Jerome Kern: The Land Where the Good Songs Go

Quick! Buy a copy of this recording which was released today and give it to the artistic director of your favorite local theater company that produces its own musical shows. Tell him or her that The Land Where The Good Songs Go should be their next revue, and that they should ask whichever licensing house they work with the most to obtain the show for their catalog.

It begins rapturously with the entire company delivering the title song. It hails from Kern’s 1917 show Oh Boy!. That was one of “The Princess Theatre Shows” that Kern, P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton provided for the intimate (299 seats) theater on 39th Street where there wasn’t room for spectacle and huge orchestras, but where audiences responded to charm, intelligence and a new tunefulness.

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What follows is a delectable collection of over thirty songs that Kern crafted with a range of lyricists between 1907 and his death in 1945.

Among the Kern standards (and who wrote more standards than Kern?) in the collection are “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “A Fine Romance,” “All The Things You Are,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and a combined “Till The Clouds Roll By” and “Look For The Silver Lining.” But it is the little (or un) known gems that capture the mind and enrapture the heart of not just lovers of melody but of light verse.

M. E. Rourke’s lyric for “Bill’s a Liar” (1907) is blissfully joined to Wodehouse’s 1917 words for the legendary “Bill” giving it completely new meanings. James O’Dea’s lyric for “The Subway Express” (from 1907′s Fascinating Flora) propels a couple from first glance to romance along the stops of the subway from lower Manhattan’s Spring Street to the Bronx.

Wodehouse’s little ditty “We’re Crooks” (from Miss 1917) sings the praise of simple theft by contrasting it to other professions which have long come in for nearly slanderous disapproval:

We are crooks like you read about in books
We collar everything on which we lay our hooks
If you leave your door unlocked we come inside
but we never could be lawyers
for we’ve got some proper pride.

—–

And we’re crooks like you read about in books
We’re strong on intellect but maybe not on looks
and our rhymes at times are things to shudder at
But we’ve never been in Congress for we draw the line at that.

—–

We are crooks like you read about in books
We collar everything on which we lay our hooks
Tho’ your silver spoons and jewels we collect
we’ve never worked on Wall Street
For we have some self respect.

This delightful package isn’t simply a collection of Kern songs, however – as wonderful as that might have been. Instead, it is an attempt to use a sampling of his astonishing output to tell a story so that the songs can be experienced in the mode for which they were written – as songs that serve a purpose in a show.

Toward that end, the author Ed Wilson (The Theatre Experience; Theater: The Lively Art; and, Living Theatre: Histories of Theatre,) director Stafford Arima (who directed the recent re-emergence of the musical Carrie) and conductor/music director David Loud (Ragtime, Master Class) structured the revue as the story of three couples who meet, fall in love, mate or not and live with the consequences.

The songs serve to define the personalities of the six characters, tell their story and track the timeline. For instance, what better way to say “We’re now in World War II” than to have the cast singing Oscar Hammerstein’s touching lyric that is so well served by Kern’s tune for “The Last Time I Saw Paris?”

The stimulus to all this dramaturgy seems to have been the idea of David Loud’s to link the standard, the classic “I love him just because he’s him” song “Bill,” to a little known Kern number titled “Bill’s a Liar” – it certainly puts a new twist on the classic. From there, Loud and his collaborators found Kern songs that fit their scenario and, in each case, the fact that the song is being used for its intended function of storytelling makes each a fresh, new experience.

Just how successful the revue’s book might be can’t be told from the recording even if it is a two-disc set. That would require at least a script and at best a full production to watch.

But PS Classics have done their usual fine job on packaging. Someone found an essay that none other than Stephen Sondheim wrote back in 1957 about the songwriting of Jerome Kern and got him to update it a bit. It is detailed and technical enough to add to the understanding of Kern’s work for musically sophisticated readers, while it is put in clear enough language to be a fine introduction to Kern’s magic for those who love music but may not know that much about its technical elements.

The Land Where The Good Songs Go
PS Classics catalog PS-1211
Running time 1:24 over 30 tracks on two discs
Packaged with notes and synopsis
ASIN: B009HTZNNY
List price $15.95

Add a full synopsis of the revue’s slender plot line, a note on the origin of the revue itself from Musical Director/Arranger David Loud, and a track listing that includes the source for each of the songs, and you have a handsome and useful booklet.

In the fine print you will learn that the revue began life at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at the Catholic University of America as part of Jane Pesci-Townsend‘s Excellence in Music Theater Program. There it had a cast of students in the graduate program including Kurt Boehm, Lauren Williams and other CUA students.

The cast on the recording is a collection of superb professionals. Rebecca Luker (who was Magnolia in the 1994 revival of Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat) is incredibly lovely on “Go, Little Boat” and funny on “Ain’t It Funny What a Difference Just a Few Drinks Make?” Philip Chaffin and Kate Baldwin are delectable together on “All The Things You Are” and Heidi Blickenstaff, Graham Rowat and Matthew Scott each have moments that make you check the booklet to see just who was doing such a good job.

All of this is backed by a small orchestra of two violins, a cello, bass, two woodwinds, drums and the piano of Jihwan Kim in tasty arrangements by Loud that support the vocals with a maximum of good taste and a minimum of distraction.

When buying a copy for the artistic director of your local theater company, order a second one for yourself so it can take its rightful place on your theater shelf.

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