The Song Is… Kern In The ’30s (I)

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!

 

I. Music In The Air (11/08/32 – 09/16/33)

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Ethan Mordden’s summation of the plot is pleasantly succinct: “In contemporary Bavaria, boy and girl visit Munich, get involved in local show biz, quarrel, get hurt, and go home to patch it up and plan the wedding.” It’s a fairly simple backstager — but with a twist: the heroine bungles her chance for stardom and must contend with love and marriage over success. Often compared to the previous year’s The Cat And The Fiddle (1931) with a score by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach (covered here), Hammerstein and Kern’s Music In The Air also boasts wonderful integration of story and song. Both imbued with European sounds and concerned with music/performance, they are regularly cited among a handful of musicals (or operettas, in this case) between the infamous benchmarks — Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943) — that seek to use music as a means of storytelling, enhancing, and occasionally advancing, the plot. Although in my study of both pieces, I have come to the conclusion that The Cat And The Fiddle is probably the more integrated (albeit slightly), Music In The Air is better constructed, and thus more accessible. In fact, many of my longtime musical theatre friends, connoisseurs, and readers regard Music In The Air with a special affinity, believing it to be one of the decade’s shamelessly neglected works — and one of Kern’s best.

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In addition to original productions on both sides of the Atlantic and a 1934 film adaptation with Gloria Swanson (in which the stage show’s most famous number was deleted before release), Music In The Air was performed sporadically around the country in the ’40s and ’50s. A Broadway revival in 1951 starring Jane Pickens led to an album of its leading lady singing most of the songs. But to this date, as with The Cat And The Fiddle, no complete recording of the score has been produced, despite a well regarded 2009 production at Encores! (Music In The Air has probably been seen a bit more than The Cat And The Fiddle, however, which I think speaks to its slight favor.) As is usual with a Kern score, this world would be a better place if a full cast recording existed, for his music is a delight. The classic song alluded to above is “The Song Is You,” which composer Bruno Mahler ironically sings to “his inspiration,” our ingenue, Sieglinde.  The recording below is by the always dependable Thomas Hampson.

Walter Slezak played our juvenile, wunderkind schoolmaster and aspiring songwriter, Karl, who co-wrote “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” which is heard many times throughout the score and has also gone on to become a Jerome Kern standard. The recording below is by Jane Pickens.

We’ll close today’s post with Jeanne Lehman’s “In Egern On The Tegern Sea.” (For those interested in hearing the full score, subscribe and comment below for access to an audio of the entertaining Encores! production.) Hopefully a full scale recording will one day give everyone a chance to experience the miracle of Kern and Hammerstein’s Music In The Air.

P.S. Vivian Vance made her Broadway debut in the original 1932 ensemble.

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