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The Gershwin’s Let ‘Em Eat Cake at Carnegie Hall

Interview with Ted Sperling, artistic Director, conductor, orchestrator

The Gershwin’s Let ‘Em Eat Cake at Carnegie Hall


                              By Rachel Pacelli

Written as a sequel to the Pulitzer Prize winner, Of Thee I Sing, and in response to growing tensions and a rise in nationalism, Let ‘Em Eat Cake premiered on Broadway in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. This political satire follows the story of President Wintergreen who, after a failed reelection, forms a fascist movement to take over the government.

After a fifty-year hiatus where the musical was thought to be lost, a rediscovery in 1987, and the current influx of political turmoil, this timely and painfully apropos Gershwin musical is being staged at Carnegie Hall on November 21 for the launch of MasterVoices’ 2019-2020 season.


Artistic director of MasterVoices, and Tony Award Winner Ted Sperling sat down for an interview to discuss this musical’s unique journey, its political parallels, and how Groucho Marx plays a part.

When did you first come across Let ‘Em Eat Cake? Did you read Of Thee I Sing first?

TED: I think my first exposure to both shows was at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in 1987 when they did a concert presentation of both in one night. And it was the first time anybody had heard Let ‘Em Eat Cake since its premiere in the ‘30s because it had been lost.

The materials for Broadway shows that weren’t big successes often got sent to warehouses, and got misplaced, and this was one of those. So it was believed to be a lost musical for

around 50 years.

And then this music historian, John McGlinn, who was also a conductor, discovered it. He was given permission to examine this material, and Michael Tilson Thomas took it on as a project and put together this production at BAM which I happened to see.

I remembered enjoying it, but I don’t remember a lot of specifics about it, so it wasn’t until recently that I was looking for projects for MasterVoices, and I’d been drawn recently to things that reflect the subject matters that I’m thinking about a lot, that my friends are thinking about a lot, and these days, of course, we’re all glued to the news. So it seemed the perfect time to do Of Thee I Sing two years ago when we just had the big election.

Then it occurred to me that this was even more special in a way - other people do Of Thee I Sing - but no one’s doing Let ‘Em Eat Cake.

I had a feeling a year ago when I decided we should do this that things would only continue to become more and more applicable and timely and that I knew we’d be heading towards the election by this point and that it’d probably be a good idea for this piece now.


What was the response to Of Thee I Sing?

TED: Two years ago? It was a big success. We had a wonderful cast, many of whom are returning to the roles this time as they did in the original production. You know, even then it was about France interfering in elections. So we had a really great time doing it.

One of the things I look for when I’m finding a piece for MasterVoices - especially in the musical theater area which we do something each year from this canon - is something that actually has really high musical values and has a lot of choral singing because we have 150 people in our group, and I want to make sure they have enough to sing and we have enough to rehearse.

So these pieces that are a little bit more based on operettas at some level naturally have a lot of chorus. So both Of Thee I Sing and Let ‘Em Eat Cake have a big role for the chorus.


Is Let ‘Em Eat Cake tonally darker than Of Thee I Sing?

TED: That’s funny because I don’t want to emphasize that overly much. It’s true that there’s a certain whimsy to Of Thee I Sing, especially when it comes to corn muffins, and this idea of love being the platform, but the characters are just as corrupt in both shows so that’s no different.

I think what happened in Let ‘Em Eat Cake is that the stakes are higher in a way. This idea of dictatorship enters the equation, the idea of not listening to the voice of the people, of letting an election stand, the idea of going against an election, and not leaving the White House, essentially, even if the vote goes against you.

And this idea that what was happening in Europe, which is again happening now with the rise of Totalitarianism and Fascism, and Nationalism, was invading this country, and the idea that it could happen here in 1933 was very present. The idea that there could be another American Revolution was not so far-fetched.

And then the thing that particularly takes this to the next level is the idea of killing people. Which doesn’t raise its head in Of Thee I Sing, but does by the end of the second act in Let ‘Em Eat Cake.


This is similar to a show called It Can’t Happen Here, based off the book by Sinclair Lewis. Since it was written, the world has started to mirror the circumstances.

TED: Yeah, you’d never have thought it. We all thought we learned from history, that our parents went through this - at least my parents did - you would think that the memory would be fresh enough that we’d be more on guard.

People forget that when Hitler started to rise to power everyone thought he was a buffoon, and that things happen much faster than we thought was possible.


Exactly. You really have to hold onto your democracy and not take it for granted.

Do you believe satire or comedy is more effective in bringing about change? Is it more palatable for audiences than, say, a drama?

TED: I think they both have their place. I know that when times are rough, I personally need a break sometimes. I need to laugh. And I think if you can make somebody look ridiculous through laughter, you can undermine them. That may be one tactic the show takes. But I certainly think things need to be taken seriously as well, so I don’t want to say this is the only solution. But I’d like to feel that we’re adding to the conversation by realizing that you can poke fun at people who take themselves too seriously.


What is the ideal audience for this show?

TED: For our version? I think certainly people who enjoy vintage musicals, the whole Encore’s crowd, people who love to hear a proper-sized orchestra playing a Broadway score again.


People who love comedy, and people who love great performances, beautiful singing. The power of hearing 150 people lifting their voices in song all at once at Carnegie, and people who need a break, who could appreciate a laugh right now about our political scene.


Do you have a favorite aspect or number in the show that you’re excited for people to see?

TED: Yeah, there’s a lot of funny songs, and there’s only two moments where things sort of slow down for real and get romantic, or serious. I particularly like the second one, which is a short song that the character of Mary Wintergreen, the First Lady, sings with the women of the chorus. She’s trying to sway the army to go with her husband rather than the sitting president, and it just, it feels like Gershwin writing at his most rhapsodic, heading towards writing Porgy and Bess.


How does this compare to other Gershwin musicals?

TED: Well, I think, it’s part of a trilogy of political satires that they wrote, starting with Strike Up the Band, then Of Thee I Sing, then finally Let ‘Em Eat Cake. They are set apart from the other earlier Gershwin musicals by the ambition of the structure. That the score is not just a sequences of standalone songs, but they’re all woven into much longer sequences with things that set them up, then you have a song, then transitional material to another song. I was doing the song list for the program and it looks like there’s not that much music because it’s misleading. Because each title represents around ten minutes of music rather than the usual three or four.


They’re very much inspired by the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which Ira Gershwin in particular fell in love with as a kid. So I would say that they are pulling from the operetta tradition and marrying it with this real American musical comedy tradition that they had been working in, and trying to do the best of both. So that you can have snappy dance numbers, but you can then also have these much larger choral sequences that travel through four different songs.


What is your goal with this production? What do you want the audience to take away after they’ve seen it?

TED: Well, one thing I’m being pretty scrupulous about is we’re really not trying to make any textual changes, per se. We are shortening it, because it seems to have been a very long show, and we don’t want people to feel like we’re overstaying our welcome. But I want people to realize that what they’re seeing at the concert is what was on stage in 1933.

We haven’t inserted things to make it more current, we’re not inserting quid pro quo jokes, or having anybody imitate anybody in current politics.


Any visuals, like costume-wise?

TED: We’re just being very sparing with and suggestive with costumes, it’s mostly concert attire with a touch of this and a touch of that. And we don’t have a lot of choreography, we have no scenery, it’s a concert staging.

The reason is I really want people to concentrate on the text, and really pay attention to the words, and then use their imagination to flesh it out.

When you work at Carnegie Hall it’s not the same as working at a proper theater, it’s a concert hall. So we’re honoring where we are, as well.


Anything else you want to mention?

TED: I should mention Larry Maslon who’s doing the script adaptation for us. It’s always very important that you do a very careful adaptation when you’re doing one of these concerts, and you pick the best material. And we have Chris Fitzgerald who’s going to be our narrator helping move us along through the evening. And helping us know where we are.

But I just wanted to mention Larry because he’s a big figure in musical theater, including some very popular books like the making of The Sound of Music, and the making of Oklahoma. And he is very closely associated with the work of George S. Kaufman, and Kaufman - along with his collaborator Morrie Ryskind - wrote the script for the show. So Larry’s really an expert on George Kaufman, so it was great to have his insight into what parts of the script we should present, and what parts we could leave out.


And the thing I wanted to say is that the sense of humor really appeals to me in this show because these two guys were writing for the Marx Brothers around the same time. I’ve always loved the Marx Brothers - my dad always reminded me of Groucho - so this feels like a cast full of Groucho’s, in a way. And I love how irreverent they were in their spoofs of society, so I just want people to know that if they’re wondering whether they’re gonna like this or not, if you like the Marx Brothers, I think you’ll have a great time with it.

Don’t wait for the next production of Let ‘Em Eat Cake, because who knows when that will be. This is your chance folks. It’s been 30 years, it might be another 30 before it comes back. 

Let ‘Em Eat Cake

Thursday, November 21, 2019, 7:00 pm

Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage 

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Tickets may be purchased online at, by calling CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800, or in person at Carnegie Hall’s Box Office at 57th and Seventh Avenue.