Jerome Kern After Saddler — Kern Finds Robert Russell Bennett

Jerome Kern recovered from his loss of Frank Saddler and, prior to 1923, wrote some unremarkable shows with Stephen Jones (also in the T.B. Harms stable of composers and orchestrators) (Good Morning, Dearie, 1921.36) and (The Bunch and Judy Show, 1922.45).  No one is credited with working with Kern on Sally (1920.44), although it would likely have been someone from Harms.  Then with some hesitancy, Kern teamed up with Robert Russell Bennett for Stepping Stones (1923.40).  

Robert Russell Bennett, Broadway and Hollywoood Orchestrator

Robert Russell Bennett

Born in 1894 in Kansas City, MO, Bennett contracted polio at age five but was able to limit its damaging effects.  By age ten, he was an accomplished musician and went on to play a number of instruments in the Kansas City Orchestra.  He went to New York and started to work for the publisher, G. Schirmer in 1918.  In the same year, he enlisted in the Army.  When he returned to New York in 1919, he found no work at Schirmer, and he moved over to Harms.  At first, he was asked to provide stock arrangements for songs such as Cole Porter’s “An Old Fashioned Garden” and George Gershwin’s “Swanee.”  

We are providing a  clip of  Al Jolson’s rendition of “Swanee” from the movie Rhapsody in Blue, and it is accurate to the extent it shows how singers in 1919, like Jolson, performed these songs, called minstrel songs.  During that period of time, even African-Americans, such as the famous Bert Williams, applied cork to their face.  Concentrate on the performance, especially the opening verse.  Watch and listen to one of the greatest stage performers sing one of Gershwin’s best songs.

Bennett’s Career–With and Without Kern

Bennett soon was assigned to orchestrate smaller shows on Broadway, such as Harold Levey’s The Clinging Vine (1922.47).

Prior to working with Kern on Stepping Stones, Bennett worked with other composers, such as Vincent Youmans on Wildflower (1923.05).  Even after Stepping Stones, Bennett continued to work with others, such as Youmans on Lollipop (1924.02), Rudolf Friml on Rose Marie (1924.28) and Gershwin on Lady, Be Good! (1924.43).  

After working with Bennett on Stepping Stones, it is believed that Kern asked Harms to assign Bennett to all Kern shows from that point on.  Perhaps Kern never developed a strong personal friendship with Bennett, as he had with Saddler, but Kern understood Bennett’s ability as a top-notch musician and orchestrator; and Kern maintained that professional relationship until his death in 1945.

Kern’s On Again/Off Again Love Affair With Operetta Music

Kern needed someone with Bennett’s breadth of musical understanding because Kern would return again and again to his operetta roots.  We see this in Show Boat in 1927, with such songs as “Make Believe,” “Why Do I Love You” and “You Are Love.”  Let’s listen to Alan Jones, singing “You Are Love” in the 1936 film version.

This same tendency to return to his operetta roots can be seen in Kern’s last Broadway hit show Roberta (1933.26), with the songs “Touch of Your Hand,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Yesterdays” and “You’re Devastating.”  We are including soprano Diana Montague singing “Yesterdays” from the restoration recording in 2014 by New World Records.

Did Kern’s Roberta represent a backward step from modern, musical theatre?  We don’t think so.  We think it is just part of the process, the struggle to find musical expression, to translate the composer’s dreams into vocal reality.  Saddler orchestrated Kern’s Have a Heart very well in 1917, but Kern needed Bennett to orchestrate Show Boat a decade later, in 1927.  Was Bennett’s work on Show Boat a foretaste of the work he would provide on the great Rodgers & Hammerstein hits to come?  We think so.

Bennett’s Relationship With Kern

It would not be fair to Bennett to leave the subject of relationships without adding a little bit of color.  Neither Kern nor Richard Rodgers were easy men to work with; they had strong personalities; and, at the height of their power, they demanded obedience.  We adore their music; but we need to temper our praise for talent with an understanding of temperament.

An example of Kern’s tight control over Bennett was illustrated in 1924, when Bennett was working on another project with Friml (Rose Marie). Bennett recalls that:

“They [Max and Louis Dreyfus at Harms] assigned us [staff orchestrators at Harms] to whichever performance we worked for, took care of our bills for work as we delivered it, no matter who eventually paid for it.  Kern, of course, had his choice of any of us he wanted.

“Conflicts of our production with another were always possible, but in fact seldom got to be a serious problem.

“While Rose Marie was in rehearsal and my department was under full steam, I got a call from Jerome Kern asking me to meet him in Max Dreyfus’ office the next morning.

“We met and went in to see Max together.  Jerry, looking like a tough little bulldog, walked up to Max’s desk while I stood ill-at-ease in whatever shadow I could find.

“Kern said, ‘I hear Russell Bennett is working on some other show.  I need him on mine.’

“Max said, ‘Are you in rehearsal?”

“Kern:  ‘No, but I need him.’  (Silence)  ‘What are you going to do about it?’

“Now I was really ill at ease, because I had just heard that Rudolf Friml had tried to arrange his music in Rose Marie for the orchestra.  Arthur Hammerstein had heard some kind of rehearsal of it and threw it out of the show.

“That just about doubled my load of work for the out-of-town opening.

“Kern stood there looking at Max Dreyfus in the eye like Wotan killing Hunding [Act 2 of Die Valkure]—except that Hunding died and Max didn’t.  Max finally said quietly, ‘Well, Jerry, it will be the way you want it.’

“Jerry didn’t stomp out, but the effect was the same.  I waited and said to Max, ‘What shall I do?’

“He said, ‘Go ahead with what you’re doing.’ ”

However, when it came time for Rose Marie to go on the road for tryouts (normally, an orchestrator goes along to help with the constant changes in script and score), Maurice De Packh was assigned to go on the road with the rest of the Rose Marie team.

Bennett always exercised a great deal of independence in his professional development and was studying in France in 1926.

“In the fall of our first year there [1926], the Great God Kern, flanked by my own personal demi-god Max Dreyfus, got me:  They were doing a setting of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat with the adaptation and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.  I don’t remember that they offered me half of the Guaranty Trust Company or anything else beside steamboat tickets and the per-page rate for orchestration, but we locked up our little apartment and, as French residents, paid a visit to New York.”

Bennett’s Post Script to the Kern Era—Pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein Era

When he was abroad, around 1927, Bennett went to London to meet with Rodgers and Larry Hart.  It was a chance for Bennett and Rodgers to get to know one another.  When Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II became partners in 1942, it also quickly became apparent that Bennett would be used extensively.  After all, he had worked with Hammerstein on Sunny, Show Boat, Music in the Air, so Hammerstein knew Bennett (much more than Oscar knew Rodgers).

It is also true that Bennett had come to know Hammerstein.  In his own words, Bennett once described Hammerstein as “my closest and dearest friend in show business, all his years.”  In terms of his professional assessment of Hammerstein, after reading the lyrics for “Ol’ Man River,”  Bennett said, “I was convinced that he was sent here to be a poet.  Of course all the successful songwriters are poets and musicians in their souls, but why aren’t we entitled to at least one or two Whitmans out of all that mass of talent?”

In many ways, the relationship of these three men could be considered to be a marriage made in musical-theatre-heaven.

Eventually, not only did Bennett orchestrate all of the Rodgers & Hammerstein great Broadway shows, but he went on to orchestrate and partially compose the magnificent Victory at Sea suite of music.  As Rodgers said in his autobiography, “What I composed were actually musical themes [estimated to be twelve, about 2-3 minutes in length].  For the difficult technical task of timing, cutting, and orchestrating, I turned to my old friend Russell Bennett, who has no equal in this kind of work.  He fully deserves the credit,…”

If you have never seen Victory at Sea, you owe it to yourself to binge just a bit.


The Robert Russell Bennett Era

It is an interesting hypothesis, but one with factual justification, that Bennett received an understanding of the jazz idiom from men like Gershwin that he put to good use on Show Boat.  This cross-pollination continued throughout the 1930’s as Bennett would work with both Gershwin and Porter on their major shows. The benefits from Bennett’s experience working with Gershwin and Porter undoubtedly helped Bennett prepare for the “soaring” scores that Rodgers would produce in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  

In a commentary about orchestrators on NPR (May 28, 2009), Rob Fisher, the first music director at ENCORES!, described Bennett’s work on the “gorgeous” Rodgers’ score for  South Pacific as follows: “He uses horns right at the beginning that sound like flowers opening.  And then, when the ‘Bali Hai’ theme starts, the strings are soaring way up over it in a way only Bennett knows how to do.”