Great Masters of the Musical – Part Two

Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin certainly knew how to write tunes. But as Jonathan Webster discovers in the second part of his survey of the century’s greatest musicals, these popular composers are at last gaining respect as writers of ‘serious’ music.

Gershwin, Porter and Berlin are excellent songwriters. But think – where did you first hear their songs? Chances are it was in the jazz club arena rather than in the Broadway theatre or Hollywood cinema. Many of the greatest showstoppers have been taken up by pop and jazz singers and arguably have received their greatest interpretations from a Fitzgerald, Holiday or Sinatra. But what has happened to the shows they were designed for? Here we look at these great songs in the original context of their largely forgotten shows.

The word musical is an all-embracing term which has come to mean many things to different music-lovers. For some it’s a frothy operetta-style entertainment, as epitomised by the works of composers such as Franz Lehár and Sigmund Romberg; for others it signifies the era of the film musical – a form which dawned in spectacular fashion with the 1930’s celluloid showcases for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In our last issue we covered the post-war Broadway musical; now we wind back the clock to the musical comedy between 1900 and 1950.

The big melting pot of musical cultures
At the dawn of the twentieth century, all the creative ingredients were in place for the American musical to happen. The new world was hungrily embracing much of the old world’s culture and customs, thanks to the arrival of millions of immigrants. Germans, Poles, Scots, Irish and Jews poured into New York’s Ellis Island, all desperate to start their lives afresh in the land of milk and honey. Each ethnic group brought its own music. Most huddled together in the teeming tenements of New York and Chicago, and soon this melting-pot, when mixed with negro musics such as the blues, ragtime and jazz, gave rise to a new kind of American popular music. In the 1910s and 1920s the world went mad for the foxtrot, the shimmy, the Boston, the two-step and the tango.

It didn’t take long for canny American theatre producers, composers and lyricists to realise that if they could attach those dances and syncopated songs to funny and saucily choreographed musical plays they could be on to a winning formula. Typical of the new breed of highly successful formulaic shows were those put together by the brilliant but tyrannical Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932). The Ziegfeld Follies, which were produced without a break in the years 1912-25, had troops of high-kicking beautiful chorus girls for the male members of the audience to ogle and their female partners to emulate. French in style and jazzy in tone, they were underpinned with the huge musical talents of five great composers: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter.

Jerome Kern (1885-1945)
Long before jazz had begun to make its influence felt on Broadway, Jerome Kern was helping to define the American musical genre. He started his musical theatre career as one of many hack composers providing opening numbers and linking passages for homegrown shows, and composing up-tempo numbers with ragtime flair for imported European shows. So adept did he become at pepping up a show that he was soon plying this skill in London; there he fell in love with the best of the British music hall and European operetta tradition. While in the process he became a consummate composer and songwriter, he now needed a great wordsmith in order to really make it back home. Kern found his ideal match in two emigré Brits: Guy Bolton, with whom he first started working with in 1915, and P G Wodehouse, who joined the team in 1917. Together the trio forged a sophisticated new style of American musical comedy and had several hits of which the most prominent was Sally (1920). The partnership amicably dissolved in the mid-1920s, and Kern collaborated with several other lyricists before joining with Oscar Hammerstein II for the musical masterpiece Show Boat (1927). Many critics have pored over the reasons for its phenomenal enduring success, but the one thing they are all agreed upon are those divine Kern songs, which have helped to bring Show Boat and its creator musical immortality. These include ‘Can’t help loving that man’ and ‘Ol’ Man River’.

Gershwin and Rodgers paid homage to Kern’s formidable skills. At his best he had a Schubert-like ability to match his music to words and to effect the most affecting of enharmonic musical tricks, perhaps most famously in the middle of ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’. Right through his composing life he maintained a strong link with the old operetta tradition, never fully embracing jazz in the way that Gershwin did.

Irving Berlin (1888-1989)
If Kern was the high ground of musical theatre, Irving Berlin was the low, and he was darn proud of it. His songs have the common touch, more blatant in humour and musical style than the rather more sophisticated output of his peers. That said, within his natural American Dixie-flavoured style he is pretty much without equal. Much of his output is instantly memorable and boasts such seminal pieces of musical Americana as ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ (1911), the all-time classic rag which set alight the world of twentieth-century popular music: ‘God Bless America’ (1938), effectively America’s second national anthem, and ‘White Christmas’.

Berlin had a long and fruitful association with the Ziegfeld Follies. Though he hit a fallow period in the 1930s, he saw a stunning post-war renaissance when he stepped into the shoes of the deceased Jerome Kern to produce the record-breaking musical comedy Annie Get Your Gun (1945) based on the real life of the Western gun-wielding lady Annie Oakley. Like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, it established the new-style, truly vernacular American musical of the 1940s based on wholly American stories. Among the slew of knockout songs was the immortal ‘There’s no business like show business’ and ‘Anything you can do’.

George Gershwin (1898-1937)
The world of popular music first to take notice of George Gershwin, composer and pianist, when he had his groundbreaking hit Swanee. Largely self-taught, Gershwin started as a song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley before writing music for George White’s Scandals. Until almost the very end of his career he remained faithful to American musical theatre; and, despite hitching his wagon to shows with some very questionable plots, he rose above such limitations with the help of his brother and lyricist-partner, Ira.

Sadly none of Gershwin’s shows have held up dramatically, which explains why they are so rarely revived. But their songs are an entirely different matter. Between 1924, when Lady, Be Good hit the Broadway stage, and Girl Crazy in 1930, Gershwin raised the standard of American song to new heights. Memorable numbers such as ‘Embraceable You’, ‘But Not For Me’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ have inspired many twentieth-century musicians.

Unlike Jerome Kern, Gershwin totally integrated jazz into his style. His music has a unique rhythmic impulse; and his songs, with their rich, daring harmonies, have given continual sustenance to improvisers the world over. There is a restrained blues element in many of his romantic vocal numbers, which, when blended with his Yiddish roots, lends them a special poignancy.

Richard Rodgers (1902-79)
In our previous issue we looked at the second phase of Richard Rodgers’ career, in which he collaborated with the evergreen Oscar Hammerstein II to produce some of the greatest of post-war musicals. What is remarkable, though, is that Rodgers had already had the best part of 20 years at the top of the stage-musical profession in his previous long running partnership with the American lyric-writer and librettist Lorenz Hart (1895-1943).

Rodgers and Hart acquired fame and fortune with their work for The Garrick Gaities (1925), a show which produced such sparkling numbers as ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Sentimental me’. This was to be the beginning of a long list of glittering achievements: 26 Broadway musicals, 3 London shows and 20 film scores. Among them were Babes in Arms (1937) (‘My funny Valentine’ and ‘The lady is a tramp’), and Pal Joey (1940) with, most memorably, ‘Bewitched’ and ‘I could write a book’.

Together with Kern, the Gershwins and Cole Porter, they helped develop the form from the light, frothy and rather brittle style of the jazz age through to the more mature, message-laden shows of the 1940s. Hart had a unique, bittersweet way with language, and a linguistic style that was full of cynical wit. He was melancholic and erratic by nature, something that was not helped by his love of the bottle. And yet, before the decline in his health, he was equalled in verbal and lyrical dexterity only by Ira Gershwin.

Kurt Weill (1900-1950)
Ever since the monumental success of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera (which was itself a brilliant tongue-in-cheek update of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera) Broadway had been tickled, challenged and fascinated by the strains of its hit song ‘Mack the Knife’ that wafted to them from the Atlantic. By the mid 1930s Weill was on the run from the Nazi Europe. Broadway welcomed him with open arms and equally open wallets.

Broadway producers reckoned that with his knack for mixing jazz, sardonic German popular music and Jewish sentimentality, Weill had a magic formula for success, and they craved a slice of the action. Weill was a canny operator, and quickly recognised that American musical tastes were not the same as back home. Consequently, he soon deserted a lot of the musical bite of his European works for a more Rodgers and Hart-style sophisticated uptown sound. Fortunately he never completely abandoned his unique stylistic hallmarks, and even in his best Broadway works (Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark and Street Scene) the devillish old Weill is often recognisable.

Cole Porter (1891-1964)
The composer who was to preserve the jazz age’s sparkle and wit well into the post-war musical years was Cole Porter. While he started out as something of a dilettante composer, writing songs in his spare time – while living a lavish society life in France on his wife’s private fortune – he was finally coerced by E Ray Goetz into collaborating on a complete show called Paris (1928). It was so successful, spawning songs like ‘Let’s do it’, that Porter decided to throw himself into a fully-fledged musical theatre career.

Superb wit and urbane sophistication best sum up Cole Porter. Being both composer and lyricist meant that there was a seamlessness about the work he produced. He was a master of the English language and loved to pile up image upon image, enthralling his audiences by making them wonder whatever audacious lyrical trick he would pull next: for example, the opening words of ‘Anything Goes’ – ‘In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking but now, who knows, anything goes. Good authors too, who once knew better words now only use four letter words writing prose, anything goes.’

Admittedly he could sometimes be a little over-sentimental and cloying in his romantic numbers, but he could also be heartstoppingly truthful, such as this from ‘Night and Day’: ‘Why is it so that this longing for you follows wherever I go? In the roaring traffic’s boom, in the silence of my lonely room I think of you night and day. Under the hide of me there’s an, oh, such a hungry, yearning burning inside of me and its torment won’t be through till you let me spend my life making love to you.’

With the death of Porter the wicked old world charm had all but vanished from the musical. It was now up to Rodgers, Lerner and Loewe and Bernstein to bridge the gap and provide the creative bridgehead so the form could prosper in the late twentieth century; a challenge which they undertook with great aplomb.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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