Musical Theatre Zen: Jerome Kern Revisited

A couple months ago I first posted about the musical theatre zen, as I call it. You know, when you hear a musical theatre song that is just so resplendent it transports you emotionally. I introduced the term by using “All the Things You Are,” which might very well be my favorite song, as an example.

Another glorious Hammerstein-Kern number is “Some Girl is on Your Mind,” a showstopper that was first introduced in their musical Sweet Adeline in 1929. The musical, which ran for 234 performances at the Hammerstein Theatre, was written as a vehicle for Helen Morgan, who had only two seasons before made a huge splash as Julie LaVerne in the original cast of Show Boat. The plot is paper thin: it concerns Addie, who sings at her father’s beer garden in Hoboken and her journey to Broadway stardom, with the trials and tribulations of romance that she encounters on her rise to fame. The show was a huge critical success and audiences came out in droves, though the musical was short-lived as a result of the onset of the Great Depression.The endlessly melodic score featured the gorgeous standard “Why Was I Born?” (which offered NY audiences another chance to see Morgan singing a torch song atop a piano) among many others, but to me, this particular song is a genuine standout.

The song was recorded on John McGlinn’s Broadway Showstoppers album.

From Miles Kreuger in the liner notes:

‘By the middle of the second act, Addie has stirred the hearts of three young men: Tom Martin, who has turned his affection towards Addie’s younger sister; weather James Day; and the shy and kindly composer Sid. They are drinking at a table at the Hoffman House in the company of James Thornton, a real-life vaudevillian veteran back to the 1880s and composer of several major songs of long ago, including “When You Were Sweet Sixteen.” (Thornton played himself in this production).

Tom, Jim, and Sid are all thinking of Addie, whose voice drifts in and out. This quartet with male chorus is surely one of the most original and hauntingly beautiful variations on a drinking song in the entire literature of musical theatre.”‘

The featured singers included Cris Groenendaal, Brent Barrett, George Dvorsky, Davis Gaines and Judy Kaye as the haunting, offstage voice of Addie (who is actually singing a section from “Why Was I Born?” a song she sings in the presence of all the affected gentlemen). The orchestrations are once again from my favorite orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett.

Mr. Kreuger isn’t wrong. While the show is considered to be considerably creaky (with its roots in soap operetta, its not hard to see why), the strength of the score is still admirable. When this song was performed in the Encores! concert presentation of Adeline in 1996, the audience practically tore the house apart. What’s fascinating to me is its idea and structure. You have three men singing of the same individual, each singing his own section, they are constantly brought together (assisted by the chorus) building to a soaring finish. However, the song doesn’t end with a musical button, but with a wistful coda that decrescendos to very soft and quiet final chord.

Listening to this and “All the Things You Are” back to back, I can’t help but feel that Mr. Kern is the greatest melodist in the history of musical theatre. A bold opinion, I’m certain, especially with the beloved Rodgers, Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, et al, et al, who have all contributed great scores and songs of terrific quality and beauty. However for me there is something extra special in the way Kern builds a phrase or takes you from one note to the next. It’s sometimes surprising, sometimes stirring and sometimes moving. You may disagree with me on that thought, and that’s okay by me – we all have our opinions for sure, but I do feel there is ample evidence to back me up.

You can hear for yourself. Here is Some Girl is on Your Mind. Enjoy.