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American Popular Song

Bound for Broadway

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, September/October 1999 | Volume 20, Number 5

The blend of story and song that defines the Broadway musical has captured audiences for most of the century, but who gave the genre its characteristic feel? Who so tightly linked story line and tunes together, gliding smoothly from dialogue into song?

The recognized dean of the Broadway musical is Jerome Kern, who collaborated with Dorothy Fields and Oscar Hammerstein II, and who influenced the likes of Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin.

"George Gershwin was Kern's rehearsal pianist at the Princess Theater," says Margaret Pick, a collaborator on a new NEH-funded radio series that explores the roots of American popular music. "Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers, and others in the young, creative New York set attended Princess Theater shows and all were inspired by Kern."

With Hammerstein, Kern created Show Boat, a landmark in American musical theater. The 1927 show is continually revived, and its songs, such as "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," are etched in America's collective musical memory. Before, musicals had either been operettas or plays with popular songs added in for their entertainment value. In Show Boat, story and music were inextricably bound together. The story, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, also presented realistic characters and dealt with serious issues, something rare in the early days of musical theater.

Kern's contribution as a transitional figure in musical theater, particularly on his works before Show Boat, is the focus of American Popular Song, a series being aired nationally by WHYY in Philadelphia on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

"Older people used to look at me with incomprehension, and say 'You didn't live through those times, how could you possibly be interested in those songs?' says Gross. "I am grateful for the opportunity to present the songs free from the baggage of nostalgia."

Gross is program host and co-executive producer for the series, which is being made in collaboration with Pick, who is president of Pacific Vista Production in Petaluma, California. "Although Kern is best known for Show Boat," Pick says, "we wanted to look at what led up to this groundbreaking show, to explore when music started to sound American."

Born in New York in 1885, Kern began writing songs in 1902 and continued doing so for Broadway and Hollywood until his death of a stroke in 1945. He started in an era when European operettas and Sousa marches were the popular music of the day. Musical theater was thriving in London and New York, but the versions transported to Broadway were more European than American in flavor. The most popular show of the time was Franz Lehar's operetta, The Merry Widow, which debuted in Vienna in 1905 and was later done in an English version in New York.

Early in the century, Kern traveled frequently between New York and London. He was a partner in a British music publishing company and was well known among British producers. "The theater was so geared towards imported shows that it was just as difficult for an American to get into the business in New York as in London," says Pick.

"One of the ways Kern tried to break into theater was by working as a rehearsal pianist in London and New York," says Pick, recalling an account by Hammerstein. "After rehearsing the stale old songs, Kern very cleverly would casually play one of his own tunes. On hearing Kern's song, the director would say, 'Maybe we can find a place for that in the show.'"

Kern then began "Americanizing" European shows brought to Broadway, writing songs to freshen up the imported shows. "Producers felt British shows needed to be slightly revised for American interpolations had to be added," says John McGlinn, a Kern scholar and conductor in New York City, who was interviewed for the radio program. "Kern wrote interpolations, about two hundred—in the first ten years. He was a genius with melody and when audiences left the theater his songs were the ones they hummed." A number of these interpolations became hits, including "How'd You Like to Spoon with Me?" from the 1905 show, The Earl and the Girl.

His career took a new direction in 1914 when he introduced his song, "They Didn't Believe Me," in The Girl From Utah, a show with an English setting about a girl from Utah.

"'They Didn't Believe Me' was a watershed song," says Pick. "It was Kern's first big hit. It's a very contemporary, really a timeless song."

Before broadcasting, popular music composers earned their royalties from the sale of sheet music. To have a "hit" meant the sheet music for the song sold well in five-and- dimes and department stores. Families enjoyed music in their parlors where, in many cases, the woman of the house played the family piano.

"Kern's interpolating career ended in 1914, with the success of ‘They Didn't Believe Me,'" says McGlinn. "Critics of the day seemed to think a frontier had been crossed with this song. How Kern did it, no one can quantify his work was not an extension of the European sound. Something about "'They Didn't Believe Me' seems different, a jumping off point for something entirely new."

What Kern did was change the entire concept of the musical. It was an era of extravaganzas with large theaters, lavish sets and, literally, hundreds of chorus girls. It was the time of the Hippodrome and the Ziegfeld Follies.

Kern went in another direction. The Princess Theater was a small theater in New York used mostly for specialty shows and not doing very well financially. Kern's agent, Elizabeth Marbry, suggested to Kern an innovative, new kind of musical that would fit into the Princess. Kern, collaborating with Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, began producing musical comedies for the Princess Theater. Oh Boy!, a 1917 hit, was the most successful and included the popular song, "Til The Clouds Roll By"; Oh Lady! Oh Lady! in 1918 featured the song, "Before I Met You."

What made the Princess Theater shows new and different was their size: They were small in an era of hugeness. The theater seated three hundred people, only sixteen could fit on its stage, and the orchestra pit could hold only twelve. As such, the shows had smaller casts, limited sets, and were more intimate in nature. And the music and plays were different, too. "The songs had energy, the lyrics were slangy, and the feelings expressed were based on real emotions not contrived," says Pick. "The shows were escapist, they were witty, funny, innocent. Life in New York at that time was not easy, it could be raw and difficult. People went to the theater to have fun."

McGlinn notes that Dorothy Parker wrote in a review: "Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern are my new favorite indoor sport."

Things were changing in the nation as well, and as always, popular culture reflected the tenor of the times. "World War I was the big change," notes McGlinn. "German operettas were no longer popular in 1914. A patriotic spirit made people want American music."

McGlinn explains it further. "America was no longer bound by an artistic inferiority complex right about the time Kern started. At that time Kern is the older generation in music. He was the father figure and mentor to Gershwin, Rodgers, and Cole Porter. He was just enough older that all these younger composers looked up to him and suddenly there is an explosion of American songwriters about the time of World War I and there was a forum for them on Broadway."

Kern's involvement with the Princess ended in 1925 and Kern went on to collaborate on Broadway shows with Hammerstein, Otto Harbach, and others. He wrote other musicals and composed some American standards like "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" from Roberta. In 1939 Kern moved to Hollywood to write for films. Some of his famous film songs include "The Last Time I Saw Paris" from Lady Be Good, "The Way You Look Tonight" from Swing Time, and "Long Ago and Far Away" from Cover Girl. At the time of his death, he was working with Dorothy Fields on a score for a musical version of the Annie Oakley story. The work was turned over to Irving Berlin, who created Annie Get Your Gun.

The show about Kern is one of six hour-long radio programs produced by WHYY on the formative years and historical figures in the development of American popular music beginning in the late 1800s. The series traces the development of popular music from vaudeville to the golden age of Hollywood movie musicals. It also examines how recording, radio, and the movie-making industry have affected popular music.

"Popular songs from this period captured the imagination of a tremendously wide cross section of the American public, cutting across economic, social, and racial lines," says Pick. "There was a cross-fertilization rather than the isolation of musical styles we see today. It was a very exciting period. Kern was revolutionizing theater music, Berlin popular song, black musicians were codifying black folk music into the blues. It all came out of particular geographic places. But with the sheet music industry and birth of radio and recording people could hear it all. Scott Joplin publishes 'Maple Leaf Rag,' and suddenly in parlors across America people are playing 'Maple Leaf Rag.'"

Three programs in the series have been broadcast and three more, including the Kern segment, are scheduled to run this fall and winter.

The pilot program examined the musical legacy of Eubie Blake, who wrote in the same era as Kern. Blake's work reflects a fusion of black and white sound into the "new music" of jazz. In 1921 Blake and his partner Noble Sissle created Shuffle Along, an all-black musical that brought the rhythms of jazz to Broadway and legitimized black entertainment for white audiences.

The series also explored the era of movie musicals with shows about lyricist Dorothy Fields and composer Harry Warren. Fields collaborated with Jimmy McHugh on "On the Sunny Side Of The Street," with Kern on "The Way You Look Tonight," and with Cy Coleman on the score for Sweet Charity. Warren, a staff songwriter for Hollywood movie musicals in the 1930s, wrote hundreds of popular songs, including "We're In The Money," "Lullaby Of Broadway," "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby," and "Forty Second Street."

A program on Hoagy Carmichael is set for the centennial of his birth, November 22, 1999. Carmichael's Indiana roots stand in contrast to the more urban and ethnic origins of many other American songwriters; the show about him will explore the small-town and romantic sensibility Carmichael expressed in songs such as "Georgia," Rockin' Chair," and "Stardust."

The last show in the series focuses on African American entertainment, including ragtime, in the pre-jazz era. It profiles Bert Williams and George Walker, a song-and-dance act in nineteenth century minstrel shows, and it looks at the career of Will Marion Cook, the well-respected composer and conductor who, frustrated by discrimination, gave up his career in classical music and turned to the popular music of his day.

"I think listeners from different generations are responding to the songs on an emotional level," says Gross, "and are delighted to learn the stories of the composers who wrote them and the larger histories of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and movie musicals. The songs bring to life the history, and the history only enhances the pleasures of hearing these great songs."

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

The American Popular Song series produced by WHYY in Philadelphia received $225,190 in funding from NEH.