ON THE RECORD: Rodgers & Hart's By Jupiter and "Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Rodgers & Hart's By Jupiter and "Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities" Listening to the new reissue of the 1967 revival cast album of Rodgers & Hart's By Jupiter, plus a CD full of old-time star Irene Dunne singing songs by Jerome Kern.

Cover art for By Jupiter
Cover art for By Jupiter

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By Jupiter [Masterworks Broadway]
The 27th and final new Rodgers & Hart musical came along in 1942. By Jupiter enjoyed a 427-performance Broadway run, the longest of any musical by the pair (other than two revivals produced after Hart's death in 1943). Longest running, but under special circumstances: the boys' best musicals — arguably On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, and The Boys From Syracuse — were produced in the depths of the Depression, when it was a feat to get to 300.

By Jupiter came along when wartime audiences were streaming into New York, hungry for Broadway entertainment. The prime element on tap was Ray Bolger. The song-and-dance man first made a name for himself in R&H's early Heads Up! (1929); attained stardom in On Your Toes (1936); and achieved what turned out to be celluloid immortality in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). From all we hear, Bolger was at his best in By Jupiter. The show only closed when Bolger wouldn't extend his contract because — says Rodgers — he wanted to go entertain the troops on the Pacific front. Which doesn't sound quite right, but that's the story.

After which By Jupiter pretty much disappeared, a victim perhaps of having a leading role too dependent on the star whose vehicle it was. Flash forward to 1963, when there was an Off-Broadway edition of R&H's 1938 tuner The Boys From Syracuse. The show, in revival, revealed itself to be a bright, funny, songhit-laden charmer and ran well more than a year. This seemingly set the stage for a similar revival of By Jupiter, from the same director in the same house (Theatre Four, in Hell's Kitchen). Jupiter revealed itself to be amusing but of lesser stuff, especially without a one-of-a-kind singing-and-dancing comedian in the leading role.

What they did have was Bob Dishy, who was (and is) a talented and distinctive comedian who can deliver a song. But By Jupiter called for something more. Or perhaps this pre-Oklahoma! musical was, by 1967, simply unworkable. Although without Bolger, it might have been deemed unworkable even in 1942. Which is why the original production shuttered when he left, and — unlike nine other R&H musicals — this biggest hit of theirs didn't have a road tour. Or visit London or the silver screen. Tied up with the revival was a first-time librettist named Fred Ebb, who was credited for "additional material" (but who wrote a pre-opening piece taking credit for revising the book). By the time this By Jupiter opened, Ebb needed neither the credit nor the money, thanks to the 1966 hit Cabaret. But Cabaret reached town just before Jupiter went into rehearsal; if that "Wilkommen" show had failed, this would have at least been a job. Ebb's presence explains the involvement of Dishy, whom few would think to cast in a Ray Bolger role. Ebb had written for Dishy in Flora, the Red Menace and knew what he could do.

I stored away my By Jupiter LP years ago, and have never been much interested in hearing it again. I remembered it as having a collegiate tone, which in some ways matched the nature of the material. Jupiter was surely an attempt by the boys to mine the same field as Syracuse. While the later show ran almost twice as long, the material pales in comparison for a variety of reasons. Starting with the absence of George Abbott, who produced, directed and wrote the book for Syracuse. (Abbott also did On Your Toes and Pal Joey; Jupiter was directed by Josh Logan, with a book from R&H themselves.)

The score has some beauteous spots, fittingly so for the men who had given us all those exquisite songs in Syracuse (headed by "Falling in Love with Love" and "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea"). "Careless Rhapsody" and "Nobody's Heart" are prime R&H, as good as it gets. And there are two especially effective comedy numbers, "Life with Father" — a slightly paler retread "The Heart Is Quicker than the Eye," which Bolger introduced in On Your Toes — and the insult duet "Ev'rything I've Got."

Otherwise, though, the score is not up to standards, perhaps in part because the lyricist seems to have been on a nonstop bender. The tone is set in the very opening number, in which the soldiers sing "Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax / We would rather have stayed home and played jacks." R&H, as librettists, kept plugging away at what critic Abel Green (one of my predecessors at Variety) called "the monotone of masculine females and effeminate men." The plot told of a bevy of Amazon warriors, fighting the Greeks; Bolger played a war bride, or rather war husband.

The 1967 LP of By Jupiter, from RCA, has never been a personal favorite. So much so that while I revisited the album when DRG released it on CD some years ago, I gave it a quick listen and totally forgot about it. This time around, though, the album has finally won me over. Those aforementioned beautiful songs remain perfect; the comedy songs still pack a wallop; and items like "Jupiter Forbid" offer exceedingly high spirits. The orchestration comes from Abba Bogin, a talented all-round musician who died on Aug. 25. Bogin worked closely with Frank Loesser during the creation of The Most Happy Fella and Greenwillow (for which he served as musical director), and provided the especially lovely orchestrations for Riverwind.

Dishy is supported by Sheila Sullivan and Robert R. Kaye. Collegiate, yes, and somewhat ragtag, without the deep beauties of Syracuse or the various charms of On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, or Pal Joey. But By Jupiter is fun, by Jove!

Cover art for "Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities"

Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities [Sepia 1171] Jerry Kern did not write all those golden classics for the voice of Irene Dunne — she was a toddler when he started writing, and only starting her career when the composer reached his peak — but she might have been his personal favorite in his final years. Dunne (1898-1990) started her career in 1920 playing the title character in the Chicago company of Irene, and spent the decade as ingenue in a string of minor musicals (including Kern's own The City Chap in 1925 and Rodgers & Hart's 1928 Bea Lillie vehicle, She's My Baby). Show Boat had opened at the end of 1927; when it closed in May 1929, Dunne stepped in as Magnolia for the tour. Hollywood found her playing Magnolia in Chicago, and that was the end of her stage career. She made her film debut in 1930 in a long-forgotten item called "Leathernecking" — which, oddly enough, was R&H's other 1928 musical Present Arms! with all but two songs removed.

Dunne was in immediate demand in Hollywood; her second time out she starred in the 1931 "Cimarron," adapted from a novel by Edna ("Show Boat") Ferber. Dunne received an Oscar nomination, her first of five; she lost, but the film won three (including Best Picture). Then came the melodrama "Back Street" and a string of others. Which is where Kern comes in. Dunne's 17th film — in only five years! — was the 1934 adaptation of the 1929 Kern-Hammerstein musical Sweet Adeline, in which Irene got to sing "Why Was I Born" (among others). Her very next film was Roberta in 1935, in which Irene was top-billed over Astaire & Rogers and got to sing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Which led — after starring in the 1935 melodrama "Magnificent Obsession" — to the fabled 1936 remake of Show Boat. A new DVD release of this one has been promised for years, and is well worth the wait; as I remember it, it is by far the finest film version of the piece. Thanks, in good part, to performances from a half-dozen veterans of the stage productions, including Charles Winninger, Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson.

Is it any wonder that Kern and Dunne go together? There were two more film collaborations — the 1937 Kern-Hammerstein "High Wide and Handsome" and the 1938 Kern-Fields "Joy of Living" — with new songs written for Dunne (including the unjustly neglected "The Folks Who Live on the Hill"). After which Dunne's musical career was terminated due to success. The 1936 film "Theodora Goes Wild" demonstrated that she was an exquisite screwball comedienne, and she was suddenly too hot for musicals. She starred in the 1937 screwball classic "The Awful Truth," opposite Cary Grant, and went on to such films as "Love Affair" (opposite Charles Boyer), "Anna and the King of Siam" (opposite Rex Harrison, as Yul Brynner with hair), "Life with Father," and "I Remember Mama."

All this has been brought on by the appearance of a compilation CD from Sepia, "Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities." Is this the voice Kern wanted to hear when he heard his songs? Hard to say, but the evidence shows that Dunne — from the post-Broadway cast of Show Boat — was cast in five Kern film musicals over a five-year period. Her singing style is old-fashioned by today's (or even yesterday's) standards, but I wonder if she was not the Barbara Cook of her time. In any event, "Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities" offers 70 minutes of the best of Kern, sung the way the composer presumably wanted to hear them.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.) Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.

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