Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation 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 credit Kern for 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 is not exclusively a Kern score, I’ve decided not to highlight it here in full. Also, his first complete score after the aforementioned 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 started last week with the show just after, a notable piece called Nobody Home (1915). Today, it’s…
II. Very Good Eddie (12/23/15 – 10/14/16)
Round two of the Princess Theatre shows marked a huge uptick in quality, as both Kern’s score (with lyrics mostly by Shuyler Green and Herbert Reynolds, although many others made contributions) and Guy Bolton’s book managed to coalesce in a place where logic and fun revealed themselves to be not mutually exclusive. In other words, the book was no longer a string of gags and tunes — it was a character piece that used gags and tunes (mostly) in support of the plot. Based on a play by Philip Bartholomae (who collaborated here with Bolton), Very Good Eddie was set on a Hudson River Day Line cruise and concerned the farce that develops when a man and woman whose respective spouses have been accidentally left on the shore must pretend to be newlyweds in order to obtain service, since the two significant others hold both their money. Complicating matters is the presence of the man’s former flame, who shares the same name as his new faux bride, and is currently being pursued by his friend, the persistent Dick Rivers, played by Oscar Shaw. (There was a running gag with characters having last names that were bodies of water: Dick RIVERS, Lily POND, Victoria LAKE, etc.) Also in the cast were Ada Lewis, Ann Orr, Ernest Truex, and Alice Dovey. Critics were enthralled — an intelligent musical comedy that managed to surpass the expectations set by Nobody Home. (Click here to read a typescript of the original libretto, courtesy of the NYPL.)
After a lengthy Broadway run, the show was staged in London, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the work found renewed attention, as Goodspeed Opera House mounted a full-scale revival — well, “revisal,” because the score was filled out by other Kern numbers, including several from the perhaps equally appropriate The Night Boat (1920) — that transferred to Broadway just before Christmas of that year. Very Good Eddie was a big hit all over again and once more went across the pond to London. And yet, despite the success of all these productions, the show has failed to become the staple that later Princess Theatre pieces are considered. Although I believe this relative lack of favor (and don’t get me wrong, it’s still performed, as many have fond memories of the ’75 revisal) is undeserved, I suspect it might have something to do with the absence of P.G. Wodehouse, who, as legend has it, connected with Kern and Bolton at the premiere of Very Good Eddie, after which the trio began making plans to develop future offerings that would further shape American musical theatre.
At any rate, the score for Very Good Eddie remains sublime, one that’s jam-packed with gems — “sleeper” gems, if you will, as it’s incredibly easy to forget just how marvelous and plentiful this work remains, producing several hits at the time, including “Some Sort Of Somebody,” which was originally featured in Miss Information (1915), and will be highlighted in an upcoming Wildcard Wednesday post, and the delicate “Babes In The Wood,” one of the most earnestly enchanting tunes to come from Kern during this era. The rendition above is performed by Hugh Panaro and Rebecca Luker. Simply gorgeous!
I’d really love to be able to share the full score with you, but there’s good news: despite being a revisal, the recording of the ’75 production, made a year after closing, features much of the original score, and although it’s quite in-your-face, the album is nevertheless musically satisfying and vocally entertaining. Here you’ll be able to hear such charmers as “Thirteen Collar” (above) and the ebullient “I’ve Got To Dance” (below), which was (foolishly) cut from the original production.
Fortunately, the whole original score can be heard on a live recording of a concert put on by the Comic Opera Guild in 2005, from which you’ll be able to hear tunes like “If I Find The Girl,” a delightful number for Oscar Shaw’s character that exists as yet another forgotten gem from this embarrassment of riches.
And we’ll close today’s post with another selection from the Comic Opera Guild recording, “Old Boy Neutral,” which was based on another number from Miss Information. This is such a fun ditty — perhaps my favorite from the whole score (but don’t quote me on that, because I love so much of Very Good Eddie). Wish I could share more, but instead I’ll just encourage you to go get as many recordings as you can — it’s worth it.
Oh, and by the way… Very Good Eddie is #53 on our Essentials!
Come back next Monday for another Kern musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the third season of The Cosby Show!