over the play, trying to envision herself as the decadent, glamorous title character, "Babette", but her thoughts keep straying to Mary Magdelen. Nevertheless, she finally decides that she will do Max's play.

Oscar meets Oliver and Owen in the observation car. He is carrying a gun and insists that he is going to end it all. He details "The Legacy" he is leaving them and returns to Drawing Room "A". Oliver and Owen are convinced he's just being dramatic, but then they hear gunshots. They find Mrs. Primrose holding the gun and Oscar mournfully staggering. She tried to take the gun away from him and it went off. Dr. Johnson examines Oscar and finds nothing wrong with him. Oscar says he will read Dr. Johnson's play if she pretends he really is wounded. Dr. Johnson agrees, and Owen tells Lily that Oscar is dying. Oscar begs her to sign the contract before he dies. She signs it, and they passionately sing to each other ("Lily, Oscar"). Max Jacobs rushes in, and Oscar, very much alive, gleefully shows him the contract. Lily tells him to check the signature. She has signed "Peter Rabbit"! She and Oscar scream ridiculous insults at each other until they start laughing and fall into each other's arms.


Following a Boston tryout at the Colonial Theatre, the Broadway production, directed by Hal Prince and choreographed by Larry Fuller, opened on February 19, 1978 at the St. James Theatre to mixed reviews. It ran for 11 previews and 449 performances.[2] The opening night cast included John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Imogene Coca, and Kevin Kline.

Very early in the run, Kahn departed the show. The New York Times reported, on April 25, 1978, that Kahn had left the show the day before, and "she said she was withdrawing because of damage to her vocal cords."[3] She was replaced by understudy Judy Kaye, who had been playing a small supporting role, and the critics were invited to return. According to the New York Times, "Judy Kaye replaced Madeline Kahn...and bang, boom, overnight she is a star."[4] They praised her performance, and Kaye's theatrical career took off. She later starred in the US tour opposite Rock Hudson.

A London production, produced by Harold Fielding, and starring Keith Michell as Oscar Jaffe, Julia McKenzie as Lily Garland, Mark Wynter as Bruce Granit and Ann Beach as Mrs. Primrose, opened on March 19, 1980, at Her Majesty's Theatre, The Haymarket and ran for 165 performances. Dora Bryan had originally been cast as Mrs. Primrose, but was replaced by Beach a week before previews due to a difference of opinion with the American producers about her performance.

The show has never been revived on Broadway; however, as part of an Actors Fund benefit, a one-night-only staged concert was held on September 26, 2005 at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The production starred Marin Mazzie as Lily, Douglas Sills as Oscar, Joanne Worley as Letitia Primrose and Christopher Sieber as Bruce, as well as appearances by Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Max Jacobs, Cheyenne Jackson as one of the "Life is Like a Train" porters, and Kathleen Turner as Imelda.[5][6]

The first inner London revival was staged at the Union Theatre, Southwark, running December 14, 2010 to January 15, 2011. Howard Samuels plays Oscar Jaffee and Rebecca Vere is Lily Garland. Directed by Ryan McBryde, with choreography by Drew McOnie and design by Diego Pitarch.

In March 2011, it was reported that Roundabout Theatre Company had a reading, with Hugh Jackman, Kristin Chenoweth, and Andrea Martin participating[7]

On May 6, 2011, Kristin Chenoweth released a statement stating:

"I'm involved in a reading of a show that I'm very interested in doing about Tammy Faye Baker. We're going to revive On the Twentieth Century, and I'm going to know a lot more, in about two weeks, about when that will be! You know everybody knows how I feel about Broadway and how much I love it, and I'm lucky that I get to consider what kinds of things that I would like to do. Obviously, I love to do original stuff, but On the Twentieth Century [has] a part that I've been wanting to play, and it seems like a really good fit."[8]

On September 13, 2011, Kristin Chenoweth mentioned on The View that she will be returning to Broadway to revive On The Twentieth Century.


Act I
  • Stranded Again
  • Saddle Up the Horse
  • On the Twentieth Century
  • I Rise Again
  • Veronique
  • I Have Written a Play
  • Together
  • Never
  • Our Private World
  • Repent
  • Mine
  • I've Got it All
  • On the Twentieth Century (reprise)
Act II
  • Entr'acte: Life is Like a Train
  • Five Zeros
  • Sextet
  • She's a Nut
  • Babbette
  • The Legacy
  • Lily, Oscar
  • On the Twentieth Century (reprise)

Awards and nominations


  1. ^ a b Kantor and Maslon, pp. 350-51
  2. ^ On the Twentieth Century on the Internet Broadway Database
  3. ^ New York Times, April 25, 1978, p. 46
  4. ^ Corry, John. "Broadway; Terrence McNally has a comedy about stage due in fall", New York Times, May 5, 1978, p. C2
  5. ^ Windman, Matt. "Review:'On the Twentieth Century' at the New Amsterdam Theatre" theaterscene.net, accessed February 6, 2011
  6. ^ Gans, Andrew.Actors' Fund to Present On the Twentieth Century Sept. 26" playbill.com, June 27, 2005
  7. ^ Gans, Andrew."Scarlett Johansson, Jon Hamm, Hugh Jackman, Kristin Chenoweth Took Part in Roundabout Readings" playbill.com, accessed March 7, 2011
  8. ^ Sherrow, Rita."Kristin Chenoweth to release country album, star in new TV series" tulsaworld.com, May 18, 2011


  • Kantor, Michael and Maslon, Laurence. Broadway: The American Musical. New York:Bullfinch Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8212-2905-2

External links

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