ACCORDING to a joint resolution passed by Congress, Jerome Kern was ‘the father of American musical theater’. He wrote around 700 songs and more than 100 complete scores for shows and films in a career lasting from 1902 until his death in 1945.
Kern was born in New York in 1885 to a Jewish German immigrant father and an American Jewish mother of Bohemian descent. She taught him to play the piano. He started writing songs at school when he was 16 but his father insisted he join him in the family retail business. Asked to order two pianos, Kern ordered 200. This seems to have persuaded his father that his future did not lie in commerce, and Kern studied music in New York and Heidelberg.
He started work as a rehearsal pianist in Broadway theatres and as a song-plugger for Tin Pan Alley music publishers, playing tunes to prospective buyers of sheet music. At this time, British productions dominated Broadway. Kern was hired in 1904 to adapt one of these shows, Mr Wix of Wickham, for the Broadway stage by ‘Americanizing’ some of the numbers and writing additional songs of his own. An unnamed but prescient critic wrote: ‘Who is this man Jerome Kern, whose music towers in an Eiffel way above the average primitive hurdy-gurdy accompaniment of our present-day musical comedy?’
From 1905 on, he spent long periods in London, contributing songs to West End shows such The Beauty of Bath (1906, with lyricist P G Wodehouse) and becoming a devoted Anglophile. In 1909 he met Eva Leale, the daughter of a Walton-on-Thames pub landlord. They married in 1910. While in London, he secured a contract from the American impresario Charles Frohman to provide songs to add to Broadway versions of London shows, and by the outbreak of World War I, more than a hundred of Kern’s songs had been used in about 30 productions.
In May 1915, Kern was due to sail with Frohman from New York to London on board the Lusitania, but he overslept after playing poker late into the night and missed the departure. Frohman was among the 1,198 drowned when the ship was torpedoed off the south coast of Ireland.
In 1915 Kern became involved with one of the smallest Broadway theatres, the Princess, seating just 299. The ‘Princess Theatre shows’ which he wrote with librettist Guy Bolton included Very Good Eddie (1915) and were noted for their clever, coherent plots and integrated scores. In 1917 P G Wodehouse joined the team. Oh Boy! (1917) and Oh Lady! Lady!! (1918) followed.
In February 1918, Dorothy Parker wrote in Vanity Fair: ‘Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern are my favorite indoor sport. I like the way they go about a musical comedy. I like the way the action slides casually into the songs. I like the deft rhyming of the song that is always sung in the last act by two comedians and a comedienne. And oh, how I do like Jerome Kern’s music.’
Soon after that Kern and Wodehouse disagreed about money, and Kern left. Without him, the Princess Theatre shows came to an end.
During the 1920s Kern created at least one show every year, and in 1920 he had success with Sally, which he wrote with lyricist Otto Harbach. (I am not sure whether Harbach was Jewish – his parents were immigrants from Denmark). One of the songs was Look for the Silver Lining, performed here in 1929 by Marilyn Miller (who was in the Broadway production) with Alexander Gray.
A major turning point was meeting Oscar Hammerstein in 1925.
Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II was born in New York City into a leading theatrical family. His father was theatrical manager William Hammerstein, often credited as the inventor of the pie-in-the-face gag. His uncle, Arthur Hammerstein, was a successful Broadway producer, and his grandfather was German theatre impresario Oscar Hammerstein I. His father was from a Jewish family, while his mother Alice (née Nimmo) was the daughter of Scottish and English parents.
His father did not want Oscar, known as Ockie, to follow him into the theatre, so the young man went to Columbia University to study law. There he met two other would-be theatricals, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. After a year of law school Hammerstein dropped out to work with his uncle as an assistant stage manager.
In 1919 Hammerstein’s first play, The Light, was produced by his Uncle Arthur; it lasted four performances. Undaunted, he continued to write lyrics and librettos, often working with Otto Harbach.
The first collaboration between Kern and Hammerstein, to which Otto Harbach contributed, was Sunny in 1925. It included the song Who? sung here by Binnie Hale and Jack Buchanan who starred in the London production of 1926.
The second Kern-Hammerstein collaboration could scarcely have been more different. Kern wanted to adapt Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat, which involved interracial marriage, wife desertion, alcoholism and gambling, for the musical stage. Although the subject matter was unheard of in the escapist world of musical comedy, he persuaded Hammerstein to adapt it and the renowned Florenz Ziegfeld to produce it. Nearly everyone else, including Ferber, thought Kern and Hammerstein had lost their minds.
The show had a try-out tour, during which it was cut from its original running time of four and half hours to three. It opened on Broadway on December 27, 1927. Nothing like the opening scene of black stevedores working on the Mississippi had ever been seen on Broadway. According to the theatre historian John Kenrick: ‘After the opening night audience filed out of the Ziegfeld Theatre in near silence, Ziegfeld thought his worst fears had been confirmed. He was pleasantly surprised when the next morning brought ecstatic reviews and long queues at the box office.’
Many consider the score, which includes Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, to be Kern’s greatest. It also has the lovely song Bill, which was originally written by Kern and P G Wodehouse for Oh Lady! Lady!! in 1917 but cut before the show opened. The words were revised by Hammerstein for Show Boat. Here it is performed by Helen Morgan in the 1936 film version.
In January 1929, with Show Boat still playing on Broadway, Kern made headlines for reasons unconnected with music. He was an avid collector of rare books, including inscribed first editions and manuscript material of eighteenth and nineteenth century authors such as Shelley, Keats and Byron, but he decided that the library was too much of a responsibility so he sold it at auction. The sale made $1,729,462. The next day he passed a bookshop, saw a rare volume and bought it – out of habit, he is supposed to have confessed.
The same year Kern ventured to Hollywood to supervise the filming of Sally and later Sunny. He never attempted such challenging material as Show Boat again. He and Hammerstein wrote Music in the Air in 1932. It included the song I’ve Told Every Little Star, which was first recorded by Jack Denny and His Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra, featuring the vocals of Paul Small,
and The Song is You, performed here by Lawrence Tibbett.
In 1933 Kern teamed up with Harbach to write Roberta, which featured the immortal Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
I have chosen this version by the English pianist Billy Mayerl, because I have a faint memory of my mother taking me to see him in one of the Manchester department stores when I was five or six, and he played this. Thanks, mum.
In 1935, Kern returned to Hollywood, where he worked on several films of his own stage shows, including Roberta (1935), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for which he and Dorothy Fields composed the new song Lovely to Look at. In this clip it is conveniently teamed with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Kern and Fields’s next film was Swing Time (1936), featuring the song The Way You Look Tonight, which won the Academy Award in 1936 for best song.
Fields later recalled: ‘I would run over in the morning and Jerry would be out doing something, some bit of business like going to the Farmers Market or looking for an antique, and I’d have coffee with Eva in the breakfast room, and he’d come in, we’d sit down and start to work and then he’d think of something else he wanted to do, like finding out from a bookie what horses were good in the third race at Santa Anita, so he’d knock off work to do that for a little while. And every night I think for two years when the game Monopoly first came out, we used to play every single night – Eva Kern, Jerry Kern, Betty Kern [their daughter] and Johnny or Dick Green who were around the house at the time and myself and we used to play till two or three in the morning.’
Kern maintained his Broadway connections and in 1939 he and Hammerstein wrote Very Warm for May (1939). It was a flop, but it included the classic All The Things You Are, sung here by Jo Stafford.
In 1939 Kern had a heart attack and was told by his doctors to concentrate henceforth on his film work, which was considered to be less stressful. He and Hammerstein did not work together again on a full-scale production, though the friendship remained. We will encounter Hammerstein again in a later article.
In his last Hollywood musicals, Kern worked with several new partners. One was Ira Gershwin on Cover Girl starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly (1944) for which they composed the hit ballad Long Ago (and Far Away).
In the autumn of 1945, now aged 60, Kern returned to New York City to oversee auditions for a revival of Show Boat, and began to work on the score for the musical Annie Get Your Gun. On November 5 he had a stroke in the street. Dorothy Fields recalled that she, his wife and Hammerstein stayed at the hospital with him for six days. She said:
‘He never regained consciousness, although they tried so hard to get through to him. And finally someone said Oscar, why don’t you go upstairs to Jerry’s room and sing the song he loved better than any song he ever wrote, and that song was I’ve Told Every Little Star.
‘And so Oscar leaned over and sang it very softly into Jerry’s ear. And Oscar says sometimes well maybe I did see the flicker of an eyelid. Maybe he didn’t but Jerry never did regain consciousness and he died on the Sunday morning in November.’
Tomorrow: Rodgers and Hart, Part I