Vincent Youmans shows dominated Broadway in the 1920s. His closest competitor was George Gershwin, who was born one day before Youmans. Jerome Kern also provided scores to many fine shows in the 1920s, but it was Youmans who imbued his music with a drive and rhythm that seemed to define the decade’s spirit, speed, and humor. Zelda Fitzgerald even gave Youmans a nod in her novel Save Me the Waltz. Although his shows were wonderfully popular, Youmans’s career as a whole was not as impressive as those of some of his contemporaries, for two reasons. First, with only ninety-three published songs to his credit, he wasn’t that prolific. Gershwin was sometimes represented on Broadway by four shows in a single season, whereas there were only two occasions when Youmans had two or more shows running in the span of a year. Second, he was hampered by constant battles with tuberculosis and alcoholism.
Vincent Youmans was born in New York on September 27, 1898. He began writing songs while assigned to the Army’s Great Lakes Training Station, and these camp shows whetted his appetite for show business. After his discharge he was committed to a composing career. Like many of his contemporaries, he broke into the business as a song plugger for Remick music publishers, his second choice, having been turned down by Max Dreyfus of T.B. Harms. Remick published Youmans’s first popular song, “The Country Cousin,” written with lyricist Al Bryan.
Youmans landed his first theatre job as a rehearsal pianist for producer Alex Aarons’s show Oui Madame, composed by Victor Herbert. The first song he wrote specifically for the stage, “Maid-to-Order Maid,” was interpolated into a Charlotte Greenwood vehicle, Linger Longer Letty, but it stayed in for only one performance in Stamford, Connecticut. Two more Youmans songs were interpolated into the show Piccadilly to Broadway in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but the show closed out of town.
Youmans decided to see Dreyfus again and ask for a job. The music publisher was a sort of father figure for his employees, and he took pains to give them every opportunity to develop their talents. Dreyfus finally hired Youmans as a song plugger. Alex Aarons paired Youmans with composer Paul Lannin and brought in George Gershwin’s brother Ira to supply the lyrics. The resulting show was Two Little Girls in Blue (1921), marking the Broadway debuts of both Youmans and Ira Gershwin.
Although Youmans had passed his first test, he was not happy. He was unable to get another Broadway assignment and found himself again behind the piano working rehearsals of Victor Herbert’s Orange Blossoms. Youmans’s drinking increased, despite the fact that his second show, Wildflower (1923), proved a great success and solidified his place in the musical theatre. Youmans and his collaborator Herbert Stothart must have been taken aback when they read in the New York Times that the show, “contains the most tuneful score that Rudolf Friml has written in a number of seasons.”
Mary Jane McKane (1923) was next, and it failed to make a splash. Youmans’s first score without a co-composer was Lollipop (1924), on which he was teamed with lyricist Zelda Sears, one of the few women lyricists writing for Broadway. Youmans now had three shows running simultaneously.
His next assignment, No, No, Nanette (1925), proved to be an even bigger hit, although it did not run as long as Wildflower. It was produced and directed by H.H. Frazee, past owner of the Boston Red Sox. Prior to its New York engagement Frazee ran the show for a year in Chicago, set up three national companies, and even sent a company to Europe. Youmans seemed made to compose up-to-the-minute tunes that perfectly captured the syncopation and drive of the era.
A Night Out was next and closed before coming to Broadway. Then Youmans paired up with lyricist Anne Caldwell for Oh, Please! (1926), starring Beatrice Lillie. The score was lackluster and, except for “Like He Loves Me,” faded into oblivion.
Youmans was dissatisfied with the way his shows were produced, so he produced Hit the Deck himself, in collaboration with veteran producer Lew Fields (Dorothy’s father). Commented the composer, “For the first time in my life I am able to select my own singers and my own cast to interpret my music and to play the parts as I would like to have them played. For the past six or seven years, I have been completely at the mercy of the managers and of the actors.” Leo Robin and Clifford Grey provided the lyrics and Herbert Fields wrote the libretto. Hit the Deck contained two smash hit songs, “Hallelujah” and “Sometimes I’m Happy.”
Although Youmans continued producing after the success of Hit the Deck, he provided only the score for his next show, Rainbow. Oscar Hammerstein II directed and collaborated on the libretto with Laurence Stallings. The enterprise plummeted Youmans from smash success to great failure. It had a particularly disastrous opening night, and critic Gilbert Gabriel commented, “One intermission was so long and lapsy that the orchestra played everyting but ‘Dixie’ to fill it up.”
Youmans bounced back, but a poor libretto, and history, would doom his next show, Great Day (1929). He was so sure of his producing talents that he bought the Cosmopolitan Theatre, long considered a jinxed house. Edward Eliscu and Billy Rose wrote the lyrics for what was one of Youmans’s best scores, featuring four big hits: “Happy Because I’m in Love,” “More Than You Know,” “Without a Song,” and the title song. It suffered a particularly painful out-of-town tryout, leading Broadway wags to dub it Great Delay. A week after the show opened the stock market crashed, and Youmans, producer as well as composer, was forced to close the show.
Youmans fled New York for the more hospitable clime of Hollywood, overseeing the adaptation of several of his stage musicals for the screen. He also wrote an original movie musical, What a Widow! (1930), but when it flopped, Youmans returned to New York. He had borrowed money from Florenz Ziegfeld for Great Day, and in return had promised the impresario a new score. The result, Smiles (1930), starred Fred and Adele Astaire but was a failure. Youmans and Ziegfeld fought incessantly, and Ziegfeld went so far as to get a court injunction barring Youmans from the out-of-town theatre. One hit emerged from Smile, “Time on My Hands,” with lyrics by Adamson and Mack Gordon.
Youmans’s career was clearly on the skids. His work wasn’t bad, but personal problems prevented him from realizing his potential. He had determined that his failures were due to bad management. He produced Through the Years (1931) but it was another huge failure, running only twenty performances. “Drums in My Heart” and the title song received the most notice. Youmans’s last Broadway show was Take a Chance. He was asked to come in and bolster the show by Richard A. Whiting, Nacio Herb Brown, and B.G. De Sylva—and the show ended Youmans’s Broadway career with a hit.
The composer’s last assignment was for the Astaire/Rogers film Flying Down to Rio (1933). He tried to come to an agreement with RKO for more movies, but while the negotiations dragged on, he discovered he had tuberculosis. Although his health improved, his relationship with RKO did not. Youmans moved from location to location, trying vainly to settle down. He was nearly broke and unemployable on Broadway and in Hollywood. Inspired by George Gershwin, he took classical music lessons and occupied his last years readying a revue that would feature Latin rhythms. The show was titled Vincent Youmans’s Revue though there were no Youmans songs in the show. It closed in Baltimore in 1944. Vincent Youmans died in Denver on April 5, 1946. (KB)
While on a lunch break from working on No, No, Nanette, Vincent Youmans wrote this sprightly tune, He gave the music to lyricist Irving Caesar, who set it to dummy lyrics so he’d remember the emphasis of the notes. That “dummy” version of the song became the standard we all know now.Tea for Two
Youmans wrote a march while stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. The year was 1917 and the song became something of a success, and was even recorded by the March King himself, John Philip Sousa. In 1927, Hallelujah made its debut on a Broadway stage with a lyric by Clifford Grey and Leo Robin. Its name got it into trouble in England, where they considered it sacrilegious.Hallelujah!
Written for Smiles, this song didn’t satisfy star Marilyn Miller. She insisted that Youmans write her something as good as “Wild Rose,” a Jerome Kern song she’d sung in Sally. Nothing the composer came up with was good enough. Youmans wrote Ziegfeld, “This is the usual request for nearly every number I have written in the shows you have made. In other words, it has been ‘Write me a number like so and so or so and so.’”Time on My Hands
This number was danced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first movie as a team, Flying Down to Rio. In his autobiography, Astaire wrote, “I was under the impression that we weren’t doing anything particularly outstanding in 'The Carioca.' I had thrown in a few solos, too, in the limited time given me, but I never expected that they would register so well. However, everything clicked.”The Carioca
One day my band was playing at the College Inn in Chicago that was in the Sherman Hotel. A fellow walks up to the band after the set and says, “You have a wonderful band and you play very well. One day soon you’ll be writing songs” I said, “I already started that, that’s for older people.” He says, “No, you’ll go back. But I’ll tell you what you have to do. You have to write simple. I write on three notes. Anybody can write all over the place you have to keep it simple but harmonically attractive (I loved that “harmonically attractive.”) And we became great friends.Jule Styne