Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Some Girl Is On Your Mind"

I was talking in an earlier post about great unknown songs by the likes of Jerome Kern. So here's one of the best-known unknown songs he ever wrote. It's unknown because no one has heard it except musical-theatre buffs, but every hard-core Kern buff counts it as one of his greatest achivements.

It's "Some Girl Is On Your Mind" from the musical Sweet Adeline, the first thing Kern and Oscar Hammerstein did after their enormous success with Show Boat. It was a vehicle for Helen Morgan, getting promoted to star after her breakout performance as Julie in Show Boat, and like its predecessor, it was a period piece. It was a much smaller story, not an epic like Show Boat; it was basically just a little story about the romantic problems of Morgan's character. Like all Hammerstein's original scripts, it appears to have been a little short on plot; he was never as good at writing his own stories as he was at adapting other people's. There was a film version with Irene Dunne, but it scrapped most of the songs apart from the hits (like "Why Was I Born?"). The show was seen mostly as an excuse to show off Morgan's singing and the Gay '90s sets and costumes. The costume designer, by the way, was Charles LeMaire, who moved to Hollywood and became Fox's chief costume man.

But Kern, having taken musical-theatre music to new levels of ambition in Show Boat, wasn't about to get less ambitious just because the story was smaller. "Some Girl Is On Your Mind" may be the most complex number he had created up to that point, and I think you can argue that the Broadway theatre has never fully caught up to it.

It takes place in the second act, in a tavern where the three men who love the title character are sharing a drink. A real-life figure begins the number: James Thornton, the 19th century performer/songwriter ("When You Were Sweet Sixteen"). Although Kern used several real old songs in this score (the whole overture is built out of old tunes, no actual songs from the show), the song Thornton is singing is an original Kern-Hammerstein song written in his style. It will turn out to be a countermelody to the main refrain or "burthen" as Kern always called it.

Addie's three men invite him to drink with them, and they sing the refrain of the actual song, about how every man in the bar is thinking of some girl he wants but can't have. The refrain is pure Kern: it sounds simple and tuneful but is very complicated and sophisticated harmonically; it doesn't call for an operatic voice but tests the limits of the typical Broadway voice. It's the kind of "pop aria" that musical-theatre composers have been trying to create forever, and that Kern turned out effortlessly. (It must have also been murderously difficult for Hammerstein to set, what with those extended notes at the beginning of each phrase; he solves it by always putting "Why" or a rhyme for "why" on that note -- words that can be sustained for a long time without sounding awkward.)

Then the repeat of the refrain becomes even more complicated. You've got some of the men and some of the chorus members singing the refrain, while others sing Thornton's song in counterpoint. And then, the voice of the heroine (Morgan in the original show) is heard offstage, representing what's "on the mind" of the three men; she reprises two different songs from earlier in the show.

The number then reaches a huge choral climax, followed by an orchestral postlude; Robert Russell Bennett, Kern's orchestrator, creates a dark, heavy sound from the pit orchestra, in part by prominent use of the tuba. And then instead of finishing there and asking for applause, the music fades away as the men are lost in thought; the number ends quietly.

When Sweet Adeline was revived for Encores!, everyone who saw it was talking about this number, not just as a great song but a great theatrical moment, where music, character, staging and lighting combine to give you more than you could get from non-musical theatre or opera or any other form; it's something only a musical can do. This kind of "total theatre," more real than opera and more fantasic than a play, is the highest goal of the musical. But I don't think anyone has ever done it more successfully than Kern, America's greatest theatre composer, or Hammerstein, the man who did more than anyone to redefine the emotional impact a musical could have.

An audio recording can't really tell us everything about a number like this, but an audio recording is all we have, and we're lucky that there is even one. It was recorded by the late John McGlinn in 1991 on a grab-bag disc called "Broadway Showstoppers." It's probably his best recording, in part because it had no crossover (opera) singers involved. The disc mixed original versions of well-known standards with songs from obscure shows, and there were four songs from Adeline, including the two songs Addie (Judy Kaye on this recording) reprises in this number.

The performers are Cris Groendaal (Thornton), Brent Barrett (Jim), George Dvorsky (Tom), Davis Gaines (Sid); Kaye (Addie); and the all-purpose British chorus the Ambrosian Singers. The orchestra is the London Sinfonietta.


Anonymous said...

Oh, GOD, I love Jerome Kern. This is absolutely gorgeous - in fact, it brought me to tears at its sheer beauty. I'm surprised it isn't better known. This recording reminds me so much of the stunning version of "All the Things You Are" from the same Broadway Showstoppers recording. Kern was perhaps the greatest melodist of all the Golden Age songwriters. Simply perfect.


KateH said...

Thank you very much for finding and posting this. It was truly lovely. I've only heard of this musical in passing. I wonder if Broadway will ever be brave enough to try to bring it back to the stage?

Steve W said...

I can vouch for the Encores experience. I fell in love with this song from the McGlinn album some time before the Encores performance and wondered if that recording was, in fact, the trigger that convinced Encores to do that show. When the song finished at City Center there was one of those amazing moments when there is a pause, as if the audience had been stunned into silence, before the thunderous applause. I believe that the same McGlinn record features the original setting of "All the Things You Are" which also has that operatic build and which I would also love to see done live.

Chicago Joe said...

This quite frankly was amazing...I really appreciate your posting it. What an extraordinary song.

ajm said...

There are two terrific cuts on the Broadway Showstoppers disc from the Leonard Bernstein/Alan Jay Lerner megaflop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which never had a cast recording. The Bersntein estate eventually authorized an edited-version, A White House Cantata, which was recorded 10 years ago with a crossover cast. I would have loved to have seen McGlinn conduct a two (or even three) disc recording of the entire 1600 score.

Mike said...

FYI, the San Francisco company 42nd Street Moon (which does rarely-heard musicals) did a Jerome Kern Salon this Fall which included "Some Girl is on your Mind". It was just the vocalists (4 men and a woman) with a piano for accompaniment. It didn't have the thunderous power of the Broadway Showstoppers version, since there was no orchestra, but it was much easier to hear all the lyrics. I enjoyed both versions immensely. Now, if we can just get someone to do a revival of the whole show... Oh, yes, "Broadway Showstoppers" is available used for a very low price through Amazon, and contains a number of other great Kern songs, some rarely heard.

Anonymous said...

Hauntingly beautiful---would love to see this done live just once.