Kern's Killer Soprano
In the music of Jerome Kern, which is currently being celebrated at the Oak Room by the marvelous singer K.T. Sullivan (until October 11), the term "crossover" holds multiple meanings. The most important one is completely literal: When Kern (1885-1945) was establishing himself in the opening years of the 20th century, no distinctly American style of music had yet reached Broadway. Many of the producers at the time relied on imported shows and songs from Europe, principally English and German operetta. For Kern to gain a foothold in show business, he constantly had to shuttle back and forth across the Atlantic. At one point, he even led a producer to believe that he was British.
Small wonder , then, that Kern, the oldest of the "big six" American songwriters (followed by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Harold Arlen), was the great American songwriter most grounded in the traditions of European music — not only in such "popular" composers as Arthur Sullivan and Franz Lehar, but major classicists such as Verdi and Brahms. If there were a Puccini of pop, it's Jerome Kern.
Just as Arlen's blues-inflected songs represented the meeting point between Tin Pan Alley and Harlem, Kern's mid-Atlantic music was equal parts Broadway and Berlin. As American music moved away from a European model and toward a distinctive identity, it might have been tempting to see Kern as more old-fashioned than his younger colleagues — two of whom, Gershwin and Arlen, even embraced jazz. After all, Kern was still writing in what could be described as an operetta style, even into the 1920s and '30s. Yet bands in the Jazz Age and the swing era played his music more enthusiastically than anyone before them, and in the postwar era following his death, his music was even more firmly interwoven into the fabric of American culture.
Kern's songs, with their rich, classically informed chordal foundations, were just the ticket for multiple generations of modern jazzmen in search of music with more harmonic meat to chew on. It's little wonder that "All the Things You Are" was named as a favorite song by Charlie Parker, and that "The Song Is You" became a career mantra for Frank Sinatra. On Broadway, Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 1928 "Show Boat" served as the primary template for modern musical theater.
In the 100-plus years since Kern began writing (his first hit was the 1905 "Spoon With Me"), his music has continually crossed over from one genre to another and from one generation to the next. That said, K.T. Sullivan is as perfect a contemporary interpreter of Kern as can be imagined. She is one of the few singers appearing in cabaret rooms (or jazz clubs, for that matter) who can be safely described as a true soprano; she would be just as comfortable singing Sigmund Romberg as Stephen Sondheim. Like Kern's music itself, Ms. Sullivan presents herself as formal and reserved, but that restraint is there only for comic contrast, to exacerbate the zaniness of the antics that follow: She's Lilly Pons and Bea Lilly at once.
Although Ms. Sullivan is one of the great masters of the songbook show, in which an iconic composer's songs are incorporated into the narrative framework of his biography, the singer is returning to the format of her 2006 Cole Porter presentation (at the Oak Room with Mark Nadler), in which the factoids are discarded and the songs stand on their own.
The centerpiece of the proceedings is a longish collage of seven songs, some classic ("In Love in Vain"), some obscure ("April Fooled Me"). Her show begins with 1920's "Left All Alone Again Blues," and Ms. Sullivan has as much business singing the blues as Kern had writing them, which may be a clue as to how, even in a very traditional context, she is forever defying expectations. The normally upbeat "Who" is more melancholy than cheerful in her hands, yet she belts "A Fine Romance" as a series of staccato punch lines with multiple exclamation points.
The most valuable buried treasure of the evening is "Raggedy Ann." Previously, I'd only heard it instrumentally on vintage 78s from 1923, but Anne Caldwell's lyric is especially clever, describing Johnny Gruelle's anthropomorphic raggedy doll-moppets cavorting to ragtime in the form of Kern's syncopated foxtrot.
Ms. Sullivan is equally moving on the ballads, delivering "April Fooled Me" as a whisper, completely exposed and vulnerable. She then turns "Folks Who Live on the Hill" into a possible dream, and she is hysterical on the comedy numbers. Two P.G. Wodehouse lyrics from 1917, "Bungalow in Quogue" (from "The Riviera Girl") and "Nesting Time in Flatbush" ("Oh Boy") reflect the Englishman's fascination with goofy American place names. Ms. Sullivan makes "My Husband's First Wife," a comic waltz with libretto by the American comedian Irene Franklin (Kern had a long history of collaborating with female lyricists), into a feminist tract, and renders "Cleopatterer" with flat notes and a nasal voice to heighten Wodehouse's deadpan humor.
The only lulls in Ms. Sullivan's show are two geocentric Hammerstein anthems, in which she was called upon to be epic rather than tender or comic. I admire her for biting off "Ol' Man River," even if it's hardly suited to sopranos in the Oak Room. But "The Last Time I Saw Paris," however you slice it, is maudlin and badly dated (particularly to a Francophobe such as myself), and would be a lot more entertaining if it were retitled "The Last Time I Saw Flatbush."
Ms. Sullivan leaves out a few of the most familiar Kern-els, such as "The Way You Look Tonight" (great as it is, I don't need to hear it yet again). By the time she reaches the climactic "All the Things You Are," followed by a thoughtful encore of "Yesterdays" and the neglected "Can I Forget You?," you realize you've come to the finish of one of those rare cabaret evenings you wish would never end. To paraphrase a lyric by Dorothy Fields, K.T. Sullivan is, like most of Jerome Kern's music, mighty like a knockout and mighty like a rose.