Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers or Sondheim? By Peter Filichia
Back in September, there was a nifty new play that posed a question which you’ll find a real head-scratcher.
New York didn’t see the show, although it should. Dan McCabe’s THE PURISTS is great fun when it needs to be and deadly serious when the situation warrants it.
The show, given a dazzling production by director Billy Porter (KINKY BOOTS) and The Huntington Theatre Company of Boston, partly involved Gerry Brinsley, a rabid musical theatre enthusiast.
How do we know he’s such a maven? That an enormous poster of FOLLIES dominated his apartment was proof enough. Add to it Playbill covers from other hits and flops that were demurely framed and hung on every available wall.
Gerry enjoyed playing “What-if”-type games with his colleagues. One female friend named four musical theater giants – Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim – and asked if he had to live his life without one of them, who would it be?
McCabe had Gerry struggle with the question long and hard. Knowing that he had to give some sort of answer, he finally shrugged and settled on “Gershwin.”
What a scandalized sound came from audience members. Their moans clearly conveyed “How could you ever pick Gershwin?!?!”
Well, to be fair, Gershwin’s death at a mere thirty-eight had to have a great deal to do with Gerry’s making him walk the plank. Had Gershwin lived even as long as Kern (sixty), Rodgers (seventy-seven – meaning Gershwin only lived half as long) or Sondheim (who’s currently approaching ninety), he would have undoubtedly composed more Broadway shows. What’s more, he’d have had on his shelves many items that, for all intents and purposes, hadn’t come into being during his lifetime.
Original Broadway Cast Albums. We don’t know more of Gershwin’s work because he was dead and buried more than five years before any true original cast album would be released.
When Gershwin started writing for real in the second decade of the twentieth century, movies hadn’t yet learned to talk, let alone sing. Phonographs and radios were non-existent to rare, so if you wanted to hear songs, Broadway was one place to do it.
True, recording companies tried to catch up. Masterworks Broadway alone has made studio cast albums of GIRL CRAZY, OF THEE I SING, LET ‘EM EAT CAKE, OH, KAY! and the quintessential PORGY AND BESS recording from the now-legendary 1976 Houston Opera production that came to Broadway.
Let’s not forget the cast albums of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and CRAZY FOR YOU. Both of those sport many a Gershwin song that was taken from here and there to create brand-new Gershwin musicals.
The cast album, of course, is the easiest way for Gerry Brinsley and the rest of us to become familiar with a Broadway songwriter’s work. So even though Gershwin’s name is on more Broadway shows than Sondheim’s, we’re more familiar with the latter genius because there’s never been a Sondheim stage score that hasn’t been recorded. Even if it ran a mere two weeks (MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG) or an even more mere one week (ANYONE CAN WHISTLE), it made it into the studio.
Bravo to the recording producers who did such exemplary work in getting the scores out there. Thanks to Goddard Lieberson, we can still hear the original lyrics to “Quintet” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” before Hollywood neutered them. Thomas Z. Shepard gets our admiration for releasing SWEENEY TODD not only on two discs but on a one-disc “Highlights.”
(Although here’s betting that anyone who bought the abridged SWEENEY TODD and heard it a couple of times went right out and replaced it with the complete set.)
Jay David Saks deserves kudos for recording the entire final scene of ASSASSINS. It has some music in it, but the power of it rests in John Weidman’s words and construction. (A later recording mercilessly and idiotically cut this scene; it MUST be heard in its entirety.)
We can understand why Gerry Brinsley would find Richard Rodgers hard to kick to the curb (given that he wrote “You Mustn’t Kick It Around” for PAL JOEY) or throw under a bus (considering that he composed “A Lopsided Bus” for PIPE DREAM). And yet, if anyone asked you to name the hundred greatest Rodgers songs, you probably wouldn’t put those two on the list.
If I had to cite my favorite Rodgers and Hart, it’d be “I Could Write a Book” from PAL JOEY. Rodgers and Hammerstein? “Soliloquy” from CAROUSEL. Rodgers and Sondheim? Oh, the whole score to DO I HEAR A WALTZ? no matter what anyone says. Rodgers and Charnin? “Something, Somewhere” from TWO BY TWO. Rodgers and Harnick? “No Song More Pleasing,” which is truly truth in advertising where REX is concerned.
As for my favorite Rodgers without anybody else, the answer is a tie between “The Carousel Waltz” and “Gavotte” from CINDERELLA. Could this guy compose, or what?
So if I were asked the question that Gerry Brinsley was loath to answer, I’d have to say Jerome Kern, mostly because he’s the one whose work is the most obscure to me.
Of the sixty-seven shows for which Kern provided some or all of the music, only seven have been recorded: SHOW BOAT, of course, as well as LEAVE IT TO JANE, VERY GOOD EDDIE, SITTING PRETTY, MUSIC IN THE AIR, ROBERTA and HAVE A HEART. (And good luck finding that last one; it’s never been officially released.)
The absence of recordings has a great deal to do with the fact that Kern started earlier than the rest. His first Broadway appearance was in 1904, only eight years after the cylinder was introduced as the easiest way to hear music. When OKLAHOMA! got the Original Broadway Cast Album to become a player on the recording market on Dec. 2, 1943, Kern had fewer than two years to live. We would have undoubtedly got an original cast album if he hadn’t died and gone on to compose ANNIE GET YOUR GUN with Dorothy Fields, which was the plan.
Hmm, good thing that Gerry Brinsley’s questioner didn’t bring ANNIE GET YOUR GUN’S composer into the mix, for Irving Berlin would be hard if not impossible to discard. All five are composers whom we could listen to all night and day.
And those last three words in that previous paragraph remind us of Cole Porter. Hard to fathom that Gerry Brinsley – or the rest of us — would discard him if he’d been part of the question, too.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.