Jerome Kern was one of the most influential and prolific theatrical composers of the early 20th century, yet his name is on fewer modern tongues than many of his contemporaries. The author of hundreds of songs (some have credited him with more than 700 compositions), Kern’s best known tunes include “The Way You Look Tonight,” an Oscar- winning standard performed by Fred Astaire in the film “Swing Time,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which became a No. 1 for the doo wop group the Platters in the late 1950s.
But Kern is likely best known for his lengthy collaboration with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, who would, following Kern’s death, form an even more famous partnership with Richard Rodgers. Together, Kern and Hammerstein wrote the 1927 stage musical “Show Boat,” based on Edna Ferber’s epic novel, which has not only been credited with changing the direction of musical theater but has been revived frequently since its original premiere.
This weekend, the Spokane Symphony pays tribute to Kern’s legendary career with a showcase that features scenes from “Show Boat” as well as some of Kern’s other notable show tunes. Conducted by Morihiko Nakahara, the symphony will be accompanying baritones Robert Sims and Nat Chandler, soprano Teri Dale Hansen and mezzo-soprano Joy Lynn Jacobs.
Originally produced by the great Florenz Ziegfeld, “Show Boat” was a critical and financial success when it debuted, and it was one of the first musicals to combine romance, melodrama and issues of class and race with songs that furthered the plot. The show chronicles the tumultuous relationship between a wealthy riverboat gambler and a show boat captain’s daughter over the course of several decades, and it features the Broadway standards as “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Nobody Else But Me.”
Kern’s life story was dramatized in the 1946 MGM musical “Till the Clouds Roll By,” which starred Robert Walker as Kern and featured Frank Sinatra (who performs one of two versions of “Ol’ Man River”), Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Angela Lansbury and Dinah Shore. Kern died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage before filming was complete, but the movie ended up being a huge box office success, which is as much a testament to Kern’s popularity as the bankability of its all-star cast. (The film is now in the public domain and can be viewed for free online.)
Since his death, many of Kern’s songs have become standards, but he isn’t as immediately recognized as, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein or the Gershwins. But George Gershwin named Kern as one of his primary influences, and Stephen Sondheim has said that studying Kern’s work helped him form his own style. What better way to honor Kern’s legacy than with a night of his greatest hits: Either you’ll discover the work of a long-celebrated composer, or you’ll reacquaint yourself with some of the best music of an era.