Celebrating a composer of musical theater

The Bach and Handel tricentenary celebrations continue unabated this summer. Even Alban Berg, whose 100th is celebrated this year, is represented on concert programs around the world. But there is also an American composer, who wrote for the musical theater and who left a large legacy of songs that to this day are heard and loved, whose 100th is also being celebrated this year -- Jerome Kern. It would be a major oversight not to mention and celebrate him. True, Kern wrote neither symphonies nor operas, he wrote musicals -- some 36 in all. For those musicals he wrote songs that have become enduring favorites. ``Show Boat,'' with book (the musical-theater term for the script) and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was his most ambitious effort, his masterwork, and remains an American classic. It has been produced in a serious way in several European theaters and opera houses. ``Show Boat'' incorporated music, drama, and message in an artistic entity that spoke directly to its public -- with meaning, feeling, entertainment, and a strong sense of moral responsibility.

Kern was always a pivotal part of innovative teams. At the time he and Guy Bolton began writing their string of Princess Theater musicals -- named after the intimate house they were performed in -- Broadway shows were a hodgepodge excuse for goings on that had everything to do with star turns and nothing to do with plot development. Then, during the second decade of this century, along came this remarkable composer and an astutely witty writer (Bolton). Suddenly, musicalgoers were introduced to something like real plots, frothy and inane though they may have been. And the songs had context and continuity.

I am reminded of all this because of three enchanting concert performances of Princess Theater musicals in Carnegie Recital Hall this past spring. Two of the shows -- `Oh Boy!'' and ``Oh! Lady! Lady!!'' -- were performed with the original orchestrations, recently uncovered by music director John McGlinn. The third, ``Zip! Goes a Million,'' was a show that never made New York. In fact, until last year it had disappeared totally from view. The original score was recently discovered, but alas, without the Bolton book.

The performers in all three shows were enchanting. Mr. McGlinn's musical direction improved during the series. ``Zip!'' finally misfired because imitation-Bolton humor is simply not in league with the real thing, but by then Mr. McGlinn had evolved into a deft and lively concert-musical conductor.

These performances, and my recollections of the Goodspeed Opera production of ``Very Good Eddie'' several years ago, add up to a memory of Jerome Kern as not just a skilled craftsman but an inspired composer. In the concert performances, one could chart his musical progress. In fact, one of his greatest songs, ``Bill,'' turned up in ``Oh, Lady! Lady!!'' in an entirely different context, with different tempo, words, mood. And it might have shown up in ``Zip!'' had the show gotten to New York. But, of course, it ended up taking its place as Julie's haunting lament in ``Show Boat.''

It is now too late to wish for a first-class New York revival of ``Show Boat'' this centenary year. But it seems awfully silly that the New York City Opera should turn once again to ``The Student Prince'' this summer as its operetta offering when ``Show Boat'' would have been the ideal way to celebrate this remarkable composer. But the Carnegie Recital Hall evenings were models of their kind -- some of the best, and classiest, concert presentations of stage works I have heard in New York. Eve Queler

It is more common to encounter operas in concert rather than Broadway musicals. In fact, the bastion of the New York concert opera scene is Eve Queler, who often puts on a very good show. Her last performance of the season was a crack at Lalo's too-rarely-heard ``Le Roi d'Ys. ''

I mention it here because, orchestrally, Miss Queler demonstrated that the work has more than passing musical value. With a particularly clever spectacle director, a full-fledged operatic production could be great fun. It's a story of revenge, of misguided love, of floodwaters threatening a city, of a villainess who hurls herself off a cliff to atone for her crimes, appease the angry gods, and save the city. And this all happens on stage.

It was one of Miss Queler's most impressive evenings as a conductor. She took to the brassy, explosive idiom naturally, with genuine dramatic commitment. Unfortuntately, her cast was so weak as to undercut the effectiveness of her conducting. Therefore, French opera fans, and all those curious about this neglected work by the composer of the ``Symphonie espagnole,'' still have to console themselves with the old '57 recording. It has been handsomely remastered and issued on French EMI (readily available in record stores that deal in imports). It boasts a vintage Gallic cast, under the direction of Andr'e Cluytens. The sound is very honest mid-'50s mono, and the performance by Rita Gorr as the villainess, Margared, is elemental and magnificent.

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