We're backstage at the Zangler Theater in New York City in the 1930s during a performance of the "Zangler Follies."
Impresario Bela Zangler is in love with Tess, his Dance Director; but since Zangler is married, Tess rejects his advances. Also backstage is Bobby Child, heir to a wealthy banking family, who yearns to be in show business. Bobby talks Zangler into letting him audition on the spot (K-ra-zy For You), but the audition is not a success.
Outside the theater, Bobby is accosted by Irene, his wealthy fiance, whom he doesn't want to marry, then by his mother who insists that he go to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on a property. As the women argue and harangue Bobby, he escapes by conjuring up the Follies Girls (I Can't Be Bothered Now). When Bobby returns to reality, he chooses Deadrock over Irene and hurries off to Grand Central Station.
Three days later we're in Deadrock, a has-been mining town (Bidin' My Time). The only women in town is Polly Baker, the fiesty postmistress. Her father, Everett, owns the Gaiety Theater, a grand old Victorian structure that has gone to seed. A letter arrives from New york stating that a banker named Bobby Child has been sent to foreclose on the theater if Everett fails to meet his mortgage payments. Polly vows that if she ever meets this "Bobby Child" she'll do "something ugly!" Moments later, Bobby staggers into town, sees Polly and falls instantly in love with her (Things Are Looking Up). Polly, beneath her brash exterior, yearns privately for a man she can love (Someone To Watch Over Me).
The town's saloon is owned by Lank Hawkins, a "man of vision," who wants to marry Polly and buy Everett's theater. Inside the saloon, Polly meets Bobby for the first time, and Bobby declares his love for her (Could You Use Me?). Polly is unimpressed with his Eastern ways, but Bobby urges her to "have her fling" and teaches her to dance. As they swirl through the desert, Polly falls deeply in love with Bobby (Shall We Dance?).
That night, on the stage of the Gaiety Theater, Bobby gets an idea: They can save the theater by putting on a show! After Polly is persuaded to join in the plan, Bobby introduces himself: "I'm Bobby Child." The name sinks in and Polly slaps him across the face. He's from that bank! This is a trick! Heartbroken, Polly flees in tears, never wanting to see him again. Bobby, too, heartbroken when suddenly, spying a trunk of costumes, he gets another idea: "Bela Zangler!"
Three days later, ten glamorous Follies Girls (Bobby's old friends) arrive in Deadrock to the amazement of the menfolk (Entrance To Nevada). Along with the girls is Bobby masquerading as Zangler, complete with beard, cane and Hungarian accent. He's been sent, he says, by Bobby Child. Polly and Everett readily agree to let the great impresario put on a show to save the theater. Everyone rushes off to the first rehearsal.
Two weeks later, preparations for the show are in full swing. Although the menfolk are still disastrous performers, "Zangler" (i.e. Bobby) changes all that in the course of a single rehearsal (Slap That Bass).
Irene now shows up, looking for Bobby. She recognizes him and threatens to expose him to Polly if he doesn't promise to return with her to New York. When Irene leaves, "Zangler" tries to persuade Polly to give Bobby a chance; but Polly confesses that she's madly in love with him - "Zangler." Bobby is horrified. This is not what he was planning (Embraceable You).
The following evening, the cast is busily preparing for the show (Tonight's the Night). Lank is desperate to stop the show, and Irene is desperate to find Bobby, who's been hiding from her all day. When people are spotted coming from the station, the cast assembles excitedly on the street. Alas, the only arrivals are an English couple (the Fodors), who are writing a guidebook to the American West. They've come to review Lank's saloon. Lank, triumphant, leads them gleefully into his establishment.
The company has now hit rock bottom, and Zangler is the most desolate of all. He apologizes for failing the town, but as he starts to leave, Polly speaks up. So what if they didn't sell any tickets? Since "Zangler" came along, something magical happened. The whole town has been working together, caring for each other, and "feeling alive!" (I Got Rhythm). As despair turns to celebration, the real Zangler staggers into town and collapses on the street. In their frenzy of joy, no one sees him.
That night in the saloon, the town is still celebrating (The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)). Bobby, his time is running out, asks Polly to marry him. When she turns him down, confessing that she's in love with "Zangler," he explains that he is "Zangler," the man she fell in love with. She doesn't believe him- and as he tries to convince him the real Zangler staggers in. As Polly kisses Zangler with passion, Bobby grabs a bottle of liquor and exits. When Polly leaves, Zangler explains to Tess that his wife left him and that he came to Deadrock to be with Tess. Suddenly she gets an idea: he is Zangler, and could save the theater! As an experienced producer, he'd know how to advertise. When Zangler refuses, Tess walks off. Zangler is now drunk; and a moment later, Bobby reels out of his room, also drunk dressed as "Zangler" to prove to Polly that he wasn't lying. The two Zanglers bewail the loss of their women (What Causes That?).
The next morning, Polly sees the two Zanglers out cold under the table and realizes that Bobby was telling the truth. But instead of loving him for it, as Bobby expects, she's totally humiliated and storms angrily out of the saloon. By now, Lank is a complete wreck from catering to Andre and Patricia. When Irene taunts him, he goes into a rage, and Irene realizes she and Lank - soulmates in frustration - are made for each other. She wastes no time in seducing him (Naughty Baby).
A few minutes later in the refurbished theater, the cast is having a meeting. With two weeks left on the mortgage, the issue is wether to try putting on the show again or to let the bank foreclose. As everyone bickers, the Fodors step forward and offer their own, very British philosophy (Stiff Upper Lip). By the end of the number, Polly is no longer angry with Bobby.
The issue is put to a vote, and to Bobby and Polly's amazement, the decision of the company is to give up. They tried the show once and it didn't work. Why should it work a second time?
The company straggles off - Bobby says goodbye to Polly. He's going back to New York. Polly is shocked, but when Bobby hints that he'd stay for her sake, Polly is to proud to admit that she loves him. After thanking her for fond memories (They Can't Take That Away From Me), Bobby leaves; Polly mourns the loss of her one true love (But Not For Me).
Suddenly, Zangler sweeps into the theater. Having seen the company perform "Stiff Upper Lip," he's decided to revive the show and writes check after check to pay for the new effort. Zangler then confesses to Tess that although the "cowboys" are good dancers, he's really doing it all for her. He truly loves her, Tess, for once is speechless.
Six weeks later, in New York, Bobby is trying to be a banker (New York Interlude), but all he can think about is Polly and Deadrock. Mother, however, has a present for him. She's foreclosed on the Zangler Theater, and she gives him the deed. At first, Bobby is delighted; but when he learns that Zangler lost the property by "wasting all his money on that theater in Nevada" - all for Tess's sake - he's suddenly benefit. The Follies Girls now appear in his mind and remind him that fame and money are transitory; only love matters (Nice Work If You Can Get It). His fighting spirit renewed, Bobby tears up the deed to the Zangler Theater and heads for Deadrock.
Back in Deadrock, the town sparkles. The saloon is now a spiffy cafe run by Lank and Irene, who are happily married (Bidin' My Time (French Reprise)), and the theater has been playing to full houses and has paid off its mortgage. However a crisis is in progress. Polly, now the star of the show, has realized how desperately she misses Bobby, and she's leaving for New York to find him. After she leaves, Bobby runs in and learns that the show he prepared has saved the theater. He realizes that at least he's accomplished something. As this sinks in, Everett and Mother see each other and fall in love. But, it's only when Polly unexpectedly reappears that all is resolved. As the town looks on, Polly and Bobby run into each other's arms - and start to dance (Finale).
- Ken Ludwig