Friday, May 21, 2010

Jerome Kern: That Moment Divine

I was floating around in cyberspace and came across this blog Something Old, Nothing New:Thoughts on Popular Culture and Unpopular Culture by Jaime Weinman.  This particular post talked about Very Warm for May. With permission from the writer, I’ve reposted an edited version here (all links are mine). Enjoy!

In my previous post, some commenters mentioned another track from that John McGlinn "Broadway Showstoppers" album, the original version of "All the Things You Are."

This was from Jerome Kern's last Broadway show, Very Warm For May, one of many bombs Oscar Hammerstein wrote in the '30s. (When Oklahoma! became a hit, Hammerstein took out an ad listing all the flops he had written in the past 10 years, and ended it with "I've done it before and I can do it again.") Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the show originally did well in tryouts, but was heavily rewritten at the insistence of the producer, Max Gordon. From Hugh Fordin's biography of Hammerstein:
Between the end of the Boston engagement and the opening night in New York six days later, something happened to Very Warm For May. Max Gordon had reappeared on the scene, and he and Minnelli became convinced that the show had to have drastic revisions in order to be "commercially successful." Gordon brought in Hassard Short [one of the most successful stage directors, a specialist in big, elaborate productions] as consultant. The book was completely rewritten, the gangster plot removed entirely, and along with it an element of fantasy upon which the tone and humor of the play depended. The character of Quiller [the pretentious director of the play-within-the-play] was so toned down that the satirical element was eliminated and the preposterous, posturing figure became an inexperienced but sympathetic young man. The dialogue was emasculated in the hasty rewrite, losing its wit and verve. The new script showed a tightness that the first version had lacked, but removed the wacky charm of the original without offering any substantially stronger structure [note from Ken: 42nd Street Moon's production uses a combination of the original Boston and Broadway scripts, most of the original Quiller material has been re-introduced into the new San Francisco Production]. Russell Bennett, the orchestrator of the show, called Very Warm For May a "great show that was produced into a failure."
Kern went back to Hollywood after the failure of the show and concentrated on film musicals for the rest of his career. Hammerstein coaxed him back to New York to do Annie Get Your Gun, but he died before he could start work on the score.

The score of Very Warm For May is, as you'd expect from Kern in his prime, full of beautiful things, but no song from the show (or any flop show, really) has become as famous as "All the Things You Are," the essence of the Kern technique: write a song that sounds like a pure, simple little melody but has, by Broadway standards, almost avant-garde harmony. "We never thought the public would take it," Hammerstein said. "It had three changes of key in the middle of the refrain, which is a very risky thing to do."

In the original version, the song is performed as part of the show-within-the-show. The Orson Welles-ish director, Ogdon Quiller, plays one of the characters singing the long verse (which was rewritten and shortened in the published version), the refrain is sung by a soprano while the tenor harmonizes, and then there's a big, lush choral arrangement of the refrain.

Another Very Warm For May song that has always had a powerful effect on me is "Heaven In My Arms," a dancing song (which would have been perfect for Fred Astaire; it was here introduced by Jack Whiting, a singer-dancer who got a lot of Astaire-style parts after Astaire left New York) that Kern and Hammerstein expected to be the show's big hit. It never quite made it, maybe because it's somewhat ungrateful to sing: Kern keeps dipping down really low ("the music and...LIIIGGGHHH--TING"). But it's a gorgeous song, and another of Kern's formal experiments: instead of the normal verse/refrain format, he writes it in such a way that the verse and refrain almost seem to be part of the same unit, and ties the whole structure together by repeating the opening notes of the verse at the end of the song.

I first heard the song sung by Broadway singer/dancer Harold Lang on Ben Bagley's Jerome Kern Revisited album. The recording from McGlinn's Jerome Kern Treasury, is a composite version, using the second refrain that was cut on the road, but keeping the choral section that was added during the same tryouts. (The young and brilliant composer/arranger Hugh Martin was called in to Very Warm For May to provide a more modern sound in the vocal arrangements, the way he'd already done for Richard Rodgers in The Boys From Syracuse. I don't know for certain if this arrangement is his or if it's by Robert Russell Bennett, who sometimes did vocal arrangements in addition to orchestrations.)

- Jaime J. Weinman, Critic,

If you want to see the West Coast Premiere of Very Warm for May, this weekend is your last chance.  For tickets call 415 255 8207 or click here.  Also, I recommend checking out Something Old, Nothing New it's a terrifically informative and fun blog!

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