Tonight was when another of a wonderful series of musically-illustrated talks about Broadway composers at the Smithsonian featured Jerome Kern. Yes, there were plenty of other fantastic songwriters in the first half of the 20th century--many Jewish, like Kern and Irving Berlin, and some not--like Cole Porter, but to me, Kern stands out because his songs are just "so wonderful" like Bill in the song of that name. Reciting a list of them just confirms my feeling: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Ol' Man River, Make Believe, Bill, A Fine Romance, The Last Time I Saw Paris, Who, I've Told Ev'ry Little Star, Look for the Silver Lining, How'd You Like to Spoon With Me, All the Things You Are, Long Ago and Far Away, Yesterdays, I'm Old-Fashioned, I Won't Dance, She Didn't Say Yes and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man.
There were more--about 700 published and maybe a total of 1300 or more. If you're at all like me, you probably never thought that all the ones named were Kern's. They are part of our culture, to the extent that we continue to have one. With Kern, it was almost always the songs. Most of the shows they came from are forgotten--deservedly so, for most of them.
For Kern, the composing apparently came easily. Once he convinced his father that he was not cut out for business--sent to purchase 2 pianos, he bought 200, he studied music and gradually broke into show business at a funny time--the 1910's, when vaudeville was in its glory and minstrel shows still toured the land. Operetta ruled Broadway until World War I squelched it and Kern joined up with two talented Brits, Guy Bolton and the renowned P. G. Wodehouse, who provided book and lyrics to the series of Princess Theater musicals he composed in the teens.
These were a shift from the over-produced opulence of Ziegfeld and the operetta-like corniness of much of Victor Herbert. Kern always kept spinning out the songs and he kept doing it for both Broadway and after sound arrived, Hollywood. He did die rather dramatically at 60, had lived a pleasant and highly successful life, married once and stayed married to the end, and was a noted book collector, who rather presciently disposed of a fantastic collection in January 1929 for more than $1 million, quite a sum then.
But there was one more thing. He wrote his finest score for the musical that changed the whole Broadway world. This was Showboat in 1927. I saw it last year, in a local company's production, and all the defects came out. It was always too long. Many of the characters are caricatures. Oscar Hammerstein II's lyrics were a cut above an oeuvre I've never been all that sold on but there's some corniness left. The show was based on Edna Ferber's novel, the lady who gave us Giant and Cimarron and Ice Palace. The topics that amazed the public then--miscegenation, racism, adultery, abandonment--leave us somewhat nonplussed today and the piece can come off as heavy and tedious, if not embarrassing: take the part of Queenie, originally played on stage by an actress who used the name Aunt Jemima, and yes, that's who she resembled. Really.
Until you get to the music, that is. And it's the music that makes us realize that none of the rest really matters at all. Robert Wyatt, the musicologist who puts on these programs, had some fantastic sound and video clips. The ones with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swingtime and Billie Holliday singing Yesterdays are fabulous, but then there are the ones from the original Showboat. First comes Aunt Jemima doing Queenie's Ballyhoo, which sets the stage for Helen Morgan with Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man and finally, majestically, Paul Robeson, who actually joined the cast later, in 1928, singing Ol' Man River. All of my reservations were swept away by the glorious rhythm and swell of Kern's music--once again, it's the songs, stupid--in all of those and if Robeson's bass baritone doesn't bring tears to your eyes, stay home.