Jerome Kern, Roberta New World Records 80760-2
Jerome Kern: Roberta
(New World 80760-2)
Fanfare Magazine–Review by Bill White (March/April 2015)
“Broadway shows, especially musicals, are ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow, or, as with Roberta, here long ago and gone long ago (1933–34). Some leave a broad wake behind, such as the monster hits Showboat (Jerome Kern, 1927) and Oklahoma! (Richard Rodgers, 1943). Others are short-lived and disappear with hardly a ripple. Roberta (Kern, 1933) falls somewhere between the two extremes. Moderately successful, it ran for 295 performances at the New Amsterdam Theater before closing in the summer of 1934, breaking even or maybe even making a small profit. Luckily for people interested in this type of show business archaeology, much of Kern’s written legacy has been preserved. We also have the published libretto by Otto Harbach, the published songs (Kern with lyrics by Harbach), and, for this New World recording, original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, one of the legends of Broadway. Often, as here, the orchestrator would provide the balance of the score, the overture (not provided here, if any), the underscoring (music without singing, often leading into and out of songs), the entr’actes, and the dance numbers.
“Even with all the materials available from Roberta, there prove to be problems with any reasonably accurate reconstruction. Several original Bennett orchestrations are missing and had to be rewritten based on the rental part scores. During pre-Broadway tryouts in Philadelphia, the whiff of coming disaster arose; the director (Kern himself) was replaced, cast changes were made, and the show was almost totally restaged. Many of the changes were last-minute, so it is unclear how much the libretto we have today reflects what was actually performed. The second male lead, comedian Bob Hope, kept ad-libbing and changing his lines. He was getting big laughs, so much of it stayed in the show. This particular musical also calls for an on-stage band (led on-stage by Hope, the original group also including Fred MacMurray). This group accompanies the singers on several numbers, and the musicians apparently worked out their own arrangements, which are now lost. Even the instruments included in this group proved to be guesswork. It is indeed conjectural with what kind of accuracy this recording reflects the actual musical production of 1933. Just enough (rewritten) dialogue is provided here to outline the story and serve to transition in and out of the musical numbers. As an added kicker, Roberta was made into a Hollywood film in 1935, a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with new songs by Kern and lyricist Dorothy Fields, and one number rescued from a previous Kern show, ‘I Won’t Dance’ (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II). Two of these songs, ‘I Won’t Dance’ and ‘Lovely To Look At’ are among the most popular now associated with the show, along with ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ and are included on this disc in an appendix, with a few other numbers changed or dropped.
“As on previous Broadway show recordings, New World Records uses the Orchestra of Ireland, this time directed by Broadway musical expert Rob Berman. They play Kern and Bennett’s music quite well, and sound properly Broadwayesque, especially using the original orchestrations. Two of the women singers in this cast I reviewed previously, singing in New World’s reconstruction of Dearest Enemy (Rodgers, 1925). Annalene Beechey here sings Stephanie, and does so very well. Her compatriot Kim Chriswell takes on the Polish chanteuse Scharwenka, providing a bit too much Polish and a bit too little chanteuse. Jason Graae is a standout as Huck Haines, not trying to play Bob Hope or Fred Astaire, but suave and debonair in his own manner in dialogue and singing. Aunt Minnie, who unfortunately was reduced to only one song in Philadelphia, is sung excellently by opera star Diana Montague. Laura Daniel is properly smarmy as socialite Sophie, but I felt that Patrick Cummings plays John Kent a little too naïvely, a “gosh, gee” kind of portrayal, instead of creating a real persona. Maybe he just had bad lines.
“I must again commend New World Records for the thoroughness of its research, the quality of the booklet notes, and the overall excellence of their product. There has never been a Broadway revival of the stage show Roberta, and Alice Duer Miller’s book is long out of print. This show is fading away too, along with much of our American Broadway heritage. If you care, as I do, it might be a good idea to snatch up a copy of this New World set before Roberta is gone for good. Recommended.”
Sentinel Source–Review by Frank Behrens (November 9, 2014)
“George Gershwin was the genius of American composers of popular music, and Irving Berlin was the most prolific.
“And I believe Jerome Kern comes in third with one foot in the European operetta tradition and the other in the Broadway musical. His 1933 musical Roberta is a good example. It ran 295 performances and was made into film versions in 1935 with the same title, but with changes, and then again in 1952 as Lovely To Look At, with even more changes. While there are several recordings of excerpts from Roberta, New World Records has released a two-CD set that tries to get as close to the original version as possible.
“The problem stems from all the usual changes that were made after opening night. The popular ‘Lovely To Look At’ was added to the 1935 film, although many people believe this song was always in the show. Also, ‘Don’t Ask Me Not to Sing,’ written for and dropped from The Three Sisters, was added to Roberta because it fit Bob Hope’s style — even several of his ad libs were added to the dialogue. And this is only part of the problem of faithful restoration of a vintage musical.
“As for the recording itself, it has just enough dialogue to keep continuity of plot, all the dialogue that is underscored and occasionally nearly drowned out by the music, and all of the songs that started as or became part of the original run. Several additional songs and variant versions are kept as bonus tracks.
“The Orchestra of Ireland is conducted by Rob Berman. The lead singers are Annalene Beechey, Kim Criswell, Patrick Cummings, Jason Graaf and Diana Montague. The mostly young-sounding voices are appropriate to the corny scenario in the dialogue and in the vocals. The plot, in brief, is about the passing of the firm Gowns by Roberta to a young man and the show he creates to sell the line. The actual show is left to the listeners’ imaginations on a CD but the music is both lovely in spots and uses popular songs of the day in others.
“The two big songs show Kern at his best. ‘Yesterdays’ could be transferred to an operetta, while ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ has a melody that could be in an operetta but vernacular lyrics that place it firmly on Broadway.
“Much of the score is jazzy, which is pure Broadway, so classifying Roberta is not easy. But highly recommending this set is very easy!”
Playbill–ON THE RECORD–Review by Steven Suskin (October 12, 2014)
“While the music of most Broadway composers lost its spark in their later years — Rodgers, Berlin, Porter and Styne immediately come to mind, along with some more recent names — Kern was an exception; of course, he died at a younger age than the others. (The composer was born in 1885; began to write hits in 1905; began to write hit musicals in 1915; and wrote his masterwork, Show Boat, in 1927. He died in 1945.) While the Show Boat score remains immortal, as they say, I find post-1928 Kern richer and more flavorful than his excellent earlier work. Sitting here, I tried to do a back-of-the-envelope list of ten immortal post-Show Boat songs, and found that I’d written down 13 stunners that all belong — with none from Roberta.
“The finest of the Roberta songs is ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ with that melodically melancholy, extended (eight bar) opening phrase and a relatively startling bridge. But oh, those lyrics! The singer — a Russian princess working as a dress designer in Paris — tells us that her friends told her that love is blind ‘so I chaffed them and I gaily laughed.’ Just how do you ‘chaff’ your friends? And even if it makes sense on the page, it doesn’t come across when timed to the music. ‘Now, laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide.’ Beware of friends who laughingly deride your tears, I say. The lyrics — and the pedestrian libretto — came from 60-year-old Otto Harbach, who had been writing operettas since 1908 and who had personally trained young Oscar Hammerstein on the craft with no less than ten collaborations. But Oscar wasn’t part of Roberta, so Harbach was left to chaff on his own.
” ‘Yesterdays’ — which shares the Russian-flavored mood of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ even though the singer (the title character) was a displaced American — is musically pleasing, but Harbach again goes all purply. Yesterdays are ‘happy sweet sequestered days,’ while Aunt Minnie — an elderly dame who dies in the first act — tells us that ‘youth was mine, truth was mine, joyous free and flaming life forsooth was mine.’ Flaming life forsooth? Oh, well. There are other pleasing items from Kern, including ‘You’re Devastating’ (which comes from an earlier Hammerstein musical) and ‘The Touch of Your Hand’ (which makes effective use of a repeated musical phrase), but nothing whatsoever approaching the peaks of late-Kern songs like ‘Why Was I Born?’ ‘The Song Is You,’ ‘The Way You Look Tonight,’ ‘I’m Old Fashioned,’ or ‘All the Things You Are.’
“The dialogue is included on the two-CD set, as well, and the story is pretty mild. A college halfback goes to Paris — with his bandleader sidekick — and inherits a top fashion house from his black sheep aunt. Devastated with love for a pushy American heiress, he ignores the dress designer who loves him, repeatedly dropping her when the American gal bothers to look his way. Until the final scene when he learns that the modiste is actually a Princess, so he decides he loves her and everything is okay.
“The music sounds fine, thanks — one would have to guess — to the presence of Encores!-own Rob Berman, who knows just what to do and how to do, as does Larry Moore, who has done reconstruction work for many similar projects. Otherwise, this CD features a group called the Orchestra of Ireland (which in a brief tour of the Internet I couldn’t find any information on). The album was recorded in Dublin, presumably for economic reasons. If the only way we can get full recordings of vintage musicals like Roberta with original orchestrations is by using overseas orchestras, so be it.
“The cast, though, which mixes Irish and Americans, is not up to what we are accustomed to. In this case, only Jason Graae — playing the bandleader role created in 1933 by Bob Hope — is in full control of the material. Graae (pronounced Graah, in case you’re wondering) is amazingly well suited to these pre-Oklahoma! musicals. He has appeared on countless recordings and in numerous concerts, and always manages to make the material sound fresh and appealing. Annalene Beechey, who started her career playing Cosette in Les Misérables in Dublin, does well as the princess with smoke in her eyes, but these two are the only standouts in this group. Also on hand, as the Polish spitfire Scharwenka, is Kim Criswell who overdoes it and then some.”
Opera News–Review by Eric Myers (2/1/2015)
“Even for musical-theater buffs, Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s classic hit show Roberta (1933) has always retained an air of mystery. Roberta was created on Broadway during the era before cast albums, and its subsequent film versions — RKO’s Astaire-Rogers treatment in 1935 and MGM’s Lovely to Look At (1952) — differ markedly from the original. Moreover, the show is almost never revived. A few of its songs became hits, most notably ‘Yesterdays’ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ as did ‘I Won’t Dance’ and ‘Lovely to Look At,’ both composed specially for the 1935 film. But a hearing of the complete Broadway score was something that few have experienced since the 1930s.
“Now, thanks to the heroic efforts of the JMV Art Preservation Foundation, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trust, and New World Records’ The Foundations of the American Musical Theater series, we have a two-CD reconstruction that is the closest we are ever likely to get to hearing Roberta in its original form. Years of painstaking work by a team of musicologists and musical-theater historians have restored this gem of a score to us, and it’s presented here by a top-notch group of performers.
“Based on the novel Gowns by Roberta by Alice Duer Miller, this has a plot as frustratingly fluffy as most musicals of the pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein-era. Set mostly in Paris, it places its singularly naïve, corn-fed American leading man, John Kent, amongst expatriate Russian nobility in the setting of a fashionable modiste salon. Fortunately he brings his wisecracking bandleader best friend Huckleberry Haines along, a role that catapulted the young Bob Hope to stardom and is here done expertly by the gifted musical-comedy veteran Jason Graae.
“Going for completeness, the restoration team has included many of the dialogue scenes from the book, along with their original orchestral underscoring. Because the dance band figures prominently in the plot, we’re also treated to plenty of piquant early-‘30s dance-combo arrangements to go with the more sweeping thirty-one-piece original pit band accompaniments by Robert Russell Bennett, here played by the Orchestra of Ireland and conducted with period aplomb by musical-theater specialist Rob Berman.
“Patrick Cummings does what he can with the thankless leading-man role. The slack is taken up not only by Graae but by the wonderful musical farceuse Kim Criswell in the role of the Russian expatriate singer Clementina Schwarenka, originally created by Polish comedienne Lyda Roberti. Criswell goes for an all-out Roberti imitation, every ‘h’ sounding like a raucous prelude to an expectoration. (Lyricist/book writer Harbach made sure to write as many ‘h’s as possible into Roberti’s songs and dialogue.) Annalene Beechey sings sweetly (though not with true period style) as the love interest, Stephanie, and British mezzo Diana Montague turns up in the brief but key role of Madame Roberta, doing a lovely rendition of ‘Yesterdays.’ Playing an American, Montague is astonishingly at ease in her dialogue scenes, her American accent authentic and unforced.
“Offering a cornucopia of lesser-known but delightful numbers including ‘I’ll Be Hard to Handle,’ ‘You’re Devastating,’ ‘The Touch of Your Hand,’ and ‘Let’s Begin,’ this recording is not only a valuable historic document, but an utterly delightful time tunnel back to a front row-center seat at one of the most glamorous Broadway musicals of the 1930s. Talmudically detailed notes by Larry Moore and Sean O’Donoghue enhance the experience.”
Sound Advice Talkin’ Broadway–Review by Rob Lester (October 16, 2014)
“Focused on high fashion, Gowns by Roberta was the original title of the 1933 musical shortened to just its last word, but, like a gown altered, shortened, repaired, and festooned with decorative bits, it’s changed. A new studio cast album goes back to the original design and brings new colors, too.
“Arguably, the real star of the new studio cast of Roberta is the accomplished composer who sadly collapsed on the streets of New York in 1945 and shortly thereafter died, just as he was about to embark on writing the music for a brand new show called Annie Get Your Gun. His name was Jerome Kern and he was a veritable fountain of rich melody, much of it varied and versatile, allowing it to adapt to different tempi and stylings. After all is said and sung in this dialogue-heavy rendition, his graceful, long-lined creations—and a few sprightly ones —are the great joys here, especially being able to have them sweep over us, some reprised in numerous guises. Glory in the original and full orchestrations of the masterful Robert Russell Bennett (many pages survived), or reconstructed with love and educated guesswork, with the large Orchestra of Ireland conducted by Rob Berman. Certainly he is more the star than the title character, as dress designer Roberta is just in one scene and dies before we’re very far into the first act.
“The lyrics of Otto Harbach haven’t aged as well as the music. They tend to be formal and flowery or plain (such as ‘… how I long for “The Touch of Your Hand”/ I’ve loved you so/You’ll never know” or ‘To think of mating I never could dare … You were destined for purple-hued throne rooms…’ in ‘You’re Devastating,’ whose melody was recycled from 1927’s Blue Eyes). One of the more compact lyrics, which seems to flow, goes ‘I’ll Be Hard to Handle/ I promise you that./And if you complain/ Here’s one little Jane that will leave you flat.’ But the words for ‘I’ll Be Hard to Handle’ were handled not by Harbach, but by Bernard Dougall, a relative who wanted a start in the business. Granted, some of Kern’s work has a stateliness that might suggest something “poetic.” And it was the 1930s, and Harbach’s work in sentimental operettas had paved his path.
“While the cast has some pleasant singing voices, there isn’t much potent star quality to hold candles to the light shed on the main numbers by more distinctive voices I’ve been living with for years on several studio cast albums and film adaptations (such personalities as Jack Cassidy, Kaye Ballard, Alfred Drake, Kitty Carlisle, Gordon MacRae, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller) and numerous pop recordings of some numbers. And some of the spoken sections show underwhelming acting, with some folks even on the wooden side or just defeated by the duller dialogue (also Harbach) and not terribly engaging plot, with the women mostly stuck being capricious, coy, annoying or annoyed.
“But Kern is one of THE giants of musical theatre and any chance to hear hitherto unrecorded or expanded versions of his work, in such a complete package, is to be relished. This is history—and hearing even the much-recorded pieces in as close to their originally intended form is worth the investment and time for serious musical theatre admirers as well as the oft-scoffed-at ‘completists’ who want every note and word and variation. These are not just crumbs. There are a few lost or virtually lost songs and a few miles of lyric-free orchestral music, some of which is underscoring for the dialogue for these not-so-engaging characters. Since the original production was never recorded, and other far briefer studio albums often had their own out-of-period arrangements, well, this is valuable for perspective and context.
“Discoveries for most listeners will be some instrumentals not mainly based on the major songs, numbers cut or trimmed or re-shaped—Do you know ‘Hot Spot’ or ‘Armful of Trouble’ (a splendidly swirling, climbing tune whose words tell us ‘a storm is not always harmful’) or ‘Clementina?’ Those only familiar with the film versions may not know that songs were dropped, some lyrics were rewritten (by Dorothy Fields), and a couple of items heard on film were not in the original score at all. The remake, which changed most of the plot, was retitled Lovely to Look At. The song by that title and ‘I Won’t Dance’ (a revised version of a London musical’s song, added at Fred Astaire’s request) are part of the appendix.
“In the cast, Jason Graae is the shining light. In the more comedic role created by Bob Hope early in his career, inherited on film by Astaire, his character is less brittle or bitter, carrying no axe wanting grinding. He gets some of the better lines (Hope ad libbed some which were put into the script). But the actor can make sweet lemonade out of even the oldest dried-up lemons. He’s at home. Veteran of many studio cast albums of period material, Graae is adept at walking the finest of lines between winking at the material and trusting it, staying boyishly enthused, making it work with gee-whiz wizardry. The mischievous twinkle in his eye somehow translates onto disc. Narrating a fashion show, he rolls consonants around on his tongue and can make the most of just announcing ‘Number Thirty-six’ and ‘Silllllverrr Sssstrrreakk.’ And for singing, he employs the same skills.
“While Kim Criswell and her well-done bits with over-the-top Russian accent and aggressive personality are at first a welcome burst of clownish energy, a little goes a long way, and she’s got a fair amount to do, so it gets to be exhaustingly redundant. And on some notes and phrases, the heavy accent comes and goes. In an uneven performance, Annalene Beechey still manages to rescue the warhorse ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ from being overdone and self-pitying. Restraint can be a good thing! And in the title role, Diana Montague gets the bittersweet ‘Yesterdays’ and brings some grace and gravitas to it. Several singers here have appeared on other studio cast albums, such as Eileen and Dearest Enemy by this very valuable label of New World Records.
“While the booklet is 47 pages and includes some lyrics, a few photos, extensive credits, a plot synopsis of this play (based on a novel) set in France, plus background on the show and its many changes and variations, rewritten scenes, and behind-the-scenes development (like the key staff people who were replaced, characters written out, actors let go or reassigned and who replaced the stars when they moved on), a basic bio of Kern, a surprisingly lengthy history of World War I and beyond, focusing on Paris and the fashion industry. We get a track-by-track rundown of whether or not each has the original orchestration, a later one, a necessitated new or ‘reconstructed one’ and from which sources. And a one-paragraph-each who’s who in the cast and a selected bibliography. The whole booklet is also available on the label’s website, where you can also sample this two-disc set.
“The orchestra puts plenty of kick in the crisp percussive accents, tinkly piano mini-runs, soaring string lines, lush harmonies, heavy on the melody lines of these solidly constructed songs. Even some scene change music probably shrugged off as audiences chatted is a delight on its own. So, yes, there are sufficient delights to put Roberta in perspective, in period, and in the music player.”
Theater Shelf–Review by Bill Hirschman (December 5, 2014)
“New World Records has just released the latest in their ‘The Foundations of the American Musical Theater’ project: a modern recording of the full score for Jerome Kern’s 1933 Roberta with enough of the libretto of Otto Harbach to utilize all the underscoring in the reconstruction of the charts by legendary orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. Rob Berman leads the Orchestra of Ireland (recording sessions were in Dublin as well as in New York) with soloists like Annalene Beechey, Patrick Cummings, Kim Criswell, Diana Montague and Jason Graae in the role originated by Bob Hope. (That role was then played by Fred Astaire in the movie version … interesting pedigree.)
“The score gave us the standard ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,’ but there are so many lush and lovely melodies that that classic almost seems just one more magical item. The two-disc set includes a good deal of dialogue, so listening to it is more akin to hearing a two hour and 21 minute radio program than a record. Track-by-track notes help you imagine exactly what was taking place on the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre in 1933 and 34.”
Cast Album Reviews–Reviewed by Richard Barrios (August 4, 2015)
“Far too many of Jerome Kern’s shows have not been fully served in the recording studio. Happily, in 2014, Kern’s divine score for Roberta was taken off that list with yet another painstaking reconstruction from the intrepid arranger/editor Larry Moore and the good folk at New World Records. From beginning to end, we are given a full sense of how the show worked, with much of the dialogue included along with the music. There are frequent reprises, among them an especially beguiling “The Touch of Your Hand” for female trio. Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations sound as beautiful now as they did in 1933, if not more so, and conductor Rob Berman and the Orchestra of Ireland gives them all the care and lilt they deserve. Nor is the cast any kind of a letdown: Annalene Beachey is lovely as Stephanie, and even manages a credible Russian accent; Jason Graae is swell in the Hope/Astaire role; and Patrick Cummings makes a sturdy, romantic John. The role of Scharwenka is probably impossible to underplay, and few musical theater recording mavens will be surprised at how far Kim Criswell goes with both the accent and what can gently be termed some exuberant transitions from one vocal register to another. Opera veteran Diana Montague sings a sumptuous “Yesterdays,” and Laura Daniel rates a bouquet for her purring, creamy-toned, absolutely despicable Sophie. With this much class and skill, Roberta soars as a worthy musical comedy, instead of some folderol with good tunes. Kern wins out, and so does the listener. All that’s missing is a fashion show. — R.B.”