I presented the following talk to the Ferkytoodlers group of serious thinkers over lunch at the Melbourne Savage Club on Wednesday, 11 November 2015. I intended to post it here with suitable modifications and credits the following weekend but, when I awoke that Saturday morning to news of the dreadful events in Paris overnight, somehow the works of a long dead author and the peaceful world of his imagination seemed less important. It seemed in bad taste to be prattling on about trivial entertainment when people were being murdered.
Of course, the Paris massacre is by no means unique in our world – alas! – and as I brooded on this bleak topic I was reminded of a remark Wodehouse blogger Honoria Plum made in a comment on my first Wodehouse to the rescue piece. She referred to the sentiment behind her blog, Plumtopia, as “looking for snippets of Wodehouse in a modern world”. In other words, I thought, with Wodehouse as your guide you can find peace and contentment amid all the chaos. So here I am – offering a little bit of something that does you good.
P.G. Wodehouse and the Centenary of the Trio of Musical Fame
Gentlemen, I stand before you today feeling a little like Bertie Wooster as he embarks on yet another of his tales of dark doings among his pals at the Drones. Bertie often addresses the camera, as it were, in a state of uncertainty. Can he assume that everyone is abreast with the basic facts, and so he can just get on with his story? Or does he bore those who are abreast, while he brings up to date those who aren’t?
My working assumption is that Ferkytoodlers are among the first group and I can get on with my yarn before the wine runs out. But, like Bertie, I am aware I have a higher duty and, as the old hands in the newspaper business used to tell us fresh-faced Jimmy Olsens, I have to assume that everyone comes from Mars. So while many of you can skip the next couple of paragraphs, some of you need to pay close attention.
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881 and died in 1975, having elevated himself to the top rank of English literature. Hilaire Belloc famously declared Wodehouse was the “the best writer of our time”. In 75 years of writing, he produced a vast quantity of journalism, 90-plus books, hundreds of short stories, poems, plays and song lyrics. He created two deathless characters in Bertie and the omniscient – and maybe omnipotent – gentlemen’s personal gentleman, Jeeves, and in Blandings Castle, occupied by Lord Emsworth, his family, Beach the butler and the Empress of Blandings, he created an always sunny world of, as he put it, “ancient battlements, smooth green lawns, rolling parkland, majestic trees, well-bred-bees and gentlemanly birds”.
This year is very much a Wodehouse centenary. It was in September of 1915 that he first opened Blandings for inspection, with the publication of Something Fresh, and also in that month he unleashed Jeeves, although as he himself admitted he didn’t really know it at the time. Jeeves had only a couple of lines in his first appearance and it wasn’t until the next year that this Superman began to reveal himself through the pen of his master, Bertie Wooster.
But, as advertised, we’re not here for those centenaries, momentous as they are, we’re here for another event – which means all you chaps who’ve been making bread pills or inspecting the bottoms of your glasses should now snap back into some semblance of life, at least to the best of your ability.
Gentlemen, we are here today to commemorate the official coming together on 23 December 1915 of Wodehouse with the composer Jerome Kern – whom you all know as the creator of Show Boat – and the playwright Guy Bolton, and their subsequent collaboration which is credited by many of their highly qualified peers with changing forever the course and nature of the Broadway musical, and indeed musical comedy around the world.
Alan Jay Lerner said the trio had “inaugurated” – that’s the word he used – the American musical. This from the man who, with Frederick Loewe, created, inter alia, My Fair Lady. Lorenz Hart said he had been inspired by Wodehouse’s lyrics. Richard Rodgers backed him up. Rodgers and Hart wrote many shows, including Pal Joey, and then, when Hart died, Rodgers took up with Oscar Hammerstein, the lyricist from Kern’s Show Boat, to produce Oklahoma!, most popularly believed to have, as Lerner might have said, inaugurated the string of musicals we have enjoyed over the past 70 years – from Oklahoma! through Kiss Me Kate, Carousel, South Pacific, My Fair Lady and West Side Story to Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and many, many others. All quite different in their way but with one thing in common – the integration of book and song, for which Wodehouse was largely responsible.
This is a credit that Wodehouse rarely gets today. While millions continue to enjoy his stories, his contribution to the theatre – musical and straight – has largely vanished from sight. Yet, over more than 40 years from 1904 when he was just 23 years old, Wodehouse supplied the lyrics to hundreds of songs by many composers for the musical theatre, as well as contributing unquantifiable amounts to the scripts – the books, in theatre jargon. Between 1904 and 1934 he was involved in the lyrics and/or the books of 36 musical comedies. In 1917 alone, he had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. Wodehouse worked with the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert and many others, as well as Jerome Kern.
In their day, Wodehouse, Bolton and Kern were given a collective soubriquet in a little jingle attributed to George S. Kaufman:
Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern. This is the trio of musical fame, Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern: Better than anyone else you can name, Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern. Nobody knows what on earth they’ve been bitten by, All I can say is I mean to get lit an’ buy Orchestra seats for the next one that’s written by Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern.
Hence the title of my talk. So what happened – what did the trio of musical fame actually do, and what was significant about Wodehouse’s role?
Wodehouse first met Kern in London in 1905 and wrote a few lyrics for him over the next three years. But their paths diverged. Wodehouse focused on his stories and novels and his career as a journalist in London. He made a couple of trips to New York and had some success there as a writer, before he upped sticks from London in 1914 and settled in New York more or less permanently. Kern’s career in the musical theatre turned him into a trans-Atlantic commuter until about 1910 when he, too, came to rest in the vicinity of Broadway. Many of his songs featured in Broadway musicals of the time but Kern wanted more. He began to develop the idea that the music and songs in musical plays should actually be part of the plot – they should promote the action.
This seems plain enough to us today, reared as we are on the likes of Oklahoma!, its successors and a thousand movie musicals, but you need to understand that before the First World War Broadway and West End shows – and those that found their way Down Under – were European operetta-style. Plots were paper thin, the songs didn’t necessarily match the story and indeed were often simply interpolated – that’s what Kern and his various lyricists were writing. Songs were used largely as an excuse to give the show a lift or bring on the dancing girls or whatever. Storylines were commonly suspended so specialty acts – comedians, jugglers, magicians and so on – could go through their paces. And everything was overblown – big theatres, big sets, big casts, big costumes, big orchestras and, more than anything, big meaningless jumbles of clichéd words.
Kern had it in his head that musicals would be much better if all their elements were integrated into a coherent unit, a proper play with plain, even conversational words in both script and song, but he was neither a librettist nor a lyricist. It was not until he was brought together with the up-and-coming young playwright Guy Bolton in November 1914 that he had the opportunity to start to realise some of his ideas. Bolton was a master of dramatic form and had a facility for witty lines. Together they started to put some of Kern’s ideas to work, significantly at the small off-Broadway Princess Theatre.
This theatre is key to what happened next. It was very small, only 299 seats, for a typical Broadway money-grubbing reason – any theatre over 300 seats had to install expensive fire safety measures. To say the least, it was an intimate venue. The audience was practically part of the show. You couldn’t stage big production numbers, there wasn’t enough room and, even if you’d tried, the audience would have been overwhelmed. Everything had to be scaled down and the players had to be close up to the audience. There could be nothing remote and Ruritanian about the proceedings. By dint of sheer proximity, audiences had to recognise the show as contemporary with their lives.
Over the course of 1914-15 Kern and Bolton produced three shows suited to the space. The last of these was called Very Good Eddie, and it was well received but it still wasn’t right. The songs had nonsensical lyrics that did nothing for the story. One song boasted the following lines:
From morn to night we coo as doves coo, Pidgy woo, pidgy woo, pidgy woo.
There seemed to be room for improvement.
Very Good Eddie opened at the Princess on 23 December, 1915. P.G. Wodehouse attended in his capacity as theatre critic of Vanity Fair magazine (and chief writer, cook and bottle washer). The story then goes that during the evening Kern introduced Bolton to his sometime lyricist, Wodehouse, who hit it off immediately, and the three talked well into the night. On Christmas Eve, 1915, they agreed to work together. The trio of musical fame was born.
Or so the story goes.
In fact the story is told at great comical length in the Wodehouse/Bolton memoir Bring on the Girls, such that nobody believes it. This is why I call 23 December the “official centenary”. The real one is heaven knows when in the previous 12 months. Bring on the Girls is a highly entertaining tome in that much loved showbiz category, “based on a true story”. The yarn in the hands of these two wags reads like the scenario from a musical biopic of the Thirties. The reality is probably rather more prosaic. What more likely happened is that Kern realised he and Bolton needed a lyricist, tried several and then, having run across his old collaborator and newly arrived New Yorker Wodehouse somewhere along the Great White Way as Wodehouse plied his trade as theatre critic, suggested on the basis of what he’d done for Kern in London a decade previously that he might like to have a go at lyrics for the newish partnership of Kern and Bolton. The clincher, though, is the rapport that grew quickly between Bolton and Wodehouse. This part of the story is true. The two became the firmest of friends, in a relationship broken only by Wodehouse’s death in 1975.
The trio of musical fame lasted nine years. In that time the three penned five shows of their own and 13 in various combinations with other composers, librettists and lyricists – that is an average of two a year, plus a couple that weren’t produced and transfers to the West End that often required trans-Atlantic voyages, rewriting and extra songs. And let’s not forget that each of the trio was simultaneously pursuing his own separate literary and musical interests.
Of all that output, only three shows were staged initially at the Princess – and yet it is without doubt that the Princess shaped what the three did. Their first Princess show, Oh, Boy!, was also their greatest hit, running for 475 performances, first at the Princess and then at a much larger theatre. Oh Boy! took a year of work, plus the production of virtual tryout of their new method, a show called Have a Heart which had a short run.
What worked for them, and in the end didn’t work?
The basis of their collaboration was, as already indicated, Kern’s ideas about the integration of song and book in a musical comedy. Kern wrote great melodies. Bolton could do plots and proper play structures but he couldn’t do characters. Neither of them could do lyrics. Wodehouse could do characters all right – he’d already proved that in the 19 novels he’d had published up to 1915 – and he’d shown Kern that he could most certainly do lyrics. But the added extra he brought to the partnership was an ability to fit words to tunes – a reversal of the usual method at the time.
This was particularly important as Kern refused to adjust his melodies once he was satisfied he had them right. Furthermore, Wodehouse and Kern frequently did not work together physically. There was little of the romantic coming together of composer and lyricist over a piano keyboard, as frequently depicted on the silver screen. Wodehouse was not musical – he couldn’t read music and he couldn’t play an instrument – but his daughter reckoned he needed to hear a tune only once to remember it. This may be an exaggeration but what is certain is that Wodehouse had a great sense of rhythm and what you might term musicality.
Let him tell the story:
“W.S. Gilbert always said that a lyricist can’t do decent stuff that way [put the words to the music]. But I don’t agree with him. I think you get the best results by giving the composer his head and having the lyricist follow him. For instance, the refrain of one of the songs on Oh, Boy! began: ‘If every day you bring her diamonds and pearls on a string’ – I couldn’t have thought of that if I had done the lyric first. Why, dash it, it doesn’t scan. But Jerry’s melody started off with a lot of little twiddly notes, the first thing emphasised being the ‘di’ of ‘diamonds’ and I just tagged along after him. Another thing . . . When you have the melody, you can see which are the high spots in it and can fit the high spots of the lyric to them. Anyway, that’s how I like working, and to hell with anyone who says I oughtn’t to.”
Wodehouse owes a lot to Gilbert but not to Gilbert and Sullivan. Barry Day observes in an insightful introduction to his amazing Complete Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse: “Gilbert’s lyrics invariably preceded Sullivan’s music, which made them scan like verse. Clever as the words were, they moved along at a predictable pace on railway tracks. Kern, who was no fan, referred to his ‘versifying to music’.”
Day goes on:
“Gilbert, for instance, could never have written:
What bad luck! It’s Coming down in buckets
Its very unexpected incorrectness is precisely what catches the ear. . . what Wodehouse achieved in this and other rule-breaking rhymes was to move from the ‘poeticism’ of his predecessor to the colloquialism of the modern song lyric. He was also to begin the process that Ira Gershwin later perfected – the fitting of words, mosaic-fashion to existing tunes.”
Day points out that, in the song Bill, the best known of the Kern-Wodehouse songs:
“No lyricist, unaided, would have written the line:
I love him because – I don’t know – Because he’s just my Bill
The ‘I don’t know’ was necessitated by Kern’s [putting in] extra three notes but it was Wodehouse’s ‘conversational’ skills that gave the final line its haunting memorability.”
Bill is probably the only Kern-Wodehouse song even close to being widely remembered. Kern and Wodehouse wrote it for the trio Princess show, Oh, Lady! Lady!, in 1918 but it was dropped because it was considered too melancholy. In other words, it didn’t fit the story – Kern’s method come home to bite. But Kern never let a good song die and he resurrected it for Show Boat in 1927.
Here’s how Ava Gardner did it for the movie – and by the way this is her voice, not the one you hear in the movie, which is someone else dubbed over. I reckon Ava does it better.
[play clip of Bill https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCsYSS6ddT4 ]
Wodehouse lyrics covered the range – wistful, romantic, sweet, cheeky, Gilbertian. We don’t have all day to hear examples but, if you can get past Kern’s wonderful melodies, I would like you to listen to Wodehouse’s verbal felicities in Till the Clouds Roll By from Oh, Boy! and Leave It to Jane and Cleopatterer from Leave It to Jane and, as a kind of epitaph, my personal favourite, The Land Where the Good Songs Go, from the show Miss 1917.
[play clip of Till the Clouds Roll By https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71Oymej7dxU ]
[play clip of Leave It to Jane and Cleopatterer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GdOSiG5zWU ]
[play clip of The Land Where to Good Songs Go https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RRT1TbjFv4 ]
I called The Land Where the Good Songs Go a kind of epitaph because it’s a good question: where did all the good Kern/Wodehouse songs go? In part at least, it’s the result of Kern not allowing them to be recorded or performed out of the context of the show for which they were written. That was his philosophy, after all. And I must concede, having read all the Wodehouse lyrics, that Kern was right in many cases. The songs often contain references that make no sense in isolation. Nevertheless a great many do stand alone and it’s a shame that songs like The Land Where the Good Songs Go are not more widely performed and recorded beyond the smallish circle of admirers of Wodehouse’s lyrics, led by his opera singer (step) great grandson, Hal Cazalet, and Hal’s actor sister, Lara.
You might also wonder why the trio of musical fame never lasted longer than nine years, given the success they had. The easiest way of explaining it is: professional and artistic differences. Kern was a difficult and restless character. He had more on his mind than frothy, Princess-style musical comedies and this ambition culminated in Show Boat. Bolton tried and tried to be a serious playwright but never quite succeeded – he was at his best partnering others and writing screenplays. And, as an A-grade philanderer, he had a messy private life. Wodehouse, of course, having created Blandings and discovered Jeeves, charged into the literary career that has made him an immortal of the English language.
The truth is, I believe, that Kern outgrew both Bolton and Wodehouse in the theatre. Wodehouse in particular would have been quite happy to go on writing Princess-style shows and songs forever. And as the critic Benny Green put it, somewhat harshly: “While Kern achieved many masterpieces without Wodehouse, Wodehouse achieved none without Kern.”
That’s only true of the theatre, of course. Wodehouse’s masterpieces without Kern fill my bookshelves and those of countless others. It may be, though, that without the theatre that might not have happened. Wodehouse once wrote that he had met “every freak that ever squeaked and gibbered along the Great White Way”. He transferred many of those freaks to the plots, characters and observations of his books. More importantly, he translated the knowledge he gained of structure and dramatic timing to the printed page.
He described his early novels as “musical comedies without the music” and thought of them in terms of “acts, chorus numbers, duets and solos”. He reckoned the only way to write a popular story “is to split it up into scenes, and have as little stuff between the scenes as possible”. Moreover, a main character had to be given enough big scenes to justify his star stature. His books conformed to those notions until the day he died.
Wodehouse was a theatre tragic. He was bitten early by the bug and he was never cured. In their later lives, Wodehouse and Bolton, who were inseparable friends for 60 years, were forever plotting schemes for revivals of their old shows, or creating new ones.
Wodehouse authority Tony Ring, with whom I’ve been corresponding, has told me that on Wodehouse’s death bed, alongside the unfinished manuscript of a novel that became Sunset at Blandings, was found a revised lyric to Till the Clouds Roll By.
“He and Bolton,” Tony said, “were contemplating the possibility of a revised musical, using Oh, Lady! Lady! as the basis, but importing the best songs from the other musicals they worked on. This revised lyric has only ever had one performance – sung by Hal and Lara Cazalet at a biennial dinner of the UK P.G. Wodehouse Society.”
End of quote. End of story.
Wodehouse literally died with a song in his heart.
Credits and notes
My main sources for the above are:
Barry Day who has compiled all the lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse and who is, of the many Wodehouse analysts, I believe one of the most insightful. Indeed, for this talk, I toyed with the idea of simply reading Day’s introduction to The Complete Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse, because it makes most of the points I needed to make.
Tony Ring, who was Barry Day’s editorial consultant. Tony gave me the death-bed anecdote in a covering letter he wrote me when I bought a copy of his book, Second Row, Grand Circle. A reference guide to the contribution of P.G. Wodehouse to the legitimate theatre (i.e. the non-musical theatre). Tony is author or co-author of the definitive eight-volume concordance to the Wodehouse canon, as well as several other Wodehouse books.
Lee Davis, the author of Bolton & Wodehouse & Kern, the story of each of them and of their collaboration.
I also dipped into the work of N.T.P. Murphy, who has researched infinitely the factual basis of Wodehouse’s fictional world, biographers David Jasen, Benny Green and Robert McCrum, Wodehouse’s letters and unreliable memoirs.
The song clips are to be found on YouTube (where else?) and are as follows:
Bill – from the 1951 MGM movie of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat, based on the Edna Ferber novel of the same name.
Till the Clouds Roll By, Leave It to Jane and Cleopatterer – from the 1946 MGM biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By, ostensibly a life of Jerome Kern. The movie showcases Kern’s greatest hits but is a travesty of his life and career – managing to leave out both Bolton, who is credited with the story but not the screenplay, and Wodehouse, who was in disgrace after his behaviour as a prisoner of Nazi Germany.
Where the Good Songs Go – a 1989 recording by American cabaret singer and actress Andrea Marcovicci. Born in 1948, she has behind her a string of film and television credits and a 25-year gig at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. In my opinion her version of this most beautiful song brings out the full poetry of Wodehouse’s sensitive lyrics. Other versions by, for example, Sylvia McNair, do not quite hit the spot, or at least my spot.