Lessons from Jerome Kern

My first month of graduate school I was faced with the task of creating a two-hour presentation on the amazing and important musical theatre composer Jerome Kern. Besides being terrified of my first attempt to teach my fellow students some musical theatre history, I was more nervous that I didn’t know much about the subject of my presentation. Honestly, I knew that he had written the music for Show Boat, but other than that, I was a bit clueless. Eventually, though, I had a new beau and fell completely in love with the life and music of Kern. If you, much like me 9 months ago, are unaware of the greatness of this musical theatre composer, you are in luck! The San Diego State Musical Theatre MFAs have created a web series called Musical Theatre Nerd Alert highlighting fun facts musical theatre geniuses and the first episode is about….Jerome Kern! Check it out here:

Watch this video on YouTube.

So now that you’ve watched me give you the facts about Jerome Kern, you might be asking yourself, “so what? Why does this matter to me and especially to new musical theatre?” Whether you are approaching the industry as a performer, part of a creative team, or just a musical theatre nerd and appreciator of the arts, I think Jerome Kern is an artist that can teach everyone a little something special.

Early musical theatre, the kind surrounding Jerome Kern at the beginning of his career, was compromised of silly storylines and songs and dances that did not necessarily further the plot or even connect to the story being told. Jerome Kern changed all that. He was not afraid of taking on complex, deep, controversial stories and letting the songs tell the tale. New musical theatre composers are encouraged to use their pieces to further the plot, develop character and explore emotions. Without the commitment of Jerome Kern to be one of the first composers to do these things, we might be stuck with shows comprised of silly songs and dances instead of true, moving pieces of art. So, send up quick thanks when you win the lottery for Fun Home to the revolutionary Kern for creating the standard for what a well-written musical theatre song is supposed to do.

My professors are quick to say: “lyrics can lie, but the music never lies.” I encourage you to think about this when listening to musical theatre songs. For Jerome Kern, his lyricist partners never asked him to change his music to fit the lyrics (he always* wrote the music before lyrics were added) because his music already so beautifully captured the truth of the story being told. When performing musical theatre pieces (and especially a Kern piece), it is important to remember that the notes on the page are where the truth lives, not necessarily in the lyric that accompanies them. You must sing the notes completely honestly and with integrity, and use them to tell the story- Jerome Kern would be so proud.

Listening to Jerome Kern’s music, such as “All the Things You Are,” is easy. His melodies are hummable, but when you look underneath, the music is incredibly complex (believe me, I could go full on music theory nerd here but I will keep it inside for today). His melodies are inventive and he truly understands the voice; he writes with the singer in mind. Some contemporary composers write with one particular performer or voice in mind, which can influence the range, money notes and the style of the song. This is one way of approaching writing, while Jerome Kern focused more on writing interesting melodies that sounded nice regardless of the specific singer. (It is important to remember that a composer wants all performers to succeed and sound beautiful on their music, but don’t be afraid to back away from something that doesn’t show off your voice to the best of its ability.)

Watch this video on YouTube.

I hope you’ve learned a little something new today. Always remember, it is difficult to talk about the future of musical theatre and the contemporary trends that are happening if we don’t know the past. We can learn so much about what AND what not do by looking at early giants of musical theatre. If you want to keep exploring- continue to check out Musical Theatre Nerd Alert! We will be posting about a new composer every two weeks throughout the summer.

*one exception (“The Last Time I Saw Paris” with Oscar Hammerstein II)

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