The Song Is Him: Jerome Kern Returns to Broadway

Special Features   The Song Is Him: Jerome Kern Returns to Broadway
A new generation of theatregoers will be introduced composer Jerome Kern this fall when Never Gonna Dance, a new musical inspired by the RKO picture, "Swing Time," dances onto Broadway.

If you don't count the 1995 Broadway revival of Show Boat, you have to go back to the 1975 Broadway revival of Very Good Eddie to have heard so many Kern songs in one Broadway musical (though Encores! revived Sweet Adeline in concert at City Center in recent years and there was a 13-performance run of something called Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood in 1986 at Broadway's Ritz Theatre).

The new show, an expansion of the plotting of the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, with a new libretto by Jeffrey Hatcher, will pull from many Kern stage and screen projects and varied lyricists. New York native Kern died in 1945 at the age of 59.

Directed by Michael Greif (Rent) and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (Gypsy, Hairspray, The Full Monty), the show will boast such Kern standards as "Who" (from Sunny), "She Didn't Say Yes" (from The Cat and the Fiddle), "The Song Is You" (from Music in the Air), "I'd Be Hard to Handle" (from Roberta), plus classic movie musical songs "Pick Yourself Up," "Waltz in Swing Time," "The Way You Look Tonight," "A Fine Romance," "Never Gonna Dance," "Bojangles of Harlem" (all from "Swing Time"), "Dearly Beloved" and "I'm Old-Fashioned" (from the film "You Were Never Lovelier"), "I Won't Dance" (from the film "Roberta"), "You Couldn't Be Cuter" (from the film "The Joy of Living") and "Remind Me" (from the film "One Night in the Tropics").

Lead producer Jay Harris, of the Weissberger Theatre Group, told Playbill On-Line Kern is one of the last great American composers whose work hasn't been reinvented in new musicals in recent years. The Gershwins, for example, were heard in Crazy for You, My One and Only and The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm on Broadway, Cole Porter tunes were interpolated into Broadway's High Society in 1998 and Irving Berlin songs are being exploited regionally in a new revue, I Love a Piano, expected for a future tour.

It was time for Kern, viewed by many as the composer-father of American musical theatre, to have more representation than his monumental work, Show Boat. Harris was a fan of the Astaire-Rogers pictures, and said he always thought "Swing Time" would make a swell stage show, as long as the score and story were expanded to make for a full musical.

Also interpolated into the show are the lesser-known Kern songs "Hand in Hand" (from Three Sisters), "All in Fun" (from Very Warm for May), "Put Me to the Test" (from the film "Cover Girl"), "I Got Love" (from the film "I Dream Too Much") and "The Most Exciting Night" (from the film "Lovely to Look At").

"The story begins with John 'Lucky' Garnett, a professional dancer, coming to New York in order to prove his worth to his fiancee's father by attempting to earn $25,000 by any means except dancing," according to production notes. "Inspired by the energy and rhythms of the city, he of course can't keep still, and goes on to dance his way through hilarious adventures with his fine new romance, the dance teacher, Penny Carroll."

Producer Harris has been working on the new show for a decade, working toward securing song rights through the many estates of the lyricists, plus assembling a creative team. He said he became acquainted with the much produced playwright Hatcher (Three Viewings, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Scotland Road) through the writer's agent, and he fell in love with Hatcher's work, and gave him creative room to take whatever songs he felt would best tell the story.

The Kern estate had two caveats: They could use nothing from Show Boat and Kern's major anthem, "All the Things You Are," was off limits.

The show's "Fred and Ginger" are newcomers Noah Racey (currently in Thoroughly Modern Millie and a vet of Broadway's Follies revival and the Encores! concerts of Babes in Arms and Do Re Mi) and Nancy Lemenager (who appeared on Broadway in Dream; Kiss Me, Kate; How to Succeed; Guys and Dolls; and Meet Me in St. Louis). Peter Bartlett and David Pittu (who appeared in workshops of the show) will also be part of the Broadway company, Harris said. Additional casting is ongoing.

Harris is reluctant to utter the names Fred and Ginger, though.

"Who?" he said, adding that the show is "its own animal" and he doesn't want to get into a comparison game.

Never Gonna Dance opens at the Broadhurst Theatre Dec. 4 following previews from Oct. 27. It's based on the RKO picture and a story by Erwin Gelsey and is billed as "not only a celebration of one of the great American composers, Jerome Kern, but is also a spectacular dance musical set in the romantic, care-free world of a mythical, glittering New York City."

For the record, the lyricists represented in Never Gonna Dance include Dorothy Fields (his "Swing Time" collaborator), Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Johnny Mercer, Otto Harbach and Jimmy McHugh.

Never Gonna Dance is produced by Weissberger Theater Group/Jay Harris, Producer, Edgar Bronfman Jr., James Walsh and Ted Hartley/RKO Pictures.

Designers for the show are Robin Wagner (set), William Ivey Long (costumes), Paul Gallo (lighting) and ACME Sound Partners (sound).

According to Kern's official bio, Jerome Kern (1885-1945) composed his first complete show, The Red Petticoat, in 1912. Between 1915 and 1919, he composed a series of intimate chamber musicals, mostly in collaboration with Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, known as the Princess Theatre shows. These works: Very Good, Eddie; Oh, Boy; Oh, Lady Lady; Leave it to Jane; and Zip Goes A Million are credited with laying the foundation of the modern American musical comedy. Throughout the 1920s Kern's composing style broadened with works such as Sally, Sitting Pretty, Dear Sir, Sunny and The City Chap, culminating in 1927 with Show Boat. With Show Boat, Kern began a series of works for the stage which were more operatic and involved the close interweaving of music, song and speech, including Sweet Adeline (1929), The Cat and the Fiddle (1931), Music in the Air (1932) and Roberta (1933). In the 1930s, Kern moved to Hollywood and wrote a series of successful film scores, including "Swing Time," "Cover Girl," "You Were Never Lovelier" and "Can't Help Singing." His final stage musical, Very Warm for May (1939), included his masterpiece, "All the Things You Are". Among his extraordinary list of songs are "They Didn't Believe Me", "Look for the Silver Lining", "Why Was I Born?", "Don't Ever Leave Me", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", "Yesterdays", "The Song Is You", "I've Told Every Little Star", "The Way You Look Tonight" (Academy Award, 1936), "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (Academy Award, 1940), "A Fine Romance" and "Long Ago and Far Away". Kern died in New York City in 1945, while preparing to begin work with Dorothy Fields on a new musical entitled Annie Oakley.

Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager.
Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager. Photo by Andrew Eccles
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