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Jerome Kern and “Very Warm for May” Overture

Jerome David Kern (January 27, 1885 – November 11, 1945) was an American composer of musical theatre and popular music, best known for the musical adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat.. Kern was born in New York City. His parents were Henry Kern (1842–1908), a Jewish German immigrant, and Fannie Kern née Kakeles (1852–1907), who was an American Jew of Bohemian parentage. At the time of Kern’s birth, his father ran a stable; later he became a successful merchant. Kern grew up in Manhattan, where he attended public schools. He showed an early aptitude for music and was taught to play the piano and organ by his mother, an accomplished player and teacher. In 1897, the family moved to Newark, New Jersey, where Kern attended Newark High School. He wrote songs for the school’s first musical, a minstrel show, in 1901, and for an amateur musical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin put on at the Newark Yacht Club in January 1902. Kern’s father insisted that his son work with him in business, instead of composing, after leaving high school before graduation in the spring of his senior year in 1902. Kern, however, failed miserably in one of his earliest tasks: he was supposed to purchase two pianos for the store, but instead he ordered 200. His father relented, and later in 1902, Kern became a student at the New York College of Music, studying the piano under Alexander Lambert and Paolo Galico, and harmony under Dr. Austin Pierce.

Kern’s first published composition, a piano piece entitled At the Casino, appeared in the same year. Between 1903 and 1905, he continued his musical training under private tutors in Heidelberg, Germany, returning to New York via London. For a time, Kern worked as a rehearsal pianist in Broadway theatres and as a song-plugger for Tin Pan Alley music publishers. From 1904 on, he spent large blocks of time in London. While in London, he secured a contract from the American impresario Charles Frohman to provide songs for interpolation in Broadway versions of London shows. He began to provide these additions in 1904 to British scores for An English Daisy, by Seymour Hicks and Walter Slaughter, and Mr. Wix of Wickham, for which he wrote most of the songs. In 1905, Kern contributed the song “How’d you like to spoon with me?” to Ivan Caryll’s hit musical The Earl and the Girl when the show transferred to Chicago and New York in 1905. He also contributed to the New York production of The Catch of the Season (1905), The Little Cherub (1906), The Beauty of Bath (1906; with lyricist P. G. Wodehouse), and The Orchid (1907), among other shows, and making valuable contacts, including George Grossmith Jr. and Seymour Hicks, who were the first to introduce Kern’s songs to the London stage.

Kern’s parents died in 1907 and 1908. In 1909 during one of his stays in England, Kern took a boat trip on the River Thames with some friends, and when the boat stopped at Walton-on-Thames, they went to an inn called the Swan for a drink. Kern was much taken with the proprietor’s daughter, Eva Leale (1891–1959), who was working behind the bar. He wooed her, and they were married at the Anglican church of St. Mary’s in Walton on October 25, 1910. The couple then lived at the Swan when Kern was in England. Kern’s first complete score was Broadway’s The Red Petticoat (1912), one of the first musical-comedy Westerns. The libretto was by Rida Johnson Young. Kern is believed to have composed music for silent films as early as 1912, but the earliest documented film music which he is known to have written was for a twenty-part serial, Gloria’s Romance in 1916. This was one of the first starring vehicles for Billie Burke, for whom Kern had earlier written the song “Mind the Paint”, with lyrics by A. W. Pinero. The film is now considered lost, but Kern’s music survives. By World War I, more than a hundred of Kern’s songs had been used in about thirty productions, mostly Broadway adaptations of West End and European shows. Kern contributed two songs to To-Night’s the Night (1914), another Rubens musical. It opened in New York and went on to become a hit in London. The best known of Kern’s songs from this period is probably “They Didn’t Believe Me”, which was a hit in the New York version of the Paul Rubens and Sidney Jones musical, The Girl from Utah (1914), for which Kern wrote five songs.

In May 1915, Kern was due to sail with Charles Frohman from New York to London on board the RMS Lusitania, but Kern missed the boat, having overslept after staying up late. Frohman died in the sinking of the ship. Kern composed sixteen Broadway scores between 1915 and 1920 and also contributed songs to the London hit Theodore & Co (1916; most of the songs are by the young Ivor Novello) and to revues like the Ziegfeld Follies. The most notable of his scores were those for a series of shows written for the Princess Theatre, a small (299-seat) house built by Ray Comstock. The team’s first Princess Theatre show was an adaptation of Paul Rubens’ 1905 London show, Mr. Popple (of Ippleton), called Nobody Home (1915). Kern next created an original piece, Very Good Eddie, which was a surprise hit. The British humorist, lyricist and librettist P. G. Wodehouse joined the Princess team in 1917, adding his skill as a lyricist to the succeeding shows, such as Oh, Boy! (1917), Have a Heart (1917), Leave It to Jane (1917), Oh, Lady! Lady!! (1918), and the last of the Princess shows, Oh, My Dear! (1918), to which Kern contributed only one song, “Go, Little Boat.” Another score for the silent movies, Jubilo, followed in 1919. Kern was one of the founding members of ASCAP.

The 1920s were an extremely productive period in American musical theatre, and Kern created at least one show every year for the entire decade. His first show of 1920 was The Night Boat, with book and lyrics by Anne Caldwell, which ran for more than 300 performances in New York and for three seasons on tour. Later in the same year, Kern wrote the score for Sally, with a book by Bolton and lyrics by Otto Harbach. This show, staged by Florenz Ziegfeld, ran for 570 performances, one of the longest runs of any Broadway show in the decade, and popularized the song “Look for the Silver Lining.” Kern’s next shows were Good Morning, Dearie (1921, with Caldwell) which ran for 347 performances; followed in 1922 by a West End success, The Cabaret Girl in collaboration with Grossmith and Wodehouse; The Beauty Prize (1923); and a Broadway flop, The Bunch and Judy, remembered as the first time Kern and Fred Astaire worked together. Stepping Stones (1923, with Caldwell) was a success, and in 1924 Wodehouse and Kern reunited to write Sitting Pretty, but it did not recapture the popularity of the earlier collaborations.

1925 was a major turning point in Kern’s career when he met Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom he would entertain a lifelong friendship and collaboration. Their first show together was Sunny, which featured the song “Who (Stole My Heart Away)?” Because of the strong success of Sally and Sunny and consistent good results with his other shows, Ziegfeld was willing to gamble on Kern’s next project in 1927. Kern had been impressed by Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat and wished to present a musical stage version. He persuaded Hammerstein to adapt it and Ziegfeld to produce it. The story, dealing with racism, marital strife and alcoholism, was unheard of in the escapist world of musical comedy. Despite his doubts, Ziegfeld spared no expense in staging the piece to give it its full epic grandeur. In fact, Show Boat, the first truly modern American musical, proved to be the most lasting accomplishment of Ziegfeld’s career – the only one of his shows that is regularly performed today.” The score is, arguably, Kern’s greatest and includes the well-known songs “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” as well as “Make Believe”, “You Are Love”, “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”, “Why Do I Love You”, and “Bill.”

Kern’s last Broadway show in the 1920s was Sweet Adeline (1929), with a libretto by Hammerstein. It was a period piece, set in the Gay 90s, about a girl from Hoboken, New Jersey (near Kern’s childhood home), who becomes a Broadway star. In 1929 Kern made his first trip to Hollywood to supervise the 1929 film version of Sally, one of the first “all-talking” Technicolor films. The following year, he was there a second time to work on Men of the Sky, released in 1931 without his songs, and a 1930 film version of Sunny. Warner Bros. bought out Kern’s contract, and he returned to the stage. He collaborated with Harbach on the Broadway musical The Cat and the Fiddle (1931), about a composer and an opera singer, featuring the songs “She Didn’t Say Yes” and “The Night Was Made for Love.” Music in the Air (1932) was another Kern-Hammerstein collaboration and another show-biz plot, best remembered today for “The Song Is You” and “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star.” Roberta (1933) by Kern and Harbach included the songs “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, “Let’s Begin and “Yesterdays” and featured, among others, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, George Murphy and Sydney Greenstreet. Kern’s Three Sisters (1934), was his last West End show, with a libretto by Hammerstein. Kern’s last Broadway show (other than revivals) was Very Warm for May (1939), another show-biz story that included the Kern and Hammerstein classic “All The Things You Are.”

In 1935, when musical films had become popular once again, thanks to Busby Berkeley, Kern returned to Hollywood, where he composed the scores to a dozen more films, although he also continued working on Broadway productions. He settled permanently in Hollywood in 1937. After suffering a heart attack in 1939, he was told by his doctors to concentrate on film scores, a less stressful task, as Hollywood songwriters were not as deeply involved with the production of their works as Broadway songwriters. This second phase of Kern’s Hollywood career had considerably greater artistic and commercial success than the first. With Hammerstein, he wrote songs for the film versions of his recent Broadway shows Music in the Air (1934), which starred Gloria Swanson in a rare singing role, and Sweet Adeline (1935). With Dorothy Fields, he composed the new music for I Dream Too Much (1935), a musical melodrama about the opera world, starring the Metropolitan Opera diva Lily Pons. Kern and Fields interspersed the opera numbers with their songs, including “the swinging ‘I Got Love,’ the lullaby ‘The Jockey on the Carousel,’ and the entrancing title song.” Also with Fields, he wrote two new songs, “I Won’t Dance” and “Lovely to Look At”, for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film version of Roberta (1935), which was a hit. The show also included the song “I’ll Be Hard to Handle.”

Their next film, Swing Time (1936) included the song “The Way You Look Tonight”, which won the Academy Award in 1936 for the best song. Other songs in Swing Time include “A Fine Romance”, “Pick Yourself Up” and “Never Gonna Dance.” For the 1936 film version of Show Boat, Kern and Hammerstein wrote three new songs, including “I Have The Room Above Her” and “Ah Still Suits Me.” High, Wide, and Handsome (1937) was intentionally similar in plot and style to Show Boat”, but it was a box-office failure. Kern songs were also used in the Cary Grant film, When You’re in Love (1937), and the first Abbott and Costello feature, One Night in the Tropics (1940). In 1940, Hammerstein wrote the lyric “The Last Time I Saw Paris”, in homage to the French capital, recently occupied by the Germans. Kern set it, the only time he set a pre-written lyric, and his only hit song not written as part of a musical. Originally a hit for Tony Martin and later for Noël Coward, the song was used in the film Lady Be Good (1941) and won Kern another Oscar for best song. Kern’s second and last symphonic work was his ‘Mark Twain Suite (1942).

In his last Hollywood musicals, Kern worked with several new and distinguished partners. With Johnny Mercer for You Were Never Lovelier (1942), he contributed a set of memorable songs. Kern’s next collaboration was with Ira Gershwin on Cover Girl starring Hayworth and Gene Kelly (1944) for which Kern composed “Sure Thing,” “Put Me to the Test,” “Make Way for Tomorrow” (lyric by E. Y. Harburg), and the hit ballad “Long Ago (and Far Away).” For the Deanna Durbin Western musical, Can’t Help Singing (1944), with lyrics by Harburg, Kern provided the best original score of Durbin’s career, mixing operetta and Broadway sounds in such songs as ‘Any Moment Now,’ ‘Swing Your Partner,’ ‘More and More,’ and the lilting title number.” “More and More” was nominated for an Oscar. Kern composed his last film score, Centennial Summer. Oscar Hammerstein, Leo Robin, and E. Y. Harburg contributed lyrics for Kern’s lovely music, resulting in the soulful ballad ‘All Through the Day,’ the rustic ‘Cinderella Sue,’ the cheerful ‘Up With the Lark,’ and the torchy ‘In Love in Vain.'” “All Through the Day” was another Oscar nominee. In the fall of 1945, Kern returned to New York City to oversee auditions for a new revival of Show Boat. On November 5, 1945, at 60 years of age, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was initially taken to the indigent ward at City Hospital, later being transferred to Doctors Hospital in Manhattan before he died of a stroke on November 11.

One of the most important American theatre composers of the early 20th century, Jerome Kern wrote more than 700 songs, used in over 100 stage works, creating dozens of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films in a career that lasted for more than four decades. Arguably the father modern American musical theater, he was nominated eight times for an Academy Award, and won twice. Seven nominations were for Best Original Song; these included a posthumous nomination in each of 1945 and 1946. One nomination was in 1945 for Best Original Music Score. Kern was not eligible for any Tony Awards, which were not created until 1947. Dozens of Kern’s musicals and musical films were hits, but only Show Boat is now regularly revived. Songs from his other shows, however, are still frequently performed and adapted. Although Kern detested jazz arrangements of his songs, many have been adopted by jazz musicians to become standard tunes. Jerome Kern was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and was honored with his portrait on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985.

My collection contains the following works by Jerome Kern:

The Cat and the Fiddle (1931): Overture.
Cover Girl (1944): Long Ago and Far Away.
The Girl from Utah (1914): Overture.
Have a Heart (1917): Overture.
Leave It to Jane (1917): Overture.
Mark Twain–Portrait for Orchestra (1942).
Oh, Lady! Lady!! (1918): Overture.
Sitting Pretty (1924): Overture.
Sweet Adeline (1929): Overture.
Swing Time (1936): Suite.
Very Warm for May (1939): Overture.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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