Monday Morning Post–Where We Have Been and Where We Are Going

It’s Monday, and our featured image is from a much older version of Broadway. We finished with Leave It to Jane last week, and we still have one more Kern show to go before we finish with his miraculous year of 1917. The last remaining show, Oh, Lady! Lady!, opened in February 1918, but we still include it in the 1917 Princess Theatre grouping. However, before we explore another wonderful Kern score, this is a good time to take a breather and look back at what we have explored since we started our chronological excursion in 1903. After looking back, we will take a look forward to see what is coming in the next few months.

The American theatre-goer in the late 1880’s had been accustomed to imports from Europe. The imports came in all sizes; it didn’t matter whether the entertainment was grand or comic opera from the likes of Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Bizet, Verdi or Puccini or whether the entertainment was light opera from the likes of Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, von Suppe or Offenbach. It was all made in Europe. Having no home-grown alternatives, Americans looked forward to see what the European composers had written for the current season.

Then things started to change in 1890. Reginald de Koven opened his first and best score in Chicago for an operetta, called Robin Hood, and then brought it to Broadway in 1891. While the entire score has not weathered the years well, there is one song that is both incredible and eternal; it is called “Oh, Promise Me.” We have previously provided a 1947 recording from the great tenor, Jan Peerce.

De Koven wrote a prodigious number of operettas and enjoyed a reasonable amount of success on Broadway in the years that would come. However, most of his music was ordinary and is not in current repertoires. On the other hand, his main rival, Victor Herbert, also wrote a prodigious number of scores for operettas, and Herbert’s score have remained a part of our musical heritage, a continuing and lasting legacy.

We could have started in 1898 with Herbert’s first major score that is still performed today, namely The Fortune Teller.  We skipped over this operetta because its elegant czardas put it unmistakably in the heart of European forests, with its Romani caravans. Instead, we went straight to his 1903 success, Babes in Toyland, with its American-sounding lullabies, marches and waltzes.

But 1903 is remembered for another reason; a new form of popular music was hitting the boards on Broadway, written by the great George M. Cohan. Little Johnny Jones also opened in 1903 and with it came two great American songs—“Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

George’s impact lies not in the number of tunes he created for America but in the fresh, new sound of his music, sometimes unabashedly patriotic and filled with energy, sometimes sentimental and endearing. His musicals continued to pack in audiences on Broadway, but his great Broadway songs were pretty much over by 1910; “Harrigan” appeared in 1908.

Herbert was still writing unforgettable music between 1903 and 1917; but by the mid-1910’s, two new faces appeared on Broadway, in the person of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Berlin arose to fame through his adaptations of piano ragtime music into songs, such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” while Kern wrote some tunes that seemed to be made for the ballroom dance floor, such as “They Didn’t Believe Me.”

In addition, Rudolf Friml joined Herbert as a composer of operettas, although his best work would not come until the 1920’s. Friml would be joined in the 1920’s by another remarkable composer of operetta’s, Sigmund Romberg. While Herbert would continue to compose up to his death in 1924, his last great operetta was Eileen, which opened in early 1917.

Herbert’s career was coming to an end in 1917, just as Kern’s career was skyrocketing higher. We have been listening to the music from Have a Heart, Oh, Boy! and Leave It to Jane. Tomorrow, we will start listening to the music from Oh, Lady! Lady!

After Oh, Lady! Lady!, Kern continued to pour out shows, year after year; they were pleasant and occasionally had very good songs that would survive after the shows closed. However, it took about a decade before he would write another outstanding score (Show Boat) that would not only rival but exceed his output in 1917/1918.

Meanwhile, in 1919, Broadway would be introduced to two new composers; they wrote individual songs for different Broadway revues. It was the beginning of the sophisticated lyrics and music of Cole Porter and the jazz-driven melodies of George Gershwin.

In 1925, as Gershwin was hitting his stride, the new team of Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart took center stage, with their first hit show, Dearest Enemy. Gershwin would die prematurely in 1937 from an inoperable brain tumor, but not before he wrote his finest score in 1935 for the opera Porgy and Bess.

Rodgers would continue to write wonderful shows with Hart until the early 1940’s; and then, when Larry could no longer work, Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II.

It is the nature of progression for the new composers figuratively to stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. Bach served Mozart well; and Beethoven stood on Mozart’s shoulders.

In America, Herbert came first, and Kern stood on his shoulders. Both Gershwin and Rodgers stated that they were deeply influenced by the compositions of Kern and used Kern as a model at the outset of their careers.

Furthermore, European opera not only influenced American operettas, European opera influenced American composition in general. We covered this in a series in early 2017, when we compare opera, operetta and musical songs to show the similarities; and we will do this again. We can see this influence in Kern’s “The Siren’s Song” from Leave It to Jane. It was written as a duet between two sopranos. So was “The Flower Song” from Delibes’ Lakme.

We have listened to the enchanting sounds of the duet written by Jacques Offenbach for his one opera, Le Contes d’Hoffmann; it is called “Belle Nuit,” and we heard it sung by Elina Garanca (mezzo) and Anna Netrobko (soprano). Two Broadway songs that are similar include the wonderful Frank Loesser duet, “Marry the Man Today” from Guys and Dolls and the haunting Leonard Bernstein duet from West Side Story, entitled “A Boy Like That,” sung by Maria (soprano) and Anita (mezzo).

Bizet wrote a wonderful duet between a baritone and a tenor in Les pecheurs de perles, called “Au fond du temple saint.” We listened to Jussi Bjorling (tenor) and Robert Merrill (baritone) sing this previously. Frank Loesser wrote a grand parody in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, called “Grand Old Ivy,” sung by Rudy Vallee (tenor) and Robert Morse (baritone).

George M. Cohan wrote the great Broadway song, “Grand Old Flag” and the stirring hymn for WWI, “Over There;” and their beating patriotic hearts touched an immigrant’s soul, causing Irving Berlin to write our second anthem, “God Bless America.”

If this chronology does nothing else, it ought to give you a sense or feeling of the movement of American musical composition, as it changed form. When the chronology series is finished, we will revisit the similarities between European form and American compositions. However, keep in mind that the major influence on the American “sound” has been African-American music in the form of rags, blues and spirituals.