- The Jerome Kern Encyclopedia by Thomas S. Hischak
Thomas Hischak belongs to a select group of scholars who have elevated the Broadway and Hollywood musical to an art form. All one has to do is peruse his Oxford Companion to the American Musical to realize that a type of entertainment once taken for granted [End Page 67] has moved to a higher level, somewhere between opera and operetta, but not on the lower rungs of pop culture. The stage musical may have its roots in nineteenth century operetta, but Broadway composers like Jerome Kern and poets—also known as lyricists—like Oscar Hammerstein created a new type of musical theatre—sometimes (and often erroneously) labeled “musical comedy. ” Although there are comic interludes in Show Boat (1927), the musical is something of an anomaly: it has been performed in Broadway theaters and opera houses and has been recorded by stage performers (Jan Clayton, Carol Bruce, John Raitt, Stephen Douglass) and opera singers (Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel, Rise Stevens, Dorothy Kirsten, and Anna Moffo)—the latter treating the numbers as if they were arias and duets.
The Jerome Kern Encyclopedia consists of entries arranged alphabetically according to collaborators (orchestrators, lyricists, librettists, directors, producers); musicals (stage and screen); performers (stage and screen); published biographies; and types of songs: charm songs that endear a character to an audience (“You Couldn’t Be Cuter” from the film Joy of Living, 1938); comic songs that are basically laugh-getters (“Life upon the Wicked Stage” in Show Boat); “I am” songs emphasizing the character’s desires (“Where’s the Mate for Me?” from Show Boat); choruses (“Cotton Blossom” from Show Boat); songs cut from movies (“Every Little While” from Men of the Sky, 1931); songs written for an occasion (“The Last Time I Saw Paris,” Oscar Hammerstein’s 1940 lament for a Paris under Nazi occupation with a musical setting by Kern); list songs (“I’m Old Fashioned” from You Were Never Lovelier, 1942); march songs, which Kern generally avoided; and pastiche songs that evoked an earlier era (“Sure Thing” from Cover Girl, 1944). There are also four appendices: a chronology of stage works and films, interpolations in other musicals and films, a discography, and a list of Tony and Oscar nominations and awards.
The Show Boat entry is a model of compression, encompassing the various stage and film versions of the musical, including the legendary 1994 Harold Prince revival that won five Tony awards. Universal’s 1936 movie version with Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Allan Jones, and Helen Morgan, who created the role of Julie, is far more faithful to the original than MGM’s 1951 version, fashioned as a showpiece for Ava Gardner as Julie, who was a bigger star than the romantic leads, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, and emerged as the main—or at least the most empathetic— character, even getting the last memorable close-up.
Reading the Encyclopedia makes one aware of how many songs Kern contributed to the Great American Songbook: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “All the Things You Are,” “Why Was I Born?”, “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Long Ago (and Far Away),” “A Fine Romance,” and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” among others. Kern also had the benefit of superb lyricists: Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein, Leo Robin, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer, who knew how to wed the words to his music.
There is much to be gleaned from the Encyclopedia. For example, there is a difference between Lady Be Good (the 1941 film) and Lady, Be Good (the Gershwins’ musical)—and it is not merely the punctuation. MGM bought the rights to the 1924 musical, retaining only the title song and “Fascinating Rhythm,” the latter a vehicle for the “Queen of Taps,” Eleanor Powell. The main characters were changed from siblings (Fred and Adele Astaire in the original) to songwriters (Ann Sothern and Robert Young), who cannot seem to achieve the same rapport as a married couple that they once could as working professionals. Lady Be Good is noteworthy...