For the last several evenings, as Joshua and I have been helping my mother prepare the house for a family visit, we have all been listening to a couple of discs of music from the 1920’s.
We chose these particular discs because we wanted something light and frothy to listen to. We also wanted music that did not require sustained listening and concentration. We wanted music with a sequence of short numbers, something we could tune in and tune out as we moved about the house.
One of the discs is the original score to “Lady, Be Good”, George Gershwin’s first Broadway hit. On the Nonesuch label, this disc is one in a series of Gershwin restorations produced and recorded by Nonesuch in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
“Lady, Be Good” was the first Gershwin musical with lyrics by his brother, Ira, and it was written especially for the brother-and-sister dance duo from Omaha, Fred and Adele Astaire. Of all the many Gershwin musicals that were to follow over the next decade, “Lady, Be Good” enjoyed the longest initial run. The first production ran for almost eighteen months, still the record for an original Gershwin show.
There were three hit musicals during the 1924-1925 Broadway season. In addition to “Lady, Be Good”, Friml’s “Rose Marie” and Romberg’s “The Student Prince” enjoyed critical and commercial success that season.
It was the Gershwin show, however, that typified The Jazz Age. Unlike the Friml or Romberg efforts, “Lady, Be Good” was not a pure watered-down version of European operetta. It was a sleek, sophisticated and saucy American show, entirely representative of its time and place, and it is now generally regarded as the first true musical of what became known as The Roaring Twenties.
Much of the original orchestration for the show has been lost. Of the eighteen numbers from the original 1924 production, original orchestrations remain for only six numbers. In the Nonesuch recording, the other twelve numbers feature recreated orchestrations, faithful to the style of the originals, by Tommy Krasker.
The best-known songs from the show are the title number and “Fascinating Rhythm”. The remaining songs are not as memorable, but “Lady, Be Good” nevertheless has an exquisite score.
A few of the songs are “novelty numbers”, written to showcase the unique capabilities of particular performers (one of the “Lady, Be Good” numbers was created for a long-forgotten ukulele star of the day), and these numbers do not come off on the Nonesuch recording. Likewise, some of the comedic numbers, written for subsidiary characters in order to advance the plot, are also unremarkable.
However, the entire score remains bright and invigorating, and it is surprising to me that this show is not better-known.
My parents attended a 1987 performance of “Lady, Be Good” at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. That 1987 revival used the original book. It also used the same original and recreated orchestrations heard in the Nonesuch recording. It was a staging that attempted to be faithful to the period, even to the point of keeping the novelty numbers. According to my parents, the show was beautifully designed, beautifully staged and beautifully performed.
My parents say that the 1987 Goodspeed “Lady, Be Good” was one of the finest afternoons they ever spent in any theater. To this day, they insist that the show was positively enchanting, light as air and fresh as paint. Many theatergoers who saw the Goodspeed production believed that the show should have transferred to Broadway, but this was not to happen—producers were unwilling to risk an investment in the show after the New York Times gave a lukewarm reception to the Goodspeed production.
Legendary producer Roger Stevens, then head of the Kennedy Center, attended a Goodspeed performance of “Lady, Be Good”. Stevens was so captivated by the Goodspeed production that he had the production imported, lock, stock and barrel, to Washington, where it enjoyed a successful run at the Eisenhower Theater. At the conclusion of the Eisenhower Theater engagement, however, the life of the production ended and “Lady, Be Good” more or less disappeared from view.
The Nonesuch recording is not particularly good—and certainly not as excellent as the listener wants it to be—but it is the only recording of the work available that is faithful to the original vision of the composer. As such, it is invaluable.
The recording offers a “straight” performance. The singers, pickup chorus, pickup orchestra and conductor Eric Stern, all assembled solely for the recording (and not beneficiaries of a run of stage performances), take no liberties with the score. They offer a clean presentation of the notes, but little more. The singers are short on personality and sparkle, and so is the conductor.
And yet, despite these shortcomings and a few casting blemishes (none of the performers assigned the novelty numbers is up to the task), Gershwin’s score still casts its spell. The title number is a case study in urbanity and savoir-faire, and “Fascinating Rhythm” is infectious in its carefree breeziness.
American theatergoers are so accustomed to revamped and modernized Gershwin—in which hit songs from several different Gershwin shows are borrowed, re-orchestrated to the nines, and set within a new book—that theatergoers no longer know how real Gershwin shows sounded. The Nonesuch series gives listeners the opportunity to hear how Gershwin scores sounded in their original incarnations, set within their original contexts.
Listeners of today, hearing the complete “Lady, Be Good” score, can hear how Gershwin’s score was sometimes full of new sounds and new rhythms that owed little to European forebears. At the same time, the complete score also demonstrates that Gershwin had not yet broken completely free from the prevailing European-based models of the day.
Despite the amazing freshness of much of the “Lady, Be Good” score, its roots in European operetta are never very far from the surface. This is most evident in the numbers for chorus, which are not much different from comparable numbers in “Rose Marie” and “The Student Prince”. The patter songs, too, derive from European models, and lack the interesting harmonic twists and melodic individuality that typify Gershwin’s best efforts.
Gershwin’s music that is most operetta-like has not survived. His choruses, patter songs, novelty numbers and comedy numbers have long since disappeared from view. The only way to hear this music today is to attend an authentic performance of a show, very rare anywhere, or to listen to the Nonesuch discs.
I hope that Nonesuch keeps these historic recreations permanently available (an unlikely prospect; “Pardon My English” has already been deleted from the Nonesuch catalog, and I suspect that “Strike Up The Band”, which requires two discs, will soon follow suit). These discs keep alive a part of our national heritage, and represent an essential link in the development of the American musical theater.
The second disc of music from the 1920’s we have been listening to is “Orchids In The Moonlight”, a disc of songs by Vincent Youmans on the Arabesque label. The performers are the husband-and-wife team of soprano Joan Morris and pianist William Bolcom, joined by tenor Robert White.
Youmans was an immensely talented songwriter, perhaps as gifted as his exact contemporary Richard Rodgers. However, Youmans had expended his musical talent by the time he was in his mid-thirties, a victim of bankruptcy, tuberculosis and alcoholism. He died at the age of forty-seven, having completed his final Broadway score more than fourteen years before his death. His only hit show was “No, No, Nanette”, from 1925, written when Youmans was only twenty-seven years old.
The twenty-one songs on the disc are delightful: charming, tuneful, witty, capricious, impertinent, a veritable signature-album of American urban sophistication of the Twenties. After listening to only a handful of these numbers, one is prepared to declare Youmans America’s greatest songwriter.
Youmans’s melodies are less foursquare than Irving Berlin’s and more memorable than Cole Porter’s. His rhythmic imagination is superior to Richard Rodgers’s. The bracing freshness of his songs rivals Gershwin’s.
Ultimately, however, Youmans’s songs lack the richness of Jerome Kern’s and the depth of feeling that Richard Rodgers was to bring to his music after the age of thirty. They also lack the sheer magic that Gershwin unveiled in his very finest songs. This accounts for the fact that only two Vincent Youmans songs have become standards: “Tea For Two” and “I Want To Be Happy”, both from “No, No, Nanette”.
Nevertheless, this disc is totally disarming, even though the performances truly are not all that impressive. Morris’s voice lacks richness and color and individuality, White is captured well past his prime, and Bolcom has never been anything more than a competent pianist.
The material carries the day, happily, as one forgets the shortcomings of the performances and simply enjoys these sparkling songs.
These songs are capable of inducing broad smiles and knowing laughs, if not outright giddiness. We enjoyed listening to these irresistible songs many times.
Does any song title better represent the American sensibility of the 1920’s than “Orchids In the Moonlight”?