Mercoledi Musicale

A friend’s crocuses that only a few days ago were blooming in the warmth of spring now…..  ah well it is Canada after all.

I will not harp on about how we are still in the clutches of winter here in the Great White North even though it is well past Easter, the first day of Spring and the promise of April showers.  Though I must admit here on the Island we have missed the snow and ice that has been hitting Upper Canada and the Hudson Bay Territories in the West.

In a mood of optimism as I see the green shots valiantly breaking through the red earth of our flower beds I want to play a lovely piece that I heard on the radio the other day by the English composer Gerald Finzi.  I praise the tender flower is one of seven poems by Robert Bridges that Finzi set to music in the period 1934-1937.

Robert Bridges

I praise the tender flower,
That on a mournful day
Bloomed in my garden bower
And made the winter gay.
Its loveliness contented
My heart tormented.

I praise the gentle maid
Whose happy voice and smile
To confidence betrayed
My doleful heart awhile:
And gave my spirit deploring
Fresh wings for soaring.

The maid for very fear
Of love I durst not tell:
The rose could never hear,
Though I bespake her well:
So in my song I bind them
For all to find them.

Finzi was a bit of an enigma. The son of an immigrant family (his father was an Italian Jew and his mother a German Jew) he is thought of as the quintessential “English” composer; and though an agnostic he is thought of as a composer of Christian religious music.  Though he did composed some orchestral pieces he is best known for his choral work – song cycles, anthems, and cantatas.

On this day in 1906: An earthquake and fire destroy much of San Francisco, California.

Mercoledi Musicale

Jerome Kern – Part III

In the style of the old “one penny plain twopence coloured” Joseph Hope Williams included small vignettes behind his characters to complete the scene.
Alberta Hunter and Paul Robeson as Queenie and Joe – London 1928

Of all the songs that Hammerstein and Kern created for Showboat it’s safe to say that the best known is “Ol’ Man River”. It serves as leitmotiv throughout the show – and if Kern’s music captures the relentless flow of the Mississippi, Hammerstein’s lyrics reflect the human condition of the people who are drawn to live, work, laugh, suffer and love on it. An oft repeated legend says that when Oscar Hammerstein’s wife Dorothy heard Eva Kern refer to her husband writing “Ole Man River”, Mrs Hammerstein tartly corrected: No, your husband wrote lalalala, my husband wrote “ole man river”.  And in that little anecdote rests a truth.

In his autobiography Robert Russell Bennett, the great musical arranger, recounted his reaction when Jerome Kern handed him the music to orchestrate.

It was thirty-two not wholly convincing measures that sounded to me like they wanted to be wanted. In the first place it starts with two harmonically powerful and self-reliant bars and then comes to a mud puddle and doesn’t know where to put its feet for the next two. Perhaps that isn’t important, but to a musical snob it is.

Anyhow the Muse of Music never spat at either Jerry or me for not finding the chords that should have been there. I found some rather nice fills for the ends and phrases and didn’t worry about it until a few days later when I looked at it with Oscar Hammerstein’s words written in. I didn’t worry about it then either–just said to Jerry, “Gee, that’s a great song!”

Kern said, “You didn’t say that when I gave it to you.” He knew as well as I did that it wasn’t a song at all until Oscar came in with the words

The Broadway Sound:
The Autobiography and Selected Essays of
Robert Russell Bennett
University Rochester Press – 1999

A page from the 1928 Drury Lane programme featuring the major gentlemen players.

Paul Robeson had been original contracted to play the role of Queenie’s shiftless stevedore Joe and Hammerstein and Kern expanded the role from the book and tailored it to him. However the lengthy delay in opening the New York production meant that Robeson was no longer available and  Jules Bledsoe premiered the part. However Robeson played Joe in the 1928 London production, the 1932 Broadway revival, the 1936 film version and a 1940 stage revival in Los Angeles. As mentioned previously contractual conflicts meant his London performance wasn’t captured in the recording studio. However I’m sure in the eight years between that and the film his interpretation and voice only became deeper and richer.

I’ve always thought the Julie La Verne subplot was more interesting than the Magnolia-Gaylord romance perhaps because so much is left unsaid.  Julie Dozier (Hammerstein gives her the stage name of La Verne) had an African-American mother and a white father.  Under the laws of the time her marriage to Steve Baker, a white man,  was considered miscegenatic and punishable as a felony. Childless she loves and cares for Magnolia if though she were her own.

Marie Burke as Julie La Verne (Dozier) as imagined by Hope-Williams.

Pete, an engineer on the Cotton Bloosom,  makes unwanted advances toward Julie.  When Steve knocks him flat in a fistfight he threatens revenge. Pete knows that Julie is mixed race and goes to the local sheriff to expose the couple. In a scene that no doubt shocked many in the audience, Steve takes out a pocket knife in front of the troupe, makes a cut on Julie’s hand, and sucks some of her blood: he can truthfully claim that he has mixed blood in him. The couple is forced to leave the show boat because it’s also against the law for African-Americans to act on the stage with whites.  At that point Julie disappears from the story and we take up with the Magnolia/Gaylord courtship.

Julie reappears in the second act but without Steve.  In the 1951 film it’s suggested that he up and deserted her but neither Ferber nor Hammerstein give any explanation.  In the novel on a chance meeting a mortified Julie reveals to Magnolia that she works in a brothel; Hammerstein has her appearing in a Chicago nightclub as a featured singer who has taken to drink.  She sacrifices her spot in the New Year’s show at the Trocadaro to give Magnolia her big chance.  They never actually meet so Magnolia never knows what her old friend has done.  Whatever her story in both the novel and musical she disappears and we never know her fate.  The 1951 movie alters the storyline so that as well as giving Magnolia her big break Julie is instrumental, secretly, in reuniting her and Gaylord.  But once again we are left wondering what became of us as the Cotton Blossom churls its way down the Mississippi .

Helen Morgan laid claim to the role of Julie in the United States, appearing in the original, the 1932 and 1940 revivals as well as the 1936 movie version.  When MGM did a remake in 1951 there had been talk of casting Lena Horne in the role, however concerns over an African-American/Caucasian love interest led to Ava Gardner being cast as Julie.  Gardner had a good singing voice and recorded the songs but for some reason the front office at MGM decided to dub her two songs.  Frankly I prefer Miss Gardner’s version!

Recently someone mentioned on FaceBook that in 90 years Showboat has gone through more changes, additions, deletions and reworking than any show they could think of.  And there may be a truth to that.  Some have been the choice of producers and directors adapting to modern mores, others based on castings – Elaine Stritch as Pathy Ann being given “Why Do I Love You” to sing to a baby Kim in 1994 springs to mind.  In some cases Kern and Hammerstein added numbers particularly for the first film version where, though four original songs were jettisoned, three new songs were introduced.

One of those songs was “I Still Suits Me”, a “comic” song for Joe (Robeson) and Queenie (Hattie McDaniel).  Though the film version is available I thought I’d use a recording that Robeson made in London May of 1936 with Elizabeth Welch, who I featured two weeks ago.  The song had been schedule for the session but someone had forgot to book a female vocalist to sing Queenie’s part.  Miss Welch agreed to rush to the studio but had no time for a rehearsal and had to sight read it “cold”.

“Nobody Else But Me” was the last song Kern composed for the 1946 Broadway revival.  He was in New York to hold auditions for the revival and begin writing the score of Annie Get Your Gun.  He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while walking on Park Avenue and died several days with Oscar Hammerstein at his side.

On this day in 1938: The Lions Gate Bridge, connecting Vancouver to the North Shore region, opens to traffic.



Martedi Musciale

Jerome Kern – Part II

This post has become longer than I thought it would be so to spare my gentle reader one long continuous ramble I’ve broken it into two parts.  Part III will be tomorrow’s Mercoledi Musicale.

I’m embarrassed when I realize that Part I of this post on Jerome Kern was over a year ago.  It was then put aside to be worked on later….  it looks like later has now arrived. What prompted me to finish it was a piece of artwork that had set the whole train rolling in the first place.

A few posts back I rambled on about that first visit to London and mentioned a piece I had bought at Pollock’s Toy Store and Museum.  It is a hand coloured copperplate print in the style of the old one penny plain twopence coloured theatre sheets.  It shows the “Principal Characters in Show Boat” and is meant as a character sheet to be cut out and used with a toy theatre.  It’s the work of Joseph Hope Williams who claims to be the last exponent of this 19th century art form.  Rather than attempt to outline Mr Hope’s history I’ll excerpt from his website:

Mr. Hope uses the original old techniques, which he learnt mainly from extensive research in London museums.  For example, Mr. Hope mixes, by hand, all his colours, he has the old recipes whose ingredients include beer, gum, etc.  This enables him to capture the brightness of colour that makes these prints so dramatic.


He went to an old art dealer (Harry Dyer) in Great Yarmouth, who helped supply the copper plates, etc, and advised him on techniques.  Whilst waiting for the order to arrive he drew his first portrait-‘Mr Cooke in The Waterman’.  So the drawing was transferred to the copper, the acid applied and he had his first plate.  Using initiative he managed to produce his first print by passing the plate and paper through his mothers ‘Acme’ wringer. 

Mr. Hope has a stock of over 100 plates. He prints on a small hand operated press in cramped conditions, just as many of the old publishers would have done.

If Kern, Bolton and Woodehouse had changed the face of the American musical with their influential Princess Theatre musicals in the early 1900s Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II were to signal a greater change in 1927 with Showboat. Their adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel created a new genre – a musical play.  This would be the genesis of many of the works of Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, and ultimately Rogers and Hammerstein. The book was as important as the songs and dances which grew out of the story and created a dramatic unity.  Florenz Ziegfeld of Follies fame was an unlikely producer but the only one who would be capable of giving the show the grand mounting it required.  And, ever a man of the theatre, he grasped what the two creators were attempting to do and referred to it as the opportunity of a lifetime.

It was innovative in many ways not the least of which was as a racially integrated musical with black and white performers appearing on stage and performing numbers together.  And it tackled subjects that were not familiar territory for American musicals – interracial marriage, a character of mixed race, and a “hero” with a gambling addiction who deserts his family.  Even during it’s fraught try-outs audiences and critics reacted enthusiastically to this new musical form.  This was musical theatre at its best and revivals and remountings have shown it’s strength to delight and move audience over the past 90 years.

showboat-drury-lane Showboat opened at London’s Drury Lane in May of 1928. The original cast featured Edith Day (Magnolia), Howett Worster (Gaylord Ravenal), Marie Burke (Julie La Verne) Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Cap’n Andy), Viola Compton (Parthy Ann), Alberta Hunter (Queenie), Paul Robeson (Joe), Dorothy Lena (Ellie May), and Leslie Sarony (Frank).  And one source maintains that Mabel Mercer, the great cabaret singer, was in the chorus.  Mr Hope Williams character sheets celebrates a few of those performers though unfortunately Sir Cedric, who it is difficult to imagine in a musical, is missing and Miss Lena and Mr Sarony are not recognized by name.

It seems that recording companies in the United Kingdom were more concerned with capturing the performers of the age than their American counterparts.  Ten numbers were recorded and issued on 78s within weeks of the London opening.

Magnolia and Gaylord meet on the Levee and what starts out as “Make Believe” becomes a love that despite it’s up and (mostly) downs lasts the next 40 years.

The style of vocal production may strike us as a trifle operatic but in 1927 musical comedy and operetta were still not that far apart.  Here’s Miss Day and  Mr Worster in Magnolia and Gaylord’s first duet “Make Believe”.

The role of Julie La Verne was created on Broadway by Helen Morgan, a well known actress and torch singer of the time; in London it was taken by Marie Burke an operatic soprano who went on to appear in films and television until her last appearance in Sunday Bloody Sunday in 1971.

In the galley of the Cotton Blossom Julie sings “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man”. Queenie is puzzled and says: ah didn’t ever hear anybody but coloured folks sing dat song – sounds funny for Miss Julie to know it .

Unfortunately on the recording she made of “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man” we don’t hear Queenie (Alberta Hunter) or Joe (Paul Robeson) join her on the reprise – perhaps because Robeson was contracted to another label at the time.

While doing a bit of research on the London production I was surprised to come across a photograph of the galley scene.  I had forgotten that Alberta Hunter was a small woman and she looks even smaller when beside Paul Robeson.  And surprisingly the details are pretty much as Mr Hope Williams captured them – perhaps he used this as his model?

Paul Robeson (Joe), Alberta Hunter (Queenie), Edith Day (Magnolia) and Marie Burke (Julie) echoing the scene (minus Magnolia) that Mr Hope Williams captured in his twopence coloured sheet.

Tomorrow, just like Ole Man River, the post will keep rolling on……

On this day in 1884: The Siege of Khartoum begins. It lasts until January 26, 1885.

Mercoledi Musicale

Elizabeth Welch in Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Night at Drury Lane in 1935.

Yesterday a site that I visit was celebrating the birthday of one of that legendary group of American entertainers who made their mark in Europe between and after the two world wars: Josephine Baker, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Alberta Hunter, and birthday girl Elizabeth Welch.  All had remarkable careers in revue, cabaret, musical comedy and in the case of Miss Hunter and Miss Welch television.  And all had careers that last well into a time in life when most people were sitting in rocking chairs rather than night and jazz clubs.

I featured Miss Welch in an earlier Mercoledi Musicale with a bit of her story back in 2014.  However I’ve noticed that all of the YouTube clips have since been deleted – I’m going to try and update that entry but in the meantime here’s Miss Welch in 1935 singing a number composed for her by Ivor Novello with lyrics by Christopher Hassall from their Drury Lane hit Glamorous Night.

And here she is in 1980 at the age of 76 with Karen Morrow, Liz Robertson and David Kernan in several numbers from a Cole Porter tribute.

And her appearance in 1996 singing Stormy Weather only six years before her death at the age of 99 give lie to this 1934 song.  She certainly wasn’t a Lazy Lady.

On this day in 1525: Aztec king Cuauhtémoc is executed on the order of conquistador Hernán Cortés.

Mercoledi Musicale

Ethel Waters as seen by Al Hirschfeld.

A well known American evangelist died earlier today and I must admit the only thing that flashed through my mind when I heard the news was of a singer who featured often on his “crusades”:  Ethel Waters.

She would appear on stage – towards the end I seem to recall in a wheelchair  – and sing one gospel song:  His Eye Is On the Sparrow.  It had become something of a theme song for her after she incorporated it into her Broadway hit The Member of the Wedding.

The 1950 production of Carson McCuller’s adaptation of her novel made a star of Julie Harris as tomboy Frankie Adams and it introduced a seven year old Brandon deWilde as her little cousin.  But at the heart of the strange little triangle in the Adams’ kitchen was Berenice Sadie Brown, the one-eyed African American maid embodied by Waters.  The play ran for 501 performances and then  the three reprised their roles in the 1952 film version.

But Waters was more than a single song.  She had introduced and recorded some of the best known songs of the first part of the 20th century:  Dinah, Stormy Weather, Heat WaveSupper Time, Taking A Chance on Love, Cabin In The Sky, and her signature song Am I Blue.

She was the first African American to have her own television show in 1939; she appeared in As Thousand Cheer, the first integrated musical on the Great White Way; she was the second African American to be nominated for an Oscar (Hattie Mcdaniel was the first); and the first African American to be nominated for an Emmy for a brilliant performance on the popular Route 66 series.

In one of her last television appearance the 76 year old Ethel sings Dinah (that she introduced in 1924) and from Cabin in the Sky, her 1940 Broadway hit, “Takin’ A Chance On Love”.

While working on this today I came across two quotes from Ethel Waters – possibly from one of her two autobiographies – that struck me as funny, touching, and that say a great deal about her:

“I am somebody cause God don’t make no junk”

“I’m not afraid to die. I’m looking forward to it. I know the Lord has His arms wrapped around this big sparrow.”

On this day in 1797: A force of 1,400 French soldiers invaded Britain at Fishguard in support of the Society of United Irishmen. They were defeated by 500 British reservists.