The Song Is… Kern In The ’30s (II)

Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the start of our three week series on the early ’30s musical theatre works of Jerome Kern! We kicked off last week with Music In The Air (1932). Today…


II. Roberta (11/18/33 – 07/21/34)


Jerome Kern joined lyricist and book writer Otto Harbarch to create the delicious score for this musical adaptation of Alice Duer Miller’s novel Gowns By Roberta, about a college football star who inherits his late aunt’s famous dress shop in Paris, all the while dealing with romantic entanglements involving his aunt’s lovely assistant (a Russian princess), his snooty former fiancé, and a temperamental Polish singer. Produced by Max Gordon, the original 1933 production starred Ray Middleton as football player John Kent, Tamara [Drasin] as Stephanie, his primary love interest, Helen Gray as his former flame, and the incomparable Lyda Roberti as Scharwenka, the diva chanteuse. Fay Templeton was Aunt Minnie, while Bob Hope played an orchestra leader and George Murphy acted as his manager. (A young Fred MacMurray was among the orchestra players, entitled The California Collegians.)


The 1933 Broadway production earned adequate reviews, with critics finding Harbach’s book, which makes careful room for a fashion show in the second act, turgid and unfunny. But word of mouth, along with an indelible Jerome Kern tune, turned the show into a success. RKO produced a film adaptation in 1935, which starred Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, and Randolph Scott. The coming decades saw many local productions and several studio recordings of all of the major musical numbers (and Bob Hope starred in two paired down TV productions in the ’50s and ’60s). Yet despite all of this and an MGM remake in 1952 as Lovely To Look At, there were no major revivals of the stage show. That is, until a New Amsterdam concert in 1984, and finally in 2014, a two-disc restoration of the entire original score was released by New World Records. Given its comprehensiveness, the 2014 recording is a must-have for musical theatre scholars (and the liner notes, which can be viewed online, are invaluable).

So Roberta, despite not having being seen on Broadway in over 80 years, is less obscure than many of the other shows we’ve covered on Musical Theatre Mondays. This is largely because of the wonderful score, which yielded several remarkable hits, including an iconic standard referenced above, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Above is Tamara’s recording.

Another well known number is “Yesterdays,” which was sung by Templeton’s Aunt Minnie. One of my favorite renditions, heard above, is by Ella Fitzgerald.

Kern was a master of crafting beautiful tunes, evidenced by both “You’re Devastating” and “The Touch Of Your Hand.” Above is the former, sung by Alfred Drake from a 1944 studio recording. Below is Gordon MacRae and Lucille Norman’s rendition of the latter, from a 1952 studio recording.

One of my favorite songs, however, is Scharwenka’s “I’ll Be Hard To Handle”; the recording below is by Kim Criswell, conducted and restored by John McGlinn. (She also performs the number on the 2014 album.)

Another favorite is “Something Had To Happen” (sometimes titled “Something’s Got To Happen”). The recording below comes from the 2014 album, which can be purchased here.

As you can tell, it’s a fantastic score and those interested in further study should seek out the New Worlds album. There’s other songs I’d like to share (like “Don’t Ask Me Not To Sing”). But for now, we’ll close today’s post with George Dvorsky singing “Let’s Begin.”



Come back next Monday for another Jerome Kern musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the third season of The Bob Newhart Show!