Saturday, 5 January 2013

I Didn't Write the Song, Not Really ...

As AA Milne would have phrased it, I am become obsessed with the music of Jerome Kern. This might have manifested itself in some form on this blog at a later date, but something has forced my hand. I speak of a programme devoted to Kern which was broadcast last night as part of Barry Manilow's They Write the Songs on BBC Radio 2 (listen to the 7/7/14 repeat here for one week).

This is a series in which that much-loved entertainer aims, in a chummy kind of way, to enlighten those of us who know nothing, or who seek to know a little more than the little they already know, about major contributors to the great American songbook (you know, that thing which was around before rock'n'roll).

This is the start of a second run, and the shows have been decently done: you don't need to be a Manilow fan to feel buoyed up by his good humour and enthusiasm for his subjects. As an entry level guide it's well pitched, and there isn't the sense of a celebrity name fronting a show in which he has nothing invested.

But there was something which annoyed me a great deal in last night's show and, as I couldn't find details of a producer on the BBC's site, I'm venting here. You don't have to read it but I have to write it (hey, that could be my slogan).

It concerns PG Wodehouse. Twice Bazza praised the lyrics of the song Bill and attributed them to Oscar Hammerstein, who merely did a bit of tinkering with Wodehouse's original words when the song was added to Show Boat (it had been mooted for various shows before that, from 1917 onwards). And the specific detail for which he praised Hammerstein, namely the colloquial
I love him because he's - I don't know...
Because he's just my Bill
definitely came from the pen or typewriter of Wodehouse, who was not mentioned at all in the programme. His friend and collaborator, librettist Guy Bolton, did rate a passing mention, which makes the omission odder.

Read the book Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern: The Men Who Made Musical Comedy by Lee Davis for more elucidation (LA Times review here), but the gist is that from around 1915 onwards this trio reinvented the musical comedy form, creating a new sort of show in which action and song were integrated.

Before that, if musicals weren't wholly in the fantasy land of operetta, they were in essence "revusicals" - not my invention but a term you will find bandied about in, for example, the pages of The Performer (the UK trade paper for variety artists) around that time: shows in which the narrative framework was the flimsiest of devices designed to contain artists more or less doing their set pieces.

Based on what I've heard and read so far, the shows produced by the trio for New York's Princess Theatre - Have a Heart, Oh Boy!, Leave It to Jane, Oh Lady! Lady!! and Sitting Pretty were the main ones - may still have been gossamer-light but even if their storylines usually centred around farcical misunderstandings involving several couples, they were at least consistent and character-led, with all songs and background music employed in the service of the story rather than interrupting its flow. Bolton (coincidentally a former architect) would thoroughly dismantle the original play source then reconstruct it with the songs in mind.

To compound matters, Manilow went on to repeat the familiar story of Oscar Hammerstein's wife berating some theatregoers she overheard saying that only Kern could have written Old Man River - Kern wrote "Dah dah, dah dah ...", she told them; her husband wrote Old Man River.

It might seem a small detail, and Kern did work with lots of lyricists, and New York's Princess Theatre, site of the Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern musicals, was indeed mentioned, but still. It ain't right, Mr Alfieri. And Wodehouse's contribution is always credited on every programme of every production of Show Boat - Hammerstein himself saw to that, according to Davis - so it ain't exactly the most arcane of secrets.
There is a sumptuous book of Wodehouse lyrics which I have seen in more than one London remainder bookshop, and some opening couplets still lift off the page. Here is a video review I found on youtube - not exactly the most searching of analyses, as the clip is there to hawk the book, but you do get to see the artefact itself:

I'd still recommend They Write the Songs as painless introductions to the makers of the American songbook - just had to get all that off my chest. You may not be a fan of Manilow (I wasn't, even before his gaffe) but his enjoyment comes over, and he surely doesn't need the money. But I'll bet Russell Davies choked on his cocoa if he was listening. And I hate to think how his Wodehouse-besotted predecessor Benny Green, who went so far as to write a biography of the great man, would have taken it.

Anyway. That's it said, so maybe we can all just forget it now and Move On. Please. As in the case of Laurel and Hardy's spell in the big house in Pardon Us, let this episode be merely a hiatus. It would be infantile indeed to dwell upon this matter any further.

And in fairness, at least Baz didn't credit the lyrics of the Kern song to Earl Okin, who refashioned it into a tale of a diner remonstrating with a waiter, entitling the result 'Djust My Bill. Perhaps fortunately, I couldn't find that on youtube nor yet a performance of the pre-Show Boat Bill, although if you can access Sp*tify you'll find an example of the latter here, sung by Sylvia McNair on a CD devoted to Wodehouse lyrics.

It's entitled The Land Where the Good Songs Go, also the name given to a recently issued (around Christmas time) CD of what I suppose has to be called a jukebox musical: a story concerning the fate of three couples, fashioned around a mix of early Kern songs and standards.

And yes, Bill features, along with the rather more robust (and wholly unconnected) ditty Bill's a Liar, the payoff of which is that the singer reveals she is uniquely placed to pronounce upon his failings, being his wife). Hard to judge how effectively those three stories work, as only a brief outline is provided in the sleevenotes and none of the dialogue has been retained for the recording. And I've been forced to listen to the songs randomly on a less-than-fully-featured MP3 player, which hasn't helped. But what I can say is that the performances and arrangements seem well judged: a light touch in both areas. The voices don't strain too hard for comic effect, and the arrangements don't swamp the singers.

Which is as it should be, because these are delicate songs in some cases, and they were designed to be sung in an intimate setting (the Princess Theatre had 299 seats), with a limited number of musicians, as opposed to more spectacular shows in other theatres.

Sp*tify has a version of Till the Clouds Roll By on another CD which illustrates what not to do: the singer tries to hijack the number by twisting the lyric and making it gospelly:
Helter skelter, I will be your shelter
Till the clouds roll by - I WILL!
she shouts, exultantly, at the end. It just don't fit; hear it for yourself here, if you can access Sp*tify.

Anyway, I may say more about Kern later, as I have ordered several CDs of his early songs, but no Cushman am I, so maybe not. Or not until I feel I have absorbed it enough to be of some use.

Next week Baz turns his attention to Cole Porter, so listen in and see if you can spot the next deliberate mistake. And of course, Manilow has previous when it comes to riding roughshod over lyricists - I mean, just what was wrong with this song as originally recorded?

But it doesn't seem right to end there, so let us direct our thoughts once again to Kern and Wodehouse and a song which pokes fun at the operetta songs around at the time:  the retreat which these lovers envision is situated not in some floriferous and romantic spot in Europe but in Flatbush, Brooklyn. This 1917 acoustic recording from the Library of Congress's National Jukebox predates the more faithful electrical recording process, but it still sounds pretty clear to these ears.

If you have large amounts of money to spare there is a more recent recording of this song which features Jerry Stiller, who played George's father in Seinfeld. This can be found on one of Ben Bagley's rare Jerome Kern Revisited albums; Bagley (below, with cat) made it his life's work to seek out forgotten songs, in some cases cut from shows or films simply because the star did not have the requisite range. A pile of LPs, later reconfigured as CDs, testify to his efforts, and they make for great listening because the singers are mostly actors, and these are proper performances. Ben Bagley is no more, but what a legacy. Listening to these albums recently led to the mild Jerome Kern obsession which sparked off this post.

By the way, just in case you've been wondering, the doctored pic atop this post is intended to depict Baz making amends with the shade of Wodehouse, although the photograph originally showed him with one Jason Alexander. Happy Festivus, everybody!

Posts about later programmes in the series:

Barry on Cole Porter
When Barry met Harry (Warren)
Dietz and Schwartz

Main Radio 2 website page about the series here.

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