Pity the American composer of the early part of this century whose work is doomed to languish in scrapbooks. Sure, the U.S. government, with a nudge from the right special-interest group, might issue a stamp, but where are the public statues? Of course, the best and most enduring memorial is the revival, on Broadway or elsewhere, but often this form of homage will reduce a composer to literally greatest hits. What do you do with an oeuvre that spans nearly a half-century and represents theatrical as well as film presentations?
The ghost of Jerome Kern must be delighted at his most devoted acolyte, chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci, who recently entertained St. Louis audiences for a week at the elegantly intimate Grandel Theatre. The evening of cabaret, billed as Just Kern, spanned the composer's career, which began in 1915, with Very Good Eddie. Kern is best known for Show Boat, which Marcovicci described as the first modern musical, in which one team, Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, wrote the entire score, integrating words, music and story for the first time on Broadway. (Previous musicals were basically star turns and production numbers "with the thinnest stories.") Kern also was responsible for scaling back the scale of a Broadway orchestra from the symphony-size 90 pieces that prevailed earlier in the century to a more manageable 27.
And at the Grandel, there were just two performers: Marcovicci and her accomplished accompanist/arranger, Glenn Mehrbach. Marcovicci, a regular at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, is a slender reed of a diva with a subtle, at times tremulous voice. It's not the most remarkable instrument, but her phrasing and enthusiasm for her material frequently lifted the performance into the sublime. And her scholarship was impeccable. She wanted the audience to know as much and care as much as she does about Kern's life, times and lesser-known work. We all know "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "My Bill," but Marcovicci's affectionate and spirited renditions of obscure comic triumphs like "My Husband's First Wife" or "I Won't Dance" made for a winning evening.
Indeed, many of Kern's best and most memorable numbers are an unexpected combination of sprightly and elegiac. Consider "My Bill" (which Marcovicci told us was originally written about get this U.S. currency, as in "he's just my bill"). At the Grandel, Marcovicci sang the song as a light pop ditty, in the style of the show's originator, Helen Morgan, who premiered the song in Show Boat. Usually this number, a favorite of the fraught and throbbing torch singer, is rendered as throaty and elongated. Marcovicci uncovered a playfulness and an almost adolescent resignation to the pains of love: "He's just my Bill/An ordinary guy/You meet him on the street/And never notice him." After finishing, she humorously apologized for including that and other yearning love songs in her repertoire, because she prefers not to sing certain numbers "for anyone under 14" (there were two children in the audience). She then reprised some lyrics, with amendments: "I love him because I don't know (dramatic pause) you're supposed to know."
Kern had the cream of Broadway lyricists at his disposal, including Oscar Hammerstein, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields and Johnny Mercer. His talent with an inveigling hook and sinuous melody line was perfectly wedded to the wordplay of these stellar writers. Back then, lyrics were both more subtle and, as Marcovicci pointed out, "more risqué." And romance was first, last and always on the menu. But not easy or obvious romance the Kern portfolio has an agenda any Top 20 self-help-book author would envy. In Kernworld, love is freighted, sad, doomed, bittersweet and sorrowful and that's when it's going well. Take this snippet from "I'm in Love Again" (lyricist is Dorothy Fields): "Although I adore you/remind me to ignore you."
Of course, there are exceptions to the vicissitudes of romance, but they mostly came early in Kern's career, like "How'd You Like to Spoon with Me," a duet, Marcovicci explained, from a World War I-era musical called Earl and the Girl. (More than a few of the evening's offerings were duets, which she and Mehrbach transformed into solo numbers.) Any singer who can take a lyric like "How'd you like to spoon with me/And be my tootsie-wootsie" and infuse it with genuine warmth and respect has a finesse that most pop divas should aspire to. After finishing, she cracked, "I told you it'd be innocent I'd like to send that to Cher."
Though the tunes of many of the early Kern work are as frothy and perishable as a soap bubble, Marcovicci's commentary and placing of the work in historical context made them interesting, and an irresistible slice of Americana. Well, she did tell us her "hobby is not living in the present." Yet some of the early work has an intriguing perspective on aspects of unrequited love, like "I Never Knew About You Dear" (circa 1917). These lyrics offer both male and female points of view; two lovers reflecting on their unshared childhoods and their ambiguous regret about not meeting sooner.
One cavil, however Marcovicci spoke far too quickly when recounting anecdotes and background information about her beloved Jerome, the incomparable Helen Morgan and other players on the early stage. We all know professional singers have to have superb breath control, but Marcovicci's accelerated patter was at times difficult to follow.
And there was plenty of information: The first half of the show concentrated on Kern's Broadway work and the second on his Hollywood career, which was both productive and pleasurable for the transplanted New Yorker. He wrote for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and he encouraged Ira Gershwin to work again after the death of brother George. Mehrbach inserted a sweetly casual tribute to Gershwin at the close of "My Bill," when he interwove the opening bars of "Rhapsody in Blue." These days, most of Kern's musicals like Roberta may never be performed again (except at San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon Theatre, which specializes in "digging up, dusting off and re-presenting those rarely performed musicals), but numbers like the insouciantly hard-headed "A Fine Romance" will endure forever, in or out of a museum. And with a curator like Marcovicci, whose mission is education as much as entertainment, we'll get a chance to visit the archives more often.