“Tea for Two” was introduced by Louise Groody and John Barker in the Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette, which opened on September 16, 1925, at the Globe Theater and ran for 321 performances. The song was known to the public well before its official introduction, as the pre-Broadway run of No, No, Nanette was so successful in Chicago that its producer, Harry Frazee, let it play there for over a year.
The Benson Orchestra of Chicago was the first to see their recording of “Tea for Two” on the pop charts. Their instrumental rendition was recorded in August of 1924 and entered the charts the following January, rising to number five. That same month a Marion Harris recording climbed the charts to number one and held that position for three weeks. All told, the charting hits were:
- The Benson Orchestra of Chicago (1925, instrumental, #5)
- Marion Harris, (1925, #1)
- Ben Bernie and His Orchestra (1925, instrumental, #10)
- Ipana Troubadours (1930, #15)
- Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra (1937, instrumental, #18)
- Art Tatum (1939, instrumental, #18)
- Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, led by Warren Covington (1958, as “Tea for Two Cha Cha”, instrumental, #7)
Also starring Charles Winniger, No, No, Nanette is about a wealthy Bible manufacturer accompanying his ward (Nanette) and her girl friends to Atlantic City for a weekend. Problems arise when her boyfriend, her father’s girlfriends, his wife, and lawyer arrive unexpectedly.
The show’s score, by composer Vincent Youmans and lyricists Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach, produced a second jazz standard, “I Want to Be Happy” (lyrics by Caesar).
For those familiar with baseball history, Harry Frazee, former owner of the Boston Red Sox, is said to have financed No, No, Nanette using the proceeds of his $100,000 sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919. Red Sox fans have long blamed the transaction for the demise of their franchise, calling it “The Curse of the Bambino.”
According to Glenn Stout, author of Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball, “Frazee has become a malevolent figure like other local symbols of evil such as the Boston Strangler, Bucky ‘Bleeping’ Dent, and Don Zimmer.” Stout goes on to say that, while it’s a nice story, Frazee did not use the $100,000 to finance his play. Frazee was, at that time, embroiled in an assortment of complex legal and financial struggles, but they did not involve his theatrical interests. If anything, he intended to use the money for his ongoing lawsuits, or possibly new ball players.
No, No, Nanette was adapted to the big screen in 1930 and again in 1940, both films, at best, mediocre. In the 1950 Doris Day vehicle entitled Tea for Two, little of the No, No, Nanette story line was retained, but for Day fans it is considered one of her better musicals.
In 1971 No, No, Nanette was revived as No, No, Nanette - The New 1925 Musical. The successful show opened January 19, 1971, at the 46th Street Theatre, ran for 861 performances and won four Tony awards including Best Actress for Helen Gallagher. The revival is also remembered for bringing tap dancing star Ruby Keeler back to the stage after 30 years.
For his lyric’s “hook phrase,” Irving Caesar used the term “Tea for Two,” originally an 18th Century English street cry. A vendor wanting to attract business would lower the price of a pot of tea from thruppence to tuppence by shouting, ‘tea for two.’ In the 19th century, when Victorian ladies and gentlemen would meet in the afternoon for tea, the order of “Tea for Two” was often an early sign of courting.
There are a number of stories relating how Youmans came up with the melody for “Tea for Two.” Some have him so overjoyed with his creation that he got Caesar out of bed to write the lyrics. But, according to David Ewen in his book, All the Years of American Popular Music, “Tea for Two” was written many years before, while Youmans was still in the Navy. All accounts do agree, however, that when he presented the melody to Caesar, Youmans wanted a lyric then and there. Caesar wrote what he thought was a “dummy lyric,” promising to write the real one the next day. Apparently Youmans and Caesar reconsidered in the morning and retained the quaint lyrics with what Philip Furia in his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists calls “the tritest of rhymes,” the ee-oo pair.