ON THE RECORD: The Long-Lost, Troubled Musical Roberta Finally on Disc

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Long-Lost, Troubled Musical Roberta Finally on Disc
 
This week's column discusses the first complete recording of Jerome Kern's 1933 "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" musical, Roberta.
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Roberta [New World]

Having spend many years locating, examining and studying Broadway show orchestrations, I feel a special reward every time someone takes one of these scores — some of which are approaching their hundredth year — and actually plays them. Either in concert, from groups like City Center Encores! and other organizations, or on recordings. Too many of these scores are forgotten or have physically disappeared, so it is a major victory whenever we finally get to hear a previously unrecorded musical.

The subject of today's discourse is Jerome Kern's Roberta, which the folks at New World Records have now brought us. (New World was one of the pioneers in the original orchestration recording field, with their output including such delights as Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms, Porter's Fifty Million Frenchman, the Gershwin's Tip-Toes and Kern's Sitting Pretty.)

The score of Roberta is, naturally enough, a treat to hear. The show itself, alas, is not too good; sometimes, these reconstructions reveal scores that are unjustly neglected (like Sitting Pretty), but the Roberta CD serves to confirm the show's faults. Which is not to say that the CD shouldn't be listened to; it's still Kern, with an expert set of orchestrations by Russell Bennett. Roberta underwent a troubled existence, which is described by producer Max Gordon in his autobiography "Max Gordon Presents." The biggest problem was the director, one Jerome Kern. That's right, Kern — with no directing experience — directed the thing himself; Gordon, recovering from a flop musical which culminated in a nervous breakdown with a suicide attempt, gave in to Kern's desire in order to get the rights. The show which opened in Philadelphia — under the title Gowns by Roberta — was so poor that Gordon went ahead and fired Kern as director, although the latter remained on hand to work on the score. But a happy time was not had by anyone.

Roberta opened poorly at the New Amsterdam Nov. 18, 1933, at an especially low point in the Depression. The show nevertheless managed to eke out a reasonable run thanks in part to the power of the hit song — "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"; the inclusion of an apparently impressive fashion show, with lavish gowns; and the use of heavily-discounted tickets. The title has remained alive thanks to the 1935 Astaire/Rogers film version, although only four of the original songs were used. Kern added two more with lyrics from Dorothy Fields, one of which — "Lovely to Look At" — has joined "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" as a Kern standard. "Lovely to Look At" and "I Won't Dance," along with the deleted "Armful of Trouble," are included on the new recording.

While the music of most Broadway composers lost its spark in their later years — Rodgers, Berlin, Porter and Styne immediately come to mind, along with some more recent names — Kern was an exception; of course, he died at a younger age than the others. (The composer was born in 1885; began to write hits in 1905; began to write hit musicals in 1915; and wrote his masterwork, Show Boat, in 1927. He died in 1945.) While the Show Boat score remains immortal, as they say, I find post-1928 Kern richer and more flavorful than his excellent earlier work. Sitting here, I tried to do a back-of-the-envelope list of ten immortal post-Show Boat songs, and found that I'd written down 13 stunners that all belong — with none from Roberta.

The finest of the Roberta songs is "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," with that melodically melancholy, extended (eight bar) opening phrase and a relatively startling bridge. But oh, those lyrics! The singer — a Russian princess working as a dress designer in Paris — tells us that her friends told her that love is blind "so I chaffed them and I gaily laughed." Just how do you "chaff" your friends? And even if it makes sense on the page, it doesn't come across when timed to the music. "Now, laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide." Beware of friends who laughingly deride your tears, I say. The lyrics — and the pedestrian libretto — came from 60-year-old Otto Harbach, who had been writing operettas since 1908 and who had personally trained young Oscar Hammerstein on the craft with no less than ten collaborations. But Oscar wasn't part of Roberta, so Harbach was left to chaff on his own.

"Yesterdays" — which shares the Russian-flavored mood of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," even though the singer (the title character) was a displaced American — is musically pleasing, but Harbach again goes all purply. Yesterdays are "happy sweet sequestered days," while Aunt Minnie — an elderly dame who dies in the first act — tells us that "youth was mine, truth was mine, joyous free and flaming life forsooth was mine." Flaming life forsooth? Oh, well. There are other pleasing items from Kern, including "You're Devastating" (which comes from an earlier Hammerstein musical) and "The Touch of Your Hand" (which makes effective use of a repeated musical phrase), but nothing whatsoever approaching the peaks of late-Kern songs like "Why Was I Born?" "The Song Is You," "The Way You Look Tonight," "I'm Old Fashioned," or "All the Things You Are."

The dialogue is included on the two-CD set, as well, and the story is pretty mild. A college halfback goes to Paris — with his bandleader sidekick — and inherits a top fashion house from his black sheep aunt. Devastated with love for a pushy American heiress, he ignores the dress designer who loves him, repeatedly dropping her when the American gal bothers to look his way. Until the final scene when he learns that the modiste is actually a Princess, so he decides he loves her and everything is okay.

The music sounds fine, thanks — one would have to guess — to the presence of Encores!-own Rob Berman, who knows just what to do and how to do it. As does Larry Moore, who has done reconstruction work for many similar projects. Otherwise, this CD features a group called the Orchestra of Ireland (which in a brief tour of the Internet I couldn't find any information on). The album was recorded in Dublin, presumably for economic reasons. If the only way we can get full recordings of vintage musicals like Roberta with original orchestrations is by using overseas orchestras, so be it. The cast, though, which mixes Irish and Americans, is not up to what we are accustomed to. In this case, only Jason Graae — playing the bandleader role created in 1933 by Bob Hope — is in full control of the material. Graae (pronounced Graah, in case you're wondering) is amazingly well suited to these pre-Oklahoma! musicals. He has appeared on countless recordings and in numerous concerts, and always manages to make the material sound fresh and appealing. Annalene Beechey, who started her career playing Cosette in Les Misérables in Dublin, does well as the princess with smoke in her eyes, but these two are the only standouts in this group. Also on hand, as the Polish spitfire Scharwenka, is Kim Criswell who overdoes it and then some.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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