George Gershwin. Richard Rodgers. Jerome Kern. Louis Hirsch. … Louis Who?
We can all be forgiven if we don’t instantly recall the glories of Mr. Hirsch. His last musical to grace Broadway closed 86 years ago. But if you’d like to hear just what the Broadway audiences of the 1910s and 20s found charming, a new disc on New World Records serves as an introduction to an important but forgotten contributor in the evolution of the American Musical Theatre.
Louis A. Hirsch is missing from “Blumenfeld’s Dictionary of Musical Theatre” – shame on Robert Blumenfeld who found room for one-show wonders like Burt Bacharach (Promises, Promises) and Sherman Edwards (1776) but couldn’t list the composer of the scores for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, 1916, 1918 and 1922! In fact, Hirsch had interpolated numbers into the scores of at least thirteen shows as well as providing the full scores of nearly 30 between 1910 and 1924.
My iTunes library (which has a counter for such things) shows that my collection of show tunes amounts to some 15,000 songs. Yet there wasn’t one in the collection by Louis A. Hirsch before this recording arrived with its 17 tracks.
It might be understandable if Hirsch’s music itself is forgettable or, worse, boring. But this recording demonstrates a melodic felicity, harmonic sophistication and rhythmic inventiveness that is first rate. Of course, picking seventeen pieces out of a fourteen year career as one of the most prolific songwriters on Broadway and London’s West End, could well be skimming the cream from a huge catalogue of mediocrity. Since we haven’t heard any of the other hundreds of songs, it’s hard to tell. However, this collection is filled with unexpected delights and an authority no less than Robert Russell Bennett, the orchestrator who was one of the creators of “The Broadway Sound,” is quoted in the liner notes for this recoding as saying that Hirsch composed “some of the loveliest music I ever heard on the Broadway stage.” He should know. It is his 1920 arrangement of selections from Hirsch’s score for the Broadway show Mary that appears as track 10 on this disc.
If you know (and, therefore, love) the early music of Jerome Kern, you will love this disc as well. It is fairly amazing just how much some of these songs sound like Kern numbers from the same period. It isn’t that Hirsch was imitating Kern, or vice versa, but that this was the expected sound of the trend setting avant-garde of the musical theater in the years surrounding the First World War. Kern and Hirsch had been neighbors as kids and shared a similarity of taste and sensitivity. Kern, of course, went on to another twenty years of hit producing, all the while perfecting his craft. Hirsch, cut off by pneumonia in his early forties, is stuck in the formative years of the art, never having had the opportunity to grow beyond his relatively youthful period.
Just how that death was miss-timed for purposes of achieving the status of “immortal” that was conferred on some other theatre composers is explained in conductor Rick Benjamin’s fascinatingly detailed biographical sketch of Hirsch and analysis of his career in the forty-page booklet packaged with the disc. Hirsch’s death came just two years before the advent of nationwide radio broadcasting and three years before “The Jazz Singer” revolutionized the movie industry by adding sound to feature films making the movie musical a staple of popular culture. As Benjamin puts it, within a very few years of Hirsch’s death, instead of a song being introduced before an audience of a thousand or two in a theater in New York City, it could be simultaneously introduced to hundreds of thousands of listeners all over the country.
Benjamin also makes a cogent case that Hirsch’s obscurity is a result of shortsightedness among those who have written the history of the musical theatre. In his booklet, he goes a long way toward rectifying that shortcoming.
It is a fascinating booklet to read and a valuable addition to a theater lover’s shelf even without the recording. With the recording, it is quite a package indeed, with the twelve member orchestra playing vintage orchestrations. The orchestra is augmented to a total of nineteen for one Follies overture and a medley of songs from the 1917 show Going Up.
Ten of the 17 tracks call for the services of a vocalist. Soprano Bernadette Boerkel and baritone Cote Julian provide this service with a purity and clarity representative of the time.