Though the weather report promises but little joy, though due dates for theses and applications loom menacingly over us like steadily advancing diplodoci, though the ice and snowdrifts cling to the pavement as clings the tritone to Vitellio Scarpia, though we are, if not actually disgruntled, far from being gruntled, yet be of good cheer, gentle library patrons, for a brief escape to the enchanted land of Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern is but a mouseclick or two away.
Between 1915 and 1924 Jerome Kern, often in cahoots with P. G. Wodehouse (brilliant lyricist as well as brilliant novelist; life is not fair) and Guy Bolton (the wizard of plot and pun) wrote several musicals for the small, stylish Princess Theater in New York. Their intricate, tuneful scores and believably nonsensical books distinguished the Princess shows from Ziegfeld’s extravaganzas and Cohan’s revues. Kern and Wodehouse created songs which advanced the plot and illuminated the characters, rather than a series of interchangeable numbers for interchangeable soubrettes and juveniles. The world of these shows is long, long gone, but the songs are as fresh as ever.
If you are stuck in your room with the cold that’s going around, Music Online streams an utterly beguiling album of Wodehouse lyrics (mostly set to Kern’s music) called “The Land Where the Good Songs Go.” Sylvia McNair (she of the voice like silver honey), joins forces with pianist Steven Blier and tenor/Wodehouse buff Hal Cazalet for songs like “You Can’t Make Love By Wireless” and “Non-Stop Dancing” (“Father pluckily continues, though he’s sprained eleven sinews, since we got the non-stop dancing craze.”) Those interested in the evolution of singing styles might want to listen to the vintage recordings of many of the same songs on “The Theatre Lyrics of P. G. Wodehouse”. Some of these tracks date back to 1905, and there’s an interview with Wodehouse about working with Kern.
For the full Bertie Wooster experience, try visiting the UCLA Archive of Popular American Music, printing out a .pdf of the original sheet music for “The Sirens’ Song” or “Sir Galahad” and playing through it on the nearest keyboard. You never know what might summon up Jeeves, tray in hand and mammoth brain at the ready to solve all your problems.
Would it be too fanciful to call Kern the George Washington of American musical theater, in that he led it to independence and guided its first years? In John McGlinn’s sparkling, tender recording of “Sitting Pretty”, you can hear the fledgling American musical stretch its wings and take off from the nest of old world operetta. It soars into uncharted territory in numbers like “Shufflin’ Sam” (which mixes banjo accompaniment with a reference to Dvorak- the richness of these orchestrations is incredible) and “The Enchanted Train”. A warning: Track Five (“Bongo on the Congo”) contains stereotypes and attitudes which were unfortunately widespread in America at the time. They do not in any way represent the views of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, but to deny or ignore them would be to deny or ignore what was sadly a part of American musical history.
For Further Reading/Listening:
Davis, Lee. Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern: the Men Who Made Musical Comedy. The story of the Princess musicals and the men who created them.
Morris, Joan and Bolcom, William. Silver Linings. A nice survey of Kern songs.
Various. Jerome Kern in London and Hollywood. Contemporary artists offer their take on Kern rarities.