A young friend here in Charlottetown comes from a culture that does not include the tradition of musicals as theatrical entertainment but he has fallen in love with the art form. However like many young people (and not a few older folk) for him musicals begin perhaps with Phantom or Les Miz but even as late as Hamilton. Most of them are unaware of the wealth of music that goes back, if stories are to be believed, to the first “book musical” on Broadway: The Black Crook in 1866 at Niblo’s Garden. And of course though Hamilton is viewed as a “landmark” in the American Musical – there have been so many other landmarks in the ensuing 150 years since Rita Sangalli did her arabesques at Broadway and Prince . At least two of those landmarks can be attributed to one composer – Jerome Kern.
In the later part of the 1800s and early into the 1900s the focus was on extravaganzas (The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Toyland), operettas from Mittel-Europe, imports from England and formulae song and dance shows tailored to the talents of big stars like George M. Cohen. Often more “American” numbers by young composers such as Kern (right), Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin were interpolated into the scores of the imported shows and just as often they were uncredited. Kern was to change that in 1914 when his “They Didn’t Believe Me” (composed to lyrics by Herbert Reynolds) became the hit song in The Girl from Utah. The duo demanded and got full credit for what was the only number that anyone would ever remember from what was otherwise a very unremarkable score. It says something of this wedding of what has been called “forthright sentiment and refined romance” that it can still be heard a century later. And it made Kern the hottest composer in America!
The next year (1915) that popularity allowed Kern along with writer Guy Bolton and eventually P. G. Wodehouse to introduce a series of shows which became known as the Princess Theatre Musicals. Named after the tiny (226 seats) venue they were produced in, these small scale shows had a natural feel to them, the numbers came out of the situations, and moved the plot forward. The characters were believable and they sang and danced to the music of Jerome Kern. It created a new sort of musical – a more American musical if you will. After the initial success of N0body Home in 1915 five more of this small sophisticated musicals were to follow and as with anything that was a financial success on the Great White Way so did the imitations.
Here’s that breakthrough song from the otherwise unknown score of The Girl From Utah; there are many covers of this song out there but I found this version by Edward Woodward particularly lovely. Edward Woodward?? Yes you’ll recognize the face I’m sure from various British TV series but he was also a highly regarded classical actor and well-known in the UK as a singer.
Over the years Kern was to work with many lyricists: Woodehouse, Bolton, Otto Harbach, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin and Dorothy Fields. However his most frequent collaborator was Oscar Hammerstein II; their first show together in 1925 was the Marilyn Miller vehicle Sunny and the partnership flourished until 1939 with Kern’s last Broadway show – Very Warm For May. Sadly, though many acknowledged it as one of Kern’s finest scores, the show was a flop and only lasted 59 performances. However as with any Kern score there was bound to be several numbers that became standards. My own favourite – perhaps of all the Kern songs – is the haunting “All the Things You Are”. There are so many versions of it out there but I find the original scoring for quartet and chorus the most beautiful. It also brings back memories of the first time I heard this version in Ottawa sitting with a small group of friends in front of a fireplace on a lazy winter afternoon.
After their initial collaboration on the frothy Sunny for Flo Ziegfeld Hammerstein and Kern were to turn their attention to a more serious work. One that was to be the next landmark work in the history of the American musical. Show Boat!
… to be continued.