KT Sullivan – All the things you are: Songs by Jerome Kern [The American Songbook in London]
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
"All the things you are"
K. T. Sullivan – Singer
Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge, London
If composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945) were only to be remembered for just one thing, it would be for “Show Boat”, his 1927 show that changed the face of the Broadway musical and allowed it to take on serious topics such as miscegenation, racism and slave labour. However, Kern also wrote over 700 songs, an output that places him among the most prolific of American composers. And, to top that, his songs were some of the best ever to grace the pages of the Great American Songbook.
His melodies are some of the most evocative, the most well-known and the most beloved of musical Americana, particularly when you consider he was responsible for the music to ‘They didn’t believe me’, ‘Look for the silver lining’, ‘Who (stole my heart away)?’, ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’, ‘Lovely to look at’, ‘I won’t dance’, ’A fine romance’, ‘The way you look tonight’, ‘Long ago and far away’ and ‘The last time I saw Paris’ – the list goes on and that is even without excerpting the score of “Show Boat” with the likes of ‘Make believe’, ‘Bill’, ‘Why do I love you?’ and ‘Ol’man river’.
Jerome Kern began his career as a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley and accompanist to singers, rehearsing them and all the while writing his songs. He had composed at school, had studied classical music and also wrote songs in the styles popular at the turn of the century. By 1915 Kern had written many songs for musical shows but one of the first with most of the score by Kern was “Very Good Eddie”, the prototype for several more he wrote with Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, such as “Oh, boy!”, “Leave it to Jane” and “Oh, Lady! Lady!!”, all known as the Princess Theatre musicals, in which the plots were as silly as the times demanded but the music by Kern was just heavenly. Many such shows followed until 1927 when, with Oscar Hammerstein II, Kern changed the face of the American musical forever. Kern really worked with the best lyricists who, apart from Hammerstein and Wodehouse, included Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, Otto Harbach, Leo Robin and Ira Gershwin.
In her Pizza on the Park tribute to Kern, KT Sullivan, no stranger to London, gives us not only some of the best-known Kern numbers, but also many rarities from the earlier shows that are seldom heard. She opens with ‘Just let me look at you’ which Kern wrote with Dorothy Fields for the 1938 film “Joy of Living”. Later on she does ‘You couldn’t be cuter’ from the same film. The first is a love song, the second a bright point-number and both display the skill that Kern had with a tune and also Fields’s talent for both poignancy and fun. K. T. delivers both with great panache.
She is also a much experienced musical actress and she sings each song as if in context. Her voice is a semi-operatic high soprano which suits Kern's material enormously. He was writing at a time when Viennese operetta was popular albeit soon to be replaced by a more down-to-earth style by Kern himself. The pre-“Show Boat” numbers still have that air of fantasy about them, such as ‘The land where the good songs go’, ‘A bungalow in Quogue’ and ‘Nesting time in Flatbush’ and even ‘Cleopatterer’, all with lyrics by Wodehouse, which KT obviously enjoys performing.
KT can tear your heart out one minute with something like Dorothy Fields’s ‘April fooled me’ and Leo Robin’s ‘In love in vain’ and then have you falling about with laughter in ‘Life upon the wicked stage’ which she boldly sings without amplification.
Wodehouse also wrote the song ‘Bill’ for the show “Oh, lady! Lady!!” but it was dropped and eventually used in “Show Boat” and became the hit song of the show. Although it is sung by the heroine who is thinking about her man, his name is not Bill (as it was in the show for which it was written) but that didn’t seem to matter. It’s a good torch-song and K. T. manages to squeeze in just a single phrase from it in a medley of love songs. These include ‘Left all alone again blues’ and ‘Raggedy Ann’ by Anne Caldwell who had a quirky and very modern approach to lyric writing, much like Dorothy Fields. KT also sings her ‘Once in a blue moon’ to great effect. The programme is packed with other goodies such as Johnny Mercer’s ‘I’m old fashioned’ and Dorothy Fields’s ‘A fine romance’, among others.
Much of Kern’s best work was written with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and K. T. does extraordinarily-touching versions of ‘In the heart of the dark’, ‘Nobody else but me’, ‘The last time I saw Paris’ and ‘All the things you are’. After you have heard KT’s version of ‘The folks who live on the hill’ you may have to think again about Peggy Lee’s definitive version of it, and, this must be a first, a soprano, K. T., singing ‘Ol’man river’ beautifully will also knock you back.
After encores of Otto Harbach’s ‘Yesterdays’ and Hammerstein’s ‘Can I forget you?’, KT obliges a customer with a favourite song, Ira Gershwin’s ‘Long ago and far away’ – as she says, the bonus track which may even by now have made the main programme.
KT Sullivan is accompanied by a very talented jazz pianist, Jon Weber, on his first visit to London. He is a brilliant musician who adds immeasurably to the very endearing performance by KT Great singer, great musician, great songs – who could ask for anything more? Her show of “All the things you are” is a very apt and loving tribute to a master composer. To paraphrase another comment about another