Before there was the glorious musical On the 20th Century in 1978, there was first its source, a Broadway comedy from 1932 simply titled Twentieth Century. It's the story of a down-on-his-luck producer/director, Oscar Jaffe, who finds himself, after a disastrous opening night of his latest show in Chicago, fleeing from creditors and investors. Sneaking out of town on board the 20th Century Limited, he finds out his biggest discovery (and former flame) is also on the train: Mildred Plotka, whom Oscar had transformed into the megastar, Lily Garland. Thus, his devious plan is put in motion to win her back as both employee and lover, using her newfound film stardom to ensure box office for his "comeback" play, though it isn't even written. It's a great setup and, with two crazy, egocentrics at its center, works as low comedy, farce and satire.

In the late 1970s, composer Cy Coleman was set to musicalize Twentieth Century with the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green attached to write the lyrics and libretto. For inspiration, they looked to the 1934 film to adapt, generally considered superior to the play, but were stuck with it as the film rights weren't available. A fast-paced affair, clocking in at a taut ninety-one minutes, it is performed with outrageous commitment by its two stars, John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, under the guidance of master Hollywood director, Howard Hawks. Always having a hand in the writing of his films (whether he took credit or not), Hawks went through a number of writers before eventually bringing aboard the authors of the 1932 play, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who took a final pass at the script. Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."