There’s a story about an encounter between the wives of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Eva Kern was telling someone that her husband wrote “Ol’ Man River,” and Dorothy Hammerstein corrected her by saying, “Your husband wrote ‘da-da-dum-da,’ ” and hummed the tune. “My husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.’ ”
This story has been told several different ways, but for its score alone, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat is one of the milestones of American musical Theater.
I won’t go into it here, because if you don’t know about it, you can easily find out. The 1951 MGM version can be found on YouTube. The 1936 version, directed by James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein) is available on dvd. This is the better of the two films, not only for the delightful performance of Irene Dunne as Magnolia, but because it preserves the stage performances of Charlie Winninger as Captain Andy, Helen Morgan as Julie and Paul Robson as Joe. You can delight in seeing Hattie MacDaniel (Gone With the Wind) as Queenie, though her song, “Tell Him,” isn’t included, and enjoy Allan Jones’ marvelous vocals as Gaylord Ravenal.
But even beyond Show Boat, with over 100 musical scores, Jerome Kern is one of the greatest composers of American Musical Theater. He’s also one of the most elusive, because writing about him requires volumes, not pages. He collaborated with several lyricists, but his work with P.G. Wodehouse (Jeeves and Wooster) and Oscar Hammerstein II (much more about him later) have led to such standards as “A Fine Romance,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “All the Things You Are,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” “Who” and “Lovely to Look at.” His life was celebrated by MGM in the film Till the Clouds Roll By, yet much of his work is seldom produced, and deserves examination and serious attention.
The Princess Theater Musicals
Raised by upwardly mobile parents in the late 1800s, Kern’s first notable American works were sixteen musicals for the Princess Theater. The Princess was a very small theater on West 39th Street. Their offerings didn’t do well until the producer asked young composers and librettists to write intimate pieces that matched the space. What’s important to the history of the musical theater is that the Princess musicals were among the first to have a legitimate story, nonsense though it may have been. And three of Kern’s musicals have been sporadically revived over the past forty years.
Very Good Eddie is a century old. Its plot is slapstick, with mismatched married couples creating havoc in a hotel. The action includes plenty of doors slamming as characters with typical Wodehouse names like Fullern A. Goat, Always Innit and Madame Matroppo run around trying to sort things out. Of course it’s all in fun, and things work out happily.
The Goodspeed Opera House, dedicated to the preservation of classic musicals, presented Very Good Eddie during the nostalgia craze of the 1970s, and this production transferred both to Broadway and London for successful engagements. The Goodspeed production was preserved on disc and if seeing Very Good Eddie is half as much fun as listening to this delicious recording, it’s worthy of revival. It requires a small cast and for audiences who laugh wholeheartedly at plays like Noises Off, this musical could be right up their alley.
Produced two years later, Oh Boy! would keep audiences in the Princess Theater’s seats for a year. Intended to be madcap entertainment, the plot is similar to Very Good Eddie. A comedy of manners, it follows a newly married couple who return home after eloping to be confronted by the woman’s parents. Simple and silly, with “Till the Clouds Roll By” the most famous tune among its score, this is an old-fashioned but refreshing musical comedy, the like of which isn’t written (or for that matter, performed) anymore. Something that stands out in Oh Boy! is that the songs help to define character, an approach that composers and lyricists of the 1940s would refine later.
Kern’s last collaboration with Wodehouse for the Princess Theater, Sitting Pretty, has a special story of its own (to be discussed in a later column).
Work with Oscar Hammerstein II
Jerome Kern’s collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein II are every bit as important as Richard Rodgers’ collaborations with Lorenz Hart. The pair met in the mid-1920s, and their first collaboration, Sunny, a shipboard musical, was produced in 1925, playing 517 Broadway performances. It centered on Sunny, a circus performer whom, in order to escape a forced marriage, stows away and falls in love with a wealthy man and must charm his snobbish relatives. The standard “Who (Stole My Heart Away)” is from this musical. It’s a perfect show to reuse those sets and costumes from Anything Goes!
Kern and Hammerstein followed the success of Show Boat with Music in the Air. Presented occasionally today, the story centers on a Bavarian village after World War I (although updating the story is always possible). Sieglinde is in love with Kari, the schoolmaster, and the two take a trip to Munich, hoping to have some of her father’s music published. The two characters become smitten with others, but learn that their country ways satisfy them, and they return home. The score included two standards, “The Song is You,” and “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star.” This musical, too, has a small cast and could be a lovely summer theater offering.
The last musical that Kern and Hammerstein wrote had a run of only 59 performances, a flop. Very Warm for May was presented at the start of World War II. Vincente Minnelli’s production starred future movie and TV performers June Allyson (Good News), Eve Arden (Our Miss Brooks) and Vera-Ellen (White Christmas). Evidently, last minute changes to the script are one of the reasons for its failure. May Graham is a socialite, hiding out from gangsters in a stock theater. While this version was successful, the show’s producer, Max Gordon, demanded rewrites and it morphed into a Babes in Arms retread.
Many people believe that Very Warm for May has the finest score Kern ever composed. With this musical, Kern helped develop the concept of characters vocalizing their thoughts and feelings. It also has the distinction of being the oldest Original Cast Recording, because 45 years later, recordings were pieced together from newly discovered materials as well as songs from a radio version of the show. Among standards from Very Warm for May that continue to be recorded are “In the Heart of the Dark” and “All the Things You Are,” the latter appearing most recently on Tony Bennett’s new album, The Silver Lining, a recording of Jerome Kern songs.
Kern spent a lot of years in Hollywood, and in 1945 returned to Broadway to supervise a revival of Show Boat. He had also started to write the score for Annie Get Your Gun, a musical to be produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein and to star Ethel Merman.
Sadly, On November 5, 1945, Jerome Kern passed away after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. Irving Berlin was drafted to create the score for Annie Get Your Gun, a show that gets produced often, while most of Jerome Kern’s work gathers dust in warehouses. And not all of Kern’s work is worthy of revival. Perhaps Leave it to Jane, Oh, Lady! Lady! Sally, Sweet Adeline, The Cat and the Fiddle and Roberta are far too dated for audiences whose taste leans toward Sondheim, Lloyd Webber and Schonberg and Boublil (Les Miserables), but having the opportunity of hearing these other scores would be a theatergoing pleasure.