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He Hears America Singing

December 17, 2009 By:
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On the cover of Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre: The Composers and Lyricists, six individuals are pictured, and not surprisingly, only one of them -- Cole Porter (again not surprisingly)
-- is a non-Jew. Take into consideration that the author, Herbert Keyser, is Jewish and this becomes an all haimische endeavor. (The publisher is Applause, behind which stands the Hal Leonard Corporation and he's ... well, you get the picture.)

Surrounding that talented "interloper" on the cover are George Gershwin (unfortunately without his equally talented brother, lyricist Ira), Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, and the powerhouse and groundbreaking team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

Inside, they're joined by Harold Arlen, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Howard Dietz, Dorothy Fields, E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, Jerry Herman, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerome Kern, Alan Jay Lerner, Frank Loesser, Lorenz Hart, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne and Kurt Weill.

There are a few other non-Jews to keep Porter company; they include Hoagy Carmichael, "Duke" Ellington, "Fats" Waller, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Meredith Willson -- not a quintet to sneeze at.

To say that popular songwriting in the first half of the 20th century was predominantly a Jewish endeavor is by now a commonplace, and Keyser doesn't pay much close attention to his subjects' religion or culture and how they may have affected their music. He's basically in a celebratory mood throughout, and these are definitely a fan's note -- though very complete ones, since the author, who also happens to be a physician, is a scrupulous researcher.

(Those who wish to get the purely Jewish angle on this subject should search out David Lehman's A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, which goes into considerable detail on this matter, though it does drift off every now and then into some fantasy moments. It's published by Schocken as part of the Jewish Encounters series, brief biographies on major Jewish figures throughout history.)

Keyser's book is a coffee-table-sized volume filled with wonderful photos and splendid theatrical memorabilia that any like-minded lover of Broadway music will want to have in his or her library. The author approaches his various subjects in alphabetical order, so we start with the astonishingly talented Harold Arlen (born Hyman Arluck, the son of a cantor) and end with Vincent Youmans.

Keyser really doesn't provide anything in the way of an introduction concerning the nature of American musical theater and its particular qualities. What he does offer is a brief anecdote describing how his love for the form came about; then he dives right in to Arlen's career.

Not surprisingly yet again, the word he uses to describe his first subject -- creator of 500 songs (among them "Over the Rainbow"), 11 Broadway shows, five Cotton Club shows and 24 motion pictures -- is, of course, "genius," and that reflects exactly where his head is whenever he's evaluating these various individuals, who are so obviously heroic figures in his mind.

It's wonderful to see him write about Dorothy Fields, who rarely gets her due in such compilations. She is one of the few females who broke through the old-boy network that was American popular songwriting. She wrote the libretto (with her brother) for Annie Get Your Gun, and the lyrics for Sweet Charity and for the classic Astaire and Rogers film "Swing Time," matching master Jerome Kern's music expertly.

But that's just the beginning of the list of her accomplishments. Clearly, she belongs right where she is -- at the center of Keyser's love letter to the American popular song at its finest.

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