Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the start of our series on the early musical theatre works of Jerome Kern, the brilliant composer whose complete scores from 1920 onward have been highlighted here over the past three years. Now we’re going back to the beginning — well, almost the beginning. You see, manny scholars credit Jerome Kern’s contributions to the 1914 Broadway production of The Girl From Utah, and particularly the song “They Didn’t Believe Me,” as ushering in the contemporary sound of musical comedy. My point-of-view, however, is that it’s not that simple, for while I would cite Kern as shaping the sound of Broadway’s interwar era (alongside the rag-inspired melodies concurrently being employed by Irving Berlin, whose earliest works we featured here recently), I don’t think there’s any one Kern work that can be pinpointed as the start of the new sound. And because The Girl From Utah doesn’t feature very much Kern, I’ve decided not to highlight it here in full. Also, his first complete score after that was 90 In The Shade (1915), but many of the songs used there wound up in later works that have already been or will be covered. So we’re starting today with the show after that, a notable piece called…
I. Nobody Home (04/20/15 – 08/07/15)
Although I wrote above that there’s no singular work where Kern’s musicality instantly matures, there is a show to which we can point as the first in which a style of show is established. It’s Nobody Home, the first of the “Princess Theatre shows,” so-called because they played in the Princess Theatre, a tiny little space (less than 300 seats) that, with this production, cultivated a reputation of more intimate, smaller-scale affairs, where smart material and memorable players were touted as more important than spectaculars with grandiose production values. With a book co-written by Guy Bolton, adapted from a British musical called Mr. Popple Of Ippleton (and some of the numbers from that production were kept), Nobody Home told the story of a man who seeks the approval of his girlfriend’s hand in marriage from her aunt and step-uncle. This marked the second collaboration between the composer (Kern) and the author (Bolton), who along, with co-producer F. Ray Comstock, are considered responsible for creating the narrative evolution that accompanied these Princess Theatre works.
Of course, Nobody Home is no Leave It To Jane (1917), the only one of these works that we’ve covered on this blog so far, and we’re going to see a lot of growth in terms of the stories and the way the music aids the telling (a lot of this will come into place when P.G. Wodehouse enters the picture — stay tuned). Here, audiences and critics, with no foreknowledge of what was coming, just appreciated what appeared to be something slightly different, while Kern’s sprightly tunes were considered responsible for the production’s success. Many of the numbers he contributed to Nobody Home have been the listening fodder for hardcore theatrephiles only, but several had achieved mild success in their day and deserve to be recognized again. I’m thinking mostly of “The Magic Melody,” a pre-jazz hottie (with lyrics by Schuyler Greene) that remains one of my favorite Kern tunes to this day. The rendition above is by Billy Murray.
Other songs stick out for their cheery charm, like “Wedding Bells Are Calling Me,” added shortly after opening and then put into Very Good Eddie (1915), which we’ll be discussing next week (the lyrics are by Harry B. Smith), and “Another Little Girl,” taken below from the Jerome Kern volume of the Lost Broadway and More series. The lyrics are by Herbert Reynolds. (Purchase that album here.)
And we’ll close today’s post with another number that’s indicative of Kern’s developing talents, “Any Old Night (Is A Wonderful Night),” one of those tunes that gets in your head and has difficulty escaping. (The lyrics are by Greene and Smith.) Here’s a rendition by George Grossmith, who sang the number in the London production of To-Night’s The Night.
Come back next Monday for another Kern musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the second season of The Cosby Show!