Playing at Lamb’s Player’s Theatre until April 20, the musical comedy Chaps! mines most of its humor from a goofy, fish-out-of-water premise. Specifically, an American troupe of singing cowboys has failed to show up for a radio performance in World War Two era London. So, in a last-minute bid to keep their jobs, the radio station’s very British crew steps in to play the songs themselves.
In other words, characters with a hodgepodge of stereotypcially British accents sing classic country western tunes meant to be delivered in a cowboy twang. Hilarious.
However, upon further inspection, it turns out the composers of most of these traditional cowboy tunes weren’t all that cowboy themselves.
These weren’t really traditional ditties shared around the campfire during lonesome nights camping along the 19th century frontier. Rather, they were the product of a later generation’s nostalgia for the Old West. Nearly all the cowboy songs featured in Chaps! hail from the 1930s and 40s, concurrent with the advent of Technicolor movie westerns, headlined by singing cowboys dressed in white hats and ludicrously colorful costumes.
Several tunes were originally written by members of the Los Angeles singing group Sons of the Pioneers. Though that band’s most famous member, Roy Rogers, went on to star in over a hundred movie westerns, the so-called “King of the Cowboys” was less cowboy than singer and actor. His real name was Leonard Slye, originally of Cincinnati, Ohio. The group’s most prolific songwriter, Bob Nolan, wrote several of the cowboy songs featured in Chaps!, including the show’s highlight: “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.” Nolan acted in scores of westerns himself; a solid career for a native of Winnipeg, Canada, who spent most of his childhood in Boston, and worked as a Santa Monica lifeguard before making it in country music.
Many of the songs in Chaps! hail from Tin Pan Alley, the New York City publishing house that was home to decided non-cowboys such as George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Irving Berlin.
Among the Tin Pan Alley cowboy songs is “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” originally composed by Russian-born Maurice Abrahams; “I’m An Old Cowhand” written by Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics to “Moon River” and cofounded Capitol Records; and “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” co-written by Frank Loesser, the Tony-winning creator of Guys and Dolls.
My favorite of this bunch provides another Chaps! highlight: “Wahoo” is credited to Cliff Friend, whose best remembered tune, “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” doesn’t ring a bell unless you know it was used as the theme song for Looney Tunes.
That makes sense to me now. Considering a foley artist for the radio program central to Chaps! employs not one but three whoopie cushions to create in-song sound effects, this musical provides a natural bridge between cowboy songs and Looney Tunes.