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SPRING 2003  
Vol. 31, No. 3

SULTANS OF SONG, Part II
By Paul Zollo

Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers--all children or grandchildren of Jewish immigrants--would profoundly alter and elevate Broadway musicals and the American songbook. But unlike the compositions of Gershwin and Arlen, which were colored by the melismatic melodies of the cantorial tradition, and Irving Berlin's musical legacy, which included Yiddish comedy numbers (see "Sultans of Song," Part I, Winter 2002), the Jewish influences in the songs of Kern and Rodgers are less evident. There is no doubt, however, that their music, and the lyrics of their principal collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, transformed musical theater from entertainment alone to an artful platform to raise consciousness about social issues.

Jerome Kern
"Without exception...all the prominent American composers of modern theater music, living and dead...consider [Kern's] songs a greater inspiration than those of any other composer, and his music to be the first that was truly American in the theater."
--Alec Wilder

Show BoatHad everything gone as planned, he would have gone into the furniture business. Henry Kern expected young Jerome to follow in his footsteps, but the precocious 6-year-old told his dad he had other plans--he wanted to become a songwriter. Nevertheless, when Jerome turned 13, his father demanded he put music aside and start working in the store. His first day on the job, Jerome was told to order two pianos. He went out for lunch with the owner of the piano factory and got so drunk that instead of ordering two pianos he ordered two hundred. Later that day, a fleet of trucks arrived and a caravan of deliverymen began carting an assortment of baby grands and uprights into the store. It was Jerome's first and last day in the furniture business. Henry Kern had to admit that his son wasn't cut out for the retail trade.

Jerome Kern was born in New York on January 27, 1885. His parents were first-generation German Jews who hid all signs of their Jewish heritage so as not to be seen as outsiders; their wedding was the last time either entered a synagogue. Henry considered his son's musical aspirations to be on the level of the klezmer musicians who played for a meal at Jewish celebrations or for coins in the streets. And yet there was little mistaking that the piano in the Kern home never sounded more alive than when young Jerome's fingers danced on its black and white keys. He could play anything, from ragtime to classical to the popular songs of the day. Recognizing that her son was gifted, Fanny Kern arranged for the 8-year-old to take piano lessons with a local teacher.

Inspired by both classical and popular music, Kern wrote his first complete song, "At The Casino," while still in high school. After completing his studies at the New York College of Music and at the Heidelberg Conservatory in Germany, he returned to New York in 1905 and took a job as a "song-plugger" (a person who plays new songs to sell sheet music) at T. B. Harms & Co. Like Gershwin and other songwriters who started as pluggers, Kern used the position to push his own songs and landed many of them in various theatrical productions around town.

Kern abhorred the vaudeville-like revues and old-fashioned European operettas that were the staple of Broadway shows in the first years of the 20th century. Like Harold Arlen, he hungered to create something new, to break all the rules. Instead of writing numbers for variety shows, cheap comedies, and hackneyed melodramas, he wanted to create songs which would be integral to the show's narrative and plot.

The 20-year-old's first hit song--"How'd You Like To Spoon With Me?"--made the popular charts in 1905. Nine years later, he had his first hit show, a British-produced import called The Girl from Utah, which he and comic author P. G. Wodehouse (the creator of the Jeeves books) transformed from a play to a musical. Kern, known as a tough man, and Wodehouse, a broad, open, jolly fellow, went on to collaborate on many great songs, among them "Bill," which eventually made its way into Show Boat.

In 1915, Kern joined up with British songwriter Guy Bolton to write the show Nobody Home. Its hit song, "The Magic Melody," was distinguished by a beautiful, sophisticated key-change. "[The song] marked a change, a new regime in American popular music," wrote music critic Carl Engel. "The public not only liked it; they went mad over it." They went mad for Kern's other compositions as well. By 1918, eight of his songs were being heard nightly in six different Broadway shows, an achievement without precedent.

Kern was endowed with an inordinate gift for writing perfect, pure melodies--melodies which sounded both timely and timeless, as if they had always existed. He accomplished this effect by avoiding rhythmic or harmonic contrivances, striving instead for a beautifully simple single melody line. The author Alec Wilder likened Kern's compositions to "a great tried-and-true folk song or hymn-tune [which] needs no more than its melody to effect sadness, joy, sentimental longing, even tears." Kern was also an innovator, becoming the first songwriter whose Broadway tunes crossed over to the popular charts ("Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," "Ol' Man River," "Look For The Silver Lining"). As the first to bring the world of Broadway and popular songwriting together, he effected a giant leap in the evolution of the American song; songwriters who followed in his path had the dual responsibility of writing songs, such as "Ol' Man River," which made sense within the context of a show, but could also stand alone as popular tunes.

"When George Gershwin heard Kern's first hit, 'They Didn't Believe Me' in 1913, it convinced him to go into Tin Pan Alley and write popular songs," says author and musicologist Ian Whitcomb. "Listening to this unusual song with its very long melody lines, Gershwin realized that songwriting was an art, and one could do something very special in that art form."

In 1925, at the age of 40, Kern began his twenty-year collaboration and friendship with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I, was a Prussian Jew who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1864. His great-great-grandson, Oscar A. Hammerstein III, the family archivist, describes the patriarch as a "cantankerous, cigar-chomping, top-hatted inventor, writer, editor, publisher, composer, speculator, promoter, and showman, and above all else, an opera impresario who realized his dream of rejuvenating and revitalizing opera in America." While Hammerstein I would marry a German Jewish woman, Rosa Blau, and, after her death, marry another German Jew, Malvina Jacobi, his four sons all married non-Jews and devoted their lives to the theater--which, says Hammerstein III, in contrast to Judaism, has only one commandment:"The Show Must Go On!"

Hammerstein and Kern first collaborated on a musical based on Jewish writer Edna Ferber's novel about life along the Mississippi River. Show Boat brought attention in 1927 to the tumultuous state of race relations--a stark departure from the typical musical of the time, which tended to divert attention from the unpleasant realities of American life.

To signal that a new kind of musical had been born, Kern and Hammerstein replaced the conventional big-chorus opening number with the plaintive solo voice of a Black man resonating faith and hope against the backdrop of field hands hauling giant bales of cotton. "It should be a song of resignation with a protest implied," Hammerstein told Kern, "sung by a character who is a rugged and untutored philosopher." Kern proceeded to write a modern spiritual that many consider his greatest melody; Hammerstein then supplied the words. The result was "Ol' Man River."

Show Boat opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27, 1927. The next day The New York Times proclaimed it "an American masterpiece." Other critics called it "the most influential musical of the 20th century." "Show Boat pushed out the frontier of the musical," says Oscar Hammerstein III. "From then on, shows had to address social concerns; no longer would it be acceptable to have stock musical characters like the rich banker and the upstairs maid. It portrayed characters maturing over a forty-year period; it showed that some people lived happily and some didn't. The emotional range was so much greater than anything audiences had ever seen."

"Ol' Man River," "Bill," and "Can't Help Loving Dat Man"--almost all of its songs--would become standards. By the late 1920s, Kern was considered the most successful and well-respected composer on Broadway.

Kern's timeless, effortless-sounding melodies were anything but effortless. "I have seen him take off his shirt and work in his undershirt," Hammerstein said, "the sweat pouring off of him...." The ultimate smoothness of Kern's tunes, Hammerstein explained, was "achieved only by scraping off roughness. None of these melodies [was] born smooth. Their themes may have flowed easily from their talented creator, but their conversion into beautifully rounded refrains was another matter...." Kern often notated on paper the tune he heard in his head before playing it on the piano. His desk was attached to his piano so that he could immediately perform his newly transcribed melodies.

Kern rarely spoke about the influence of his Jewish heritage on his music, though he once commented, half in jest, that everything he wrote was Jewish music for the simple reason that he was a Jew. When Hammerstein asked Kern what kind of music he would write for a show based on Donn Byrne's biography of Marco Polo--"a story," Hammerstein said, "laid in China about an Italian and told by an Irishman"--Kern replied, "Don't worry, it'll be good Jewish music."

Kern resisted the lure of Hollywood for years, but in 1934 he agreed to move to Beverly Hills with his wife Eve and their daughter Betty while he worked on a film version of his Broadway show Roberta. The score features one of Kern's most famous ballads, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," a song that might never have come into existence without Otto Harbach, the Jewish lyricist of No, No Nanette, who had found fragments of the melody among Kern's notes and suggested that the composer slow down the tempo, turning a tap-dancing tune into a ballad. Kern complied, Harbach crafted the ideal lyric, and a standard was born.

Kern remained in Hollywood for eleven years, collaborating on songs with lyricists Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer ("Dearly Beloved," "I'm Old Fashioned"), Ira Gershwin ("Long Ago And Far Away," "Sure Thing,"), and Dorothy Fields ("A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight"). He returned to New York in 1945 to work with Fields on a new Broadway show based on the life of Annie Oakley, but suffered a stroke shortly after his arrival and died on November 11, 1945 at the age of 60. (A couple of months later, Irving Berlin replaced Kern as songwriter for Annie Get Your Gun, writing both the words and the music for what would become the greatest success of his career.)

Hammerstein delivered the eulogy at Kern's funeral. "His gaiety is what we will remember most," Hammerstein said, "the times he has made us laugh; the even greater fun of making him laugh....He was alert and alive. He bounced...."

Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart & Oscar Hammerstein II
Legend has it that somewhere amongst the many radio stations of the United States a song by Richard Rodgers may be heard at any time, day or night, the year round."
--Alec Wilder

CarouselIn the world of Broadway musicals, say the name Rodgers and invariably the names of his partners Hart or Hammerstein come to mind. Unrivaled in sheer output, Richard Rodgers composed the music for some forty Broadway musicals (twenty-six with Hart and nine with Hammerstein), three London musicals (all with Hart), ten original movie musicals (nine with Hart, one with Hammerstein), two television musicals, two television documentaries, a ballet, and one nightclub revue. It has been estimated that, to date, his shows have been performed more than thirty thousand times.

Richard (Charles) Rodgers was born on Long Island, New York on June 28, 1902 to Dr. William and Mamie Levy Rodgers (formerly Rogazinsky), the son and daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. Accompanied by Mamie on piano, an enthusiastic William would sing songs from the shows on Broadway. By age 3, their son Richard was already in love with the piano and soon supplanted his mother as the family accompanist. Two years later, under the tutelage of his Aunt Tily, he began studying piano and the fundamentals of music theory. But Richard had no patience for repetitive exercises; he wanted to compose and play his own tunes.

At the age of 6, Richard attended his first theatrical production, a musical version of The Pied Piper. The experience made a profound impression. "I was carried into a world of glamour and beauty I never knew existed," he later said. "It was the start of a lifelong habit of going to the theater as much as humanly possible."

Richard Rodgers wrote his first songs--"Campfire Days" and "Dear Old Wigwam"--at age 11 while at a Jewish summer camp in Highmount, New York. (His future partner, Lorenz Hart, had attended the same camp a few years earlier, as did Stephen Sondheim's father Herbert Sondheim.) At 15, he composed his first full musical score for an amateur show called One Minute, Please. This score--and most of those to follow--offered no evidence of the composer's Jewish roots. Perhaps this was because the roots of Rodgers' family tree were rather tangled in matters of religious observance. Rodgers' maternal grandfather was devoutly Orthodox, his maternal grandmother an avowed atheist; his mother an atheist, his father a practicing Jew. His older brother Mortimer celebrated his bar mitzvah at Harlem's Temple Israel, where Richard went to Sunday school, but by the time Richard came of age, his paternal great-grandmother had died and the family stopped observing Jewish rituals altogether.

In 1918, at the age of 16, Richard was introduced by a friend to 22-year-old Larry Hart. Arriving for their first meeting at the home of Hart's mother, Richard beheld a disheveled, unshaven man dressed in shiny tuxedo pants and bedroom slippers. Hart's eccentricities intrigued the younger man and the two songwriters instantly hit it off. They shared similar views about the art and mechanics of songwriting, both praising the songs of Jerome Kern and glorifying the beauty of interior rhyme schemes. As he left the house that day, an elated Rodgers kept repeating to himself, "I have a lyricist, I have a lyricist." Years later, he confided that he had found "a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation."

In contrast to Rodgers, who was emotionally reserved, Hart was exuberant and fun-loving. He was also a closeted homosexual and an alcoholic who struggled with depression, in part because of partial dwarfism--his head appeared large for a man standing only 4'9". Hart liked to tell people that he was a direct descendant of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who converted to Protestantism and changed his name to Christian Johann Heinrich Heine. Whether or not Hart's claim was true--it has not been verified--his identification with Heine may shed light on Hart's state of mind. Both he and Heine expressed brilliantly in their romantic verses the heartbreak of intolerance and rejection--Heine because he was a Jew forced, for reasons of expediency, to convert to Christianity; Hart because he was a homosexual who was nevertheless obsessed with women.

In the early years of his collaboration with Rodgers, Hart's psychological problems did not intrude on their working relationship. The new team churned out more than a dozen songs within a few weeks of their first meeting. Rodgers was dazzled by Hart's inventive, funny, and romantic writing, and Hart was thrilled with Rodgers' beautiful, powerful, and original melodies. After Rodgers would write a melody and play it on the piano, Hart would try out various versions of verse. "I take the most distinctive melodic phrase in the tune and work on that," Hart said of his songwriting technique.

Both shared a strong inclination to break the prescribed rules of the popular song, such as the brevity of melodic lines. While their first published tune, "Any Old Place With You," appeared in the 1919 show A Lonely Romeo (a typical Broadway revue of loosely linked songs, dances, and comic routines), six years later they were able to fashion a more serious work: the successful "musical play" Dearest Enemy, about the American Revolution, which was marked by a narrative progression in which the songs propelled the plot.

By 1931, the team had written some 200 numbers and fifteen shows, a dozen of which were then running simultaneously on Broadway's Great White Way --plus three in London. Now wealthy and in great demand, they moved to Hollywood, writing songs for movies such as Love Me Tonight, with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier; Hallelujah, I'm A Bum!, with Al Jolson; and The Phantom President, starring George M. Cohan. For his filmwriting, Hart often composed several sets of lyrics to the same tune. For example, the song originally titled "Prayer" was written in 1933 for Jean Harlow to perform in the film Hollywood Revue of 1933 (it was eventually released under the title Hollywood Party, but without Harlow or the song); then with a new title and set of lyrics it became Shirley Ross' song "The Bad In Every Man" in the 1934 film Manhattan Melodrama; and later that year--after MGM publishing director Jack Robbins promised to promote it if Hart wrote more commercial lyrics--it was transformed into its most famous form: "Blue Moon."

Hart loved the Hollywood luxury life with its profusion of parties and fun. He preferred entertaining to writing and had no problem accepting immense sums of money for little work. Rodgers couldn't bear Hart's lifestyle and compelled his collaborator to return with him to New York.

Rodgers, his wife Dorothy, and their two daughters took up residence in a spacious Manhattan apartment. Although Rodgers would venture out occasionally to enjoy the company of friends, he liked nothing better than sitting at the piano and composing. Hart, on the other hand, partied around the clock, drinking heavily with new friends and lovers. He lived alone in an apartment at the Hotel Beresford, which was always in such a state of disorder that eventually the hotel's maid refused to enter it.

By 1943, Hart could no longer keep up with Rodgers' prolific creative output. He would go missing for days, skipping important rehearsals as well as appointments with producers. A disheartened Rodgers sought out a new collaborator, his old school chum Oscar Hammerstein II. Reluctant to supplant Hart, Hammerstein told Rodgers he'd be willing to offer anonymous lyrical support if needed. Shortly thereafter, the Theatre Guild asked Rodgers and Hart to create a musical set in the American West based on Lynn Riggs' play Green Grow the Lilacs. As Hammerstein had already expressed interest in the play, it was decided that Rodgers and Hart would write the songs and Hammerstein the script. Hart soon opted out. "Cowboy hats and gingham are not for me," he said. Thus was born the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and their first musical--Oklahoma!

"Oklahoma! was a triumph of form," says Oscar Hammerstein III. "It was the first show in which the dance numbers were an integral part of the plot, instead of being a kind of comic relief....The result is a much richer form of musical theater."

By no means did Rodgers intend the success of Oklahoma! to mark the end of his partnership with Hart. Hoping that the right project would revitalize their collaboration, he decided to produce a new version of their 1927 show A Connecticut Yankee. Together they composed six new songs for the show, including "To Keep My Love Alive," Hart's last lyric. The collaboration buoyed Hart's spirits, but upon the work's completion he returned to drink. A Connecticut Yankee opened on November 17, 1943; less than a week later, Hart, alone and destitute, died from pneumonia. The money to cover his funeral expenses had to be raised by auctioning his belongings. Today, the Hart estate is worth an estimated $8 million, and generates about $200,000 annually, a large percentage of which, according to Hart's will--still disputed by family members--goes to the Jewish Federation of Charities (later the United Jewish Appeal).

For the seventeen years following Hart's death, Rodgers worked exclusively with Hammerstein. Together they created Broadway history, writing one enduring Broadway musical treasure after the next: Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), and The King And I (1951). In addition, the team wrote one show directly for the silver screen, State Fair (1945) starring Dick Haymes and Dana Andrews, and the television musical Cinderella (1957) starring Julie Andrews.

The process of collaborating with Hammerstein was a radical, yet welcome change for Rodgers. Whereas with Hart the music always preceded the lyrics, with Hammerstein, Rodgers wrote his melodies to fit his partner's words--which grew out of their long conversations about a show's concepts and potential song ideas. And unlike Hart, Hammerstein was the consummate professional who never missed a deadline. He kept a strict routine, rising early every morning to get to work and quietly spending most evenings at his five-story brick house in Manhattan or his farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As for the songs themselves, when working with Hart, Rodgers' music "was quirkier and more mischievous," says Rodgers' daughter Mary. "It was the music of his youth, less folksy and more sophisticated. Both of these qualities existed in my father. [In contrast] Oscar brought out the deep-seated, perfectly beautiful sounds of German Romanticism that were latent in [my father's] writing. These enabled him to reach a new dimension in moments like the death scene in Carousel or the opening of South Pacific...."

Rodgers' final collaboration with Hammerstein--The Sound of Music (1957)--was their most successful, critically and financially. Its songs--"My Favorite Things," "Edelweiss," "Climb Every Mountain," and many others--have become part of the American songbook.

During the writing, Hammerstein was diagnosed with cancer. When he died on August 23, 1960, America lost a lyricist that both reflected and pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be an American: "From the era of Reconstruction depicted in Show Boat, to the settlement of Oklahoma territory in Oklahoma!, to the naval battles of World War II in South Pacific," wrote music critic Eric Letourneau, "Hammerstein's musicals represent our national history. [And] as idealistic as he was about his native country, he also was not afraid to act as its social conscience."

A grief-stricken Rodgers would go on writing songs, but never again would he have a permanent partner. The show No Strings--the only Broadway production for which he himself wrote both music and lyrics--earned him two Tony Awards. He collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965); with Martin Charnin on Two By Two (1970), starring Danny Kaye and Madeline Kahn; with Sheldon Harnick on Rex (1976), about Queen Elizabeth I and her father, Henry VIII; and finally with Charnin and Raymond Jessel on I Remember Mama (1979), based upon John Van Druten's play of the same name. He also composed an abundance of other music, including a score for the 1967 television adaptation of Bernard Shaw's Androcles And The Lion; songs for the 1962 remake of State Fair; and additional soundtrack music for the 1965 movie version of The Sound Of Music. When he died on December 30, 1979 at the age of 77, Richard Rodgers left the world a richer, more musical place. In 1990, the Broadway community paid him a great tribute, changing the name of the 46th Street Theatre to The Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, and Kern left a legacy of songs that helped define the American character and culture of the 20th century, offering hope and inspiration to all Americans who have had to endure adversity, regardless of their race or faith. Their message was clear: you, too, can emerge triumphant. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote:

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone...
You'll never walk alone!

("You'll Never Walk Alone," Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1945)

Return to Judaism: Richard Rodgers' Grandson's Journey

Although Richard Rodgers was a devotee of music and theater rather than God and synagogue, one of his grandsons has returned to the religion of his ancestors. Composer and songwriter Peter Melnick (whose mother, Linda, was Rodgers' youngest daughter) is a committed Jew who chairs the Jewish Community Relations Council of Santa Barbara, California.

Although "my grandfather professed no faith in God," Peter says of his musical mentor, he was imbued with "tremendous religiosity--in other words, an unwavering honesty in musical expression. My grandfather's music is among the most honest music ever written in terms of its purity of emotion. It was never pretty from central casting; it was pretty from God."

Peter, who had never stepped foot into a synagogue until adulthood, says he was able to discover the significance of Jewish life at his own pace, and of his own volition. In 1996, at the age of 38, he delighted in becoming a bar mitzvah at Congregation B'nai B'rith in Santa Barbara. "I loved learning Hebrew," he says. "The most satisfying part for me was learning how to chant Torah. Having heard those melodies sung badly so many times, I dedicated myself to learning how to do it right. And when my son Daniel was studying for his bar mitzvah, I worked with him every night, and that is a bond we will always have. The nice thing is that my son has grown up watching me fall in love with Judaism."

It was his desire to raise Daniel with a Jewish identity that led Peter to the religious path on which he's remained since. "My son was growing up in Glendale, California, the birthplace of the American Nazi party, so my wife and I figured we'd better give him something to affirm his sense of Jewishness. We met with Rabbi Carole Meyers at Temple Sinai in Glendale, and since we didn't want to send Daniel to learn without going ourselves, we began attending family Shabbat--which led to our taking Jewish courses in Pasadena."

Peter's grandmother, Dorothy Rodgers, once told him of her happiness that, of all her grandchildren, he had gravitated toward a Jewish life. "She had regretted not raising her kids with more of a sense of Jewish connection," Peter says. "In her later years, after Richard Rodgers died, she became involved with the Jewish federation and contributed a significant sum of money to create a new wing at the Jewish Museum in New York. She is the person who taught me, literally, the meaning of the word tzedakah."

Cherishing the life of a film scorer ("Where else," he asks, "can a composer write for a full orchestra?"), Peter scored Steve Martin's L.A. Story as well as many other films and documentaries, and composed a "film noir musical" called Adrift In Macao, with book and lyrics by the playwright Christopher Durang, which is scheduled to start an off-Broadway run within a year. He's also created religious music, including a modern version of The Song Of Songs.

Perhaps the most tangible link to his grandfather's musical legacy is Esther Plays The Palace, a retelling of the Purim story. Peter collaborated with Sherman Yellen, the lyricist who'd worked with Richard Rodgers on the Broadway show Rex. In Esther, the plot revolves around the Jewish queen's moral dilemma--should she do nothing and remain safe while her condemned people are slaughtered, or should she risk her life by revealing her identity. Peter's use of his musical talent in the service of social consciousness would have pleased the co-creator of The King and I.

 

Paul Zollo, a Jewish songwriter-singer, is author of Songwriters On Songwriting and Hollywood Remembered (Cooper Square Press, November 2002).

Next Issue: Sultans of Song, Part III--Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman


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