1885 — 1945
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The American composer Jerome Kern is largely credited as the founder of the uniquely American style of musical theatre, the Broadway show, by facilitating the transition from the 19th century operetta style. Many of his songs were groundbreaking and immensely popular in their day, and remain both relevant and tasteful a full century later.
Kern was born in New York City into a middle-class family. He began studying piano with his mother at a young age and although he did not immediately display an immense talent at the instrument, his parents eventually allowed him to study piano and theory at the New York College of Music once it became clear he had no wish to follow his father into the business world. At the age of 18 Kern travelled to spend two years studying in Heidelberg, Germany. Afterwards Kern, an avid Anglophile, decided to move to London rather than travelling straight back to New York.
London proved to be a fortuitous place for the young composer, who found that he was well-suited to writing for the burgeoning musical scene there. In particular, Kern became very successful by adapting British works to the American stage, starting withThe Earl and the Girl (1905), for which he wrote one of his early hits, “How’d you like to spoon with me?” In the next ten years, more than 100 of Kern’s songs were used in 30 adaptions of European-style operettas, the most successful of which was his version of Paul Rubens’ and Sidney Jones’The Girl from Utah (1914).
The year 1915 marked Kern’s return to his native New York City as well as the next and most significant phase of his career. For his first several years, his artistic home was in the Princess Theatre, a small hall that could only seat 300 with a pit orchestra of 11. At this time Kern worked principally with librettist Guy Bolton, although he would switch in 1917 to working primarily with lyricist P.G. Wodehouse. Interesting, Kern always relied on other people to write his lyrics, never performing the job himself. However he did have a large degree of creative input in the matter, often subjecting his lyricists to the same stringently perfectionist standards that he himself aspired to. At the same time, he made very little concessions, almost never changing his melodies to fit the lyrics.
It was at the intimate Princess Theatre that Kern began to truly revolutionize American musical theatre. Prior to 1915, most musicals were rooted in European operettas and mainly consisted of a series of song and dance numbers loosely held together by a plot. They were largely seen as a whimsical form of entertainment, not true art. Kern set about changing this by creating more believable characters and a plot that was dramatic and rooted more in the American experience than the European one. The musical numbers were no longer simply amusing distractions, but crucial and relevant parts of the story which often provided insights into the true feelings of the characters. The small size of the stage at Princess Theatre also necessitated a more creative way of staging which was much less grandiose than the other shows of the time.
Kern wrote four songs for the Princess Theatre: Nobody Home (1915), Very Good Eddie(1915), Oh Boy! (1917) and Oh Lady! Lady! (1918). Of these, Oh Boy! was the greatest success, but collectively they all contributed to a growing reputation during the 1910s.
Although Kern was dedicated to the creation of a more artistically vibrant form of theatre, he had no qualms with also engaging in more commercial projects, which he did several of in the 1920s. In fact, Kern seemed somewhat dismissive of whether or not his projects were popular, humbly stating “the fact that the theatregoing public likes my music is no credit to me. There are many other composers who write better music that the public doesn't like.” Some of these so-called popular works includeSally (1920), which including the famous song “Look for the Silver Lining,” andSunny (1925).
In 1927, Kern teamed up with master lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II to write the seminal musical not just of his career, but of Broadway history. The result, Show Boat, is largely credited for singlehandedly starting the trend of composers becoming directly involved in the making of Broadway shows rather than the previous method of writing individual Tin Pan Alley songs and essentially selling them. Many songs fromShow Boat have become famous, perhaps most notably “Ol’ Man River,” and it has been made into a film on three separate occasions.
Although Kern continued composing for musicals after Show Boat, with some of his classic songs from this period including “The Song Is You,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Yesterdays,” he began to focusing mostly on writing for Hollywood after 1935. He was equally in his element writing for film, withSwing Time(1936) containing one of his greatest songs, “The Way You Look Tonight.” A few years later he returned to Broadway for one last show,Very Warm for May (1939). Although it was not a big hit, it did include one of Kern’s finest songs, “All the Things You Are,” which has become one of the most popular songs in the Great American Songbook and is frequently cited by jazz musicians as one of the greatest jazz standards.
After writing music for several more successful films, including Lady be Good (1941),You were never Lovelier (1942) and Cover Girl (1944), Kern sought to finally rejuvenate his Broadway career in 1945. Unfortunately, his sudden death in New York cut this dream short, in the middle of composing the music for the musical that would later becomeAnnie Get Your Gun!. The musical would be finished byIrving Berlin, a man Kern had great respect for, once saying “there is no place for Irving Berlin in American music -- Irving Berlin is American music.” Of course, the same could easily be said about Jerome Kern, the founder of modern American musical theatre and composer of many of its most cherished songs.
Header image courtesy of Broadway Photographs Other images courtesy of Dorothy Fields, Philip Caruso, and Rogers and Hammerstein Photos