History of The Musical Stage

1930s: Part IV - Kern & Porter

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Kern: "A New Love is Old"

Sheet music for 
    The Cat and the FiddleArt deco reigns supreme on the original sheet music cover for Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach's "She Didn't Say Yes" from The Cat and the Fiddle.

Jerome Kern had several hits over the course of the 1930s. Still an innovator, he loved to put existing theatrical forms to new uses. Otto Harbach provided the book and lyrics for The Cat and the Fiddle (1931 - 395 performances), a romantic operetta with a contemporary setting and score. The story involved two music students (one into classical, the other into jazz) who love each other but cannot abide each other's compositions. Reflecting this, the score alternated the sweeping passion of "The Night Was Made for Love" with jazzier numbers like "She Didn't Say Yes."

Several months later, Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II came up with yet another modern operetta, Music in the Air (1932 - 342 performances). An idealistic small town school teacher confronts the cynical ways of modern show business when he writes the hit song "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star." The following season, Kern collaborated with Harbach on the musical comedy Roberta (1933 - 295 performances), which told the unlikely tale of an all-American football fullback who finds love and success when he inherits his aunt's dress shop in Paris. Most critics dismissed Roberta as a bore, but fueled by the success of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the show managed a profitable run. Beloved comedienne Fay Templeton made her final Broadway appearance as the aging aunt, introducing the rueful "Yesterdays."

Kern and Hammerstein spent most of the 1930s in Hollywood, working on a series of profitable but artistically uneven films. Their last Broadway collaboration was Very Warm for May (1939 - 59 performances), a backstage love story featuring the rapturous "All the Things You Are." When the show failed, Kern and Hammerstein resumed their screen efforts out West. By the time Kern died in 1946, Hammerstein would be part of an even more innovative collaboration. More on that in our coverage of the next decade . . .

Cole Porter: Hit Maker

Anything GoesWilliam Gaxton, Ethel Merman and Victor Moore on the sheet music for "All Through the Night" from Anything Goes.

Cole Porter had more hit Broadway musicals in the 1930s than any other songwriter. His wry insider's perspective on high society delighted theatergoers, feeding their fantasies of a carefree life in the midst of the Great Depression -- and his frank attitude towards sex delighted many. Porter also composed scores for several musical films, but his stage hits were the "state of the art" musical comedies of this decade –

Red, Hot and BlueJimmy Durante, Ethel Merman and Bob Hope appear together on the Playbill for  Red, Hot and Blue. When agents argued about who would get star billing, Porter settled the controversy by suggesting criss-cross billing. Hope was a relative newcomer at the time, and delighted to accept lesser billing -- within a few years, his star would eclipse theirs on radio and in Hollywood.

DuBarry Was a LadyMerman and Lahr appear on the cover of the souvenir program for Cole Porter's DuBarry Was a Lady (1939).

Laughs? Considering the dramatic changes the world – and the musical theatre – would undergo in the 1940s, theatergoers might have done better to catch their breath.

Next: Stage 1940s