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John H. McWhorter

Lost Treasures

Rewriting the history of American musical theater.

Not so long ago, from even the better-informed writers on American musical theater scores one expected the boulevardier more than the scholar, especially on the older works. Typical: a classic survey's complete take on Jerome Kern's superhit Sunny of 1925 was that its "value was enhanced more by the bounding Jack Donahue and the Tiller Girls than by any superior qualities in the score."

Yet Sunny was in fact bursting with music of near-operatic scope. The problem is that the authors of that survey had no way of knowing it. In the old days, Broadway theater music was thought of not as art but as commerce for the moment, no more worthy of preservation than the pit music for television variety shows. Show music was still America's pop music. 45-minute recital lps of the kind Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald pioneered were technically impossible before the Fifties; before this, even the great song-writers had no sense of contributing to an eternal "songbook."

Thus after an old show closed, all that was left was sheet music of the songs the producers hoped might become hits—only a fraction of the 14 or so songs in the show. Dance music and underscoring were never published as sheet music, and even if a fullish piano-vocal score was published—which was only for the biggest hits—often not in them.

Once a Sunny was off the boards, it was largely unknowable beyond the sheet music, some photos, and scattered recollections—until 1982. This was when the original performance materials for hundreds of Broadway musicals were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Since then, some dozens of projects have used this material to create recordings of the old shows as they were originally heard, and writers can now explore the actual scores of these shows rather than their isolated musical souvenirs. This more comprehensive approach to America's musical theater heritage has also spurred a similar approach to more recent theater music. A writer whose book on a composer thirty years ago would likely have been heavier on psychobiography than music is now more likely to at least balance the two.

The Yale Broadway Masters series is dedicated to this new style of coverage, and has already shed fascinating new light on Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Sigmund Romberg, Frank Loesser, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Andrew Lloyd Webber? Yes, even him—it had never occurred to me that when Mary Magdalene sings "I never thought I'd come to this" in Jesus Christ Superstar's "I Don't Know How To Love Him," the music entails "assertive fourth relationships including the modal flattened VII major chord," but I'll take it from Lloyd Webber's chronicler in the series, John Snelson.

It should be said that analysis this musically dense dominates neither Snelson's nor any of the entries, all of which are accessibly written and include ample biographical information. However, I am struck by the fact that the books, intended as celebratory works bringing to light undersung capacities, leave me with a feeling ultimately describable as sobered. This is due to two running themes, hardly intended as such by the authors, but crucial just the same.

One is a sense of loss. The Secaucus find notwithstanding, a massive amount of American theater music from before about 1960 is now lost to the ages—which becomes especially poignant when we learn from books like these how good a lot of the less-er-known music for these shows was.

For example, earlier verdicts on Sunny were based on the sheet music songs, which happened not to be Kern's most interesting work. However, as Stephen Banfield tells us in the book on Kern in this series, over a quarter of that score was instrumental, and also included sequences such as a smashing wedding scene first-act finale beginning with a vocally challenging operatic-style trio, continuing through three fine songs the best of which happened not to be published as a sheet, and ending on a spectacular high note for the female lead.

Certainly there were at least flashes of "superior qualities" here. Consider also the case of Sigmund Romberg, who wrote frothy operettas like The Student Prince and The Desert Song, and whose time in the spotlight was largely over by 1930. Romberg's chronicler in the series, William Everett, explains that this has helped keep Romberg obscure, since traditional musical theater historiography charts the genre as becoming truly interesting only with Show Boat in 1927. Everett, going on to give rather studied, historically oriented reasons why we should care about Romberg now, is in my view a tad timid: full-scale recordings reveal that the man wrote smashing music, period. In isolation, songs like "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" and "Stouthearted Men" can seem corny eighty years after they were written. However, performed amidst narrative, underscoring, and more nuanced songs unpublished as sheets, they become parts of lush, stirring scores which anyone who likes classical music, in particular, can enjoy.

In this light, it is sad to read that, for example, Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's score for the 1934 The Three Sisters (no, not the Chekhov play!) survives only in pieces. It, too, had elaborate underscoring for lengthy stretches of the narrative, and, almost as if to tempt future aficionados, one of these scenes was for some reason recorded in full on two sides of a 78 by the original cast—an extremely rare practice at the time—leaving us wondering how the rest of a score sounded which, even in its sheet music, included quirky and deathless songs like the classic "I Won't Dance" as well as a deeply obscure one which I have seen make a grown woman cry when performed.

We can play pieces Mozart wrote when he was a child, and none of his operas are lost. Yet countless lyrics for Rodgers' early shows with Lorenz Hart are gone forever. For A Connecticut Yankee, a big hit my late grandfather-in-law fondly recalled seeing in 1927, series chronicler Geoffrey Block notes that a whole song is missing, while for several, the melody is lost and only Hart's lyric survives.

Of course, in no era is even most pop for the ages. It is hardly a tragedy that every bit of stage music people heard long ago is no longer available to us. However, Rodgers and Hart wrote top-rate material; their scores that survive in full are ear-candy of Godiva grade. As the pianist and producer for a group cabaret show, as I write this I am planning to include in the next show one of their duets ("The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye" from On Your Toes) which I will accompany playing the original stage scoring with all of its musical bells and whistles—including things equal to the splendor of modal flattened VII major chords.

The Yale series is also sobering in requiring a mental adjustment in our sense of who created this music in the proper sense. Recent research makes it increasingly clear that most Golden Age Broadway composers were characterizable as auteurs of a kind: their contribution was decisive to the essence of the production, but was only possible with a great deal of help from other people, often more musically expert than them.

For example, almost none of these composers scored their music for orchestra. There was barely time, and most of them were not trained for it in any case. Stephen Citron's 2004 book Jerry Herman, also from Yale, is not part of the series but performs a similar service. Citron praises Herman, who plays piano by ear, for furnishing Hello, Dolly's "Love, Look in My Window" with "minor chords" and "flatted ninths," but this is like praising a cook for using salt and pepper. Minor chords and flatted ninths are central to doing what any show music fan would call playing the piano. Herman's genius, and it is that, is for creating deathlessly memorable melodies. It's others who fashion them into numbers.

The bells and whistles I referred to above in the song I will be using in my cabaret, for example, were mostly the work of Rodgers' first favorite orchestrator Hans Spialek. Later, it was orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett who created much of what we cherish about Rodgers' songs, such as the "O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A" ending of the song of that title. Rodgers' house dance pianist, Trude Rittmann, composed—uncredited—the music for The King and I's "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, such that Bennett, scoring it for orchestra, naughtily wrote on the first page "by Trude Rodgers." Rittmann also wrote the famous middle sequence of The Sound of Music's "Do Re Mi" ("Do-mi-mi, mi-so-so …").

New treatments like the Yale ones, submitting the music to scholarly scrutiny, bring these obscure facts increasingly to light, revealing that much of what one comes to love about a recording of a musical was created by the unsung orchestrators and dance pianists. Especially striking is seeing photos of actual music submitted for processing by the composers, with the scoring so telegraphic and thin that the orchestrators and dance pianists come to seem more like co-authors.

A Connecticut Yankee is useful again: it was revived in 1943, with about half of the 1927 score replaced with new songs. Materials from that version, closer to us in time, happen to survive in full. It was the basis of one of the first full-length cast albums, long a favorite of mine, and this 1943 version was performed in New York in the Encores! series in 2001, which yielded a full piano-vocal score that has gotten around among fans. These days, I can know how much of the delight of the thing is Rodgers and Hart's work versus that of the unsung assistants. One song is most infectious for a quirky vamp that begins it and continues into the vocal; that was the orchestrator Ted Royal. The song bringing on Morgan Le Fay has a marvelous extension involving dance music and chorus boys' extra lyrics—this was the work of vocal director Buck Warnick and the unidentified dance pianist. And so on.

To be clear, Robert Russell Bennett wrote music of his own, and it was unremarkable. He could not have written even sketches of songs as infectious and deft as Rodgers'. Yet in the end, The King and I is less Rodgers than Lucia di Lammermoor is Donizetti, and the same went for Kern and Frank Loesser in particular.

None of this detracts from the genius of these composers in the end, however, and it is a mark of the maturation of their print coverage that books like the Yale series leave readers with impressions more mature than the mere unfocused admiration that earlier sources were designed to stoke. A final example also involves my cabaret show. One of my singers will be performing "Loads of Love" from No Strings, which Rodgers wrote both music and lyrics to after Hammerstein died. I've always loved the tune.

Block teaches me, however, that its appeal can be traced to a key point in the melody, a dissonant tritone above the C chord, which summons jazz harmony newly fashionable in the early Sixties, when the show premiered, and quietly complements the fact that the character singing it happens to be black. I had never thought about that, but such subtle touches are the mark of top-quality songwriting.

We've come a long way from "bounding Jack Donahue and the Tiller Girls" indeed, and Geoffrey Block, who also edits the series, is to be commended for what I hope will be a long run of volumes in which authors approach these composers as scholars rather than as fans or dishers of dirt.

Yale Broadway Masters Series

George Gershwin • Larry Starr
Andrew Lloyd Webber • John Snelson
Kander and Ebb • James Leve
Frank Loesser • Thomas L. Riis
Sigmund Romberg • William A. Everett
Jerome Kern • Stephen Banfield
Richard Rodgers • Geoffrey Block

John H. McWhorter teaches at Columbia University and is a contributing editor of The New Republic. He is the author most recently of What Language Is (Gotham).

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