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Book Review

Jerome Kern

Jerome Kern by Banfield
Stephen Banfield
New Haven & London: Yale University Press. 2006. 375 pp
ISBN-10: 0300110472
ISBN-13: 978-0300110470
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Kern for scholars.

Of those in the pantheon of American popular songwriters, Jerome Kern seems to me the hardest to pin down. He probably wrote more songs than any major American songwriter except Irving Berlin. On the other hand, few remain in anyone's repertory, although the ones that do stick like barnacles. The classic Kern song, usually a slow ballad, often has no "neat" features - just a melody, like "Till the Clouds Roll By," where every note is the right note. Melody, the hardest element in music to talk about, has become a bit like pornography: we know a good one when we hear it (or do we?). Kern could, of course, write a "trick" harmony at least as well as the next fellow (listen to the opening strain of "All the Things You Are," for example), but the overwhelming impression from his best work is that of tune, tune, tune. I don't envy the writer who tackles Kern.

A lot of recent academic work on the glories of interwar Broadway and Tin Pan Alley seems to be carried out by Brits and published by Yale. Like Cary Grant, Banfield hails from Bristol, England. He has written books on the English Gerald Finzi and the American Stephen Sondheim, both of whom yield more easily to analysis than Kern. Indeed, I might as well say right now that Banfield fails to illuminate the essence of Kern's music, despite a mountain of graphs, musical quotation, and technical dissection. One also looks in vain for a thesis to the book. This means that the book doesn't end so much as it peters out.

On the other hand, Banfield does very well on Kern as musical-theater innovator. The problem is that, excepting Show Boat and possibly Sitting Pretty, no critical editions of Kern's shows exist. Recordings are scarce on the ground as well. In many cases, the original books and the orchestrations have been lost. Nevertheless, Banfield makes a strong case. He shows how Kern adapts essentially a British musical rhythm (typified by Gilbert and Sullivan's "Prithee, pretty maiden" from Patience) to American ragtime. Lehar's Merry Widow, seen in New York early in the Twentieth Century, also exercised a heavy influence, in that it encouraged Kern to think more in terms of show structure, rather than in terms of individual songs. It may even have encouraged him to work with more sophisticated harmonies.

However, Banfield shines brightest in his discussion of Kern's interest in the "integrated" musical. For years, we were told that Oklahoma! changed everything. The pre-Oklahoma! musical comedy became, in this view, a string of songs that could be switched in and out of similar spots in other musicals. One sees the point. Recent revivals of older Broadway musicals often don't give us the original score but a mix of music (usually the hits - surprise, surprise) from several shows by the same composer. Kern himself moved songs from one show to another and often rummaged through his "trunk" to find an old, unused song for a new show.

However, to anyone who knows musicals like Show Boat, Of Thee I Sing, and Lady in the Dark (to name just a few), the idea of Oklahoma! as The Revolution always smelled a little off. Indeed, Kern, along with Gershwin and Weill (even Romberg and Friml), pursued a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk and as early as the Twenties routinely thought of music in terms of the structural unit of a scene. To Kern, furthermore, integration meant something a little different than what it meant post-Oklahoma! - music that arose "naturally" out of the drama, and for him that meant a song sung by a character was a song perceived as such by that character, rather than by the audience only as a representation of the character's surfeit of emotion.

Banfield calls this a diegetic use of music. This term gets thrown about a lot in current discussions of musical theater, and I strongly suspect it's the academic buzzword for what they used to call "source music." At least Banfield, unlike several others, has the courtesy to define what he means by it. We see this quite clearly in the use of "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" in Show Boat. The song is diegetic - not only a song to the audience, but to the characters on stage as well. That is, they are quite clear that they are singing a song. Indeed, the song becomes an important plot point, since it reveals Julie's true identity. Kern went beyond this, however, with shows like The Cat and the Fiddle, which aims to tie every musical number to a stage source. Accordingly, these shows concern musicians, or at least show people.

Despite some marvelous music, most of these shows didn't do too well, although some of the songs gained independent lives among the Great American Standards. Audience sensibility in the Thirties had moved on from Romberg, Friml, and the kind of books Kern was drawn to. He had to reinvent himself yet again (as, by the way, did Gershwin and Berlin). Musically, these shows find themselves somewhere between Kern's "raggy" music of the Teens and Twenties and light operetta. The lyricists were generally the stilted Otto Harbach (he who came up with the rhyme "forsooth" that nearly sinks "Yesterdays") or Oscar Hammerstein, who had yet to work through his penchant for emotive treacle. Kern also had to come to terms with swing, which he resisted for a long time. Movies, however, provided a new field of operations, and he committed to it, pulling up stakes on the East Coast and settling in sunny Southern California. After at least one flopperoo attempt to translate his operetta style to the screen (not counting movie adaptations of his stage works), he finally struck gold with a new lyricist, the brilliant Dorothy Fields, and the phenomenon known as FredandGinger. These steam-cleaned away the goo and lilac water that clung to Kern's sense of dramaturgy. Swing Time inaugurates Kern's last and (to me) best period, at least as far as the individual songs are concerned.

And we really are talking about individual songs. The Hollywood studios had little use for the "symphonic" shows Kern had been turning out on Broadway. Kern did provide some incidental numbers for films, but usually they either never made it into the picture or they appeared heavily arranged, not always sympathetically, by others. So it's the song that Kern concentrates on, with great collaborators. In addition to Dorothy Fields, he also works with Ira Gershwin, E. Y. Harburg, and Hammerstein at nearly his very best. Fortunately, Kern could still write great songs up to the end.

I can't recommend this book for the general reader. Banfield addresses himself to, essentially, academics. You need to read music and know a bit of harmony. Nevertheless, Banfield makes some good points and writes so affectionately about "lost" shows, that you long for John McGlinn to get on the stick and start working on The Cat and the Fiddle and Very Warm for May.

Copyright © 2006 by Steve Schwartz