Words to Express the Extraordinary
In "Reading Lyrics," an anthology published in 2000, Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball compiled the texts of their thousand favorite songs written from 1900 to 1975. Essential reading for anyone interested in American popular song, this estimable collection provides fascinating insights. It demonstrates, for example, how in the opening decades of the 20th century the popular song broke away from the traditions of operetta.
Of the 109 lyricists or collaborating teams here, the ones most often cited are predictable: Irving Berlin comes in first with 39 lyrics, Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart tie with 37, and Ira Gershwin gets 35. But it may surprise many to find Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (known to his readers as P. G. Wodehouse and to his friends as Plum) represented by a respectable 11 lyrics.
Yes, this is the same P. G. Wodehouse who created, in his 70 novels and 300 short stories, the feckless nitwit aristocrat Bertie Wooster, his subtly manipulative valet, Jeeves, and a world of witty and wacky characters. But before his literary career took off, Wodehouse (pronounced WOOD-house) had a highly successful theatrical career in the United States and in his native England, which has largely been overlooked.
In his heyday, from about 1915 to 1928, he wrote lyrics for some 20 composers, among them George Gershwin, Ivor Novello and Cole Porter. But his most important collaborators were Jerome Kern, who set more than 200 of his lyrics, and Guy Bolton, who wrote the books for Kern's musicals.
Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern (as a ditty of the time dubbed them) created an influential body of work often called the Princess Theater musicals, for the Broadway house where several of them opened. Breaking away from the influence of operetta and the regular metrical lyrics of W. S. Gilbert, Wodehouse fashioned song texts with more naturalistic speech and, with his collaborators, integrated the songs into the plot. These innovations are often said to have changed the course of musical theater.
Wodehouse's theatrical career is finally starting to get its due. On Thursday at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, the New York Festival of Song will present "P. G.'s Other Profession," an evening of songs with Wodehouse lyrics. Among the participating singers is Hal Cazalet, a London-based tenor and a great- grandson of Wodehouse.
"I was only vaguely aware of Wodehouse as a lyricist," said Steven Blier, a pianist and a founder of the festival, "but when I got to know the songs, they really grew on me. I have always loved Kern, because he's one of the few German-Jewish popular composers, as opposed to the Russian-Jewish ones. So he has a Schubertian elegance to his music. And let's face it, there just isn't much popular music of quality from the decade beginning around 1915, so that was of historical interest to me."
In its 14 seasons, the festival has been influential in the resurgence of interest in the song. Its commissions, including a notable song cycle by Ned Rorem, "Evidence of Things Past," have added significantly to the literature, and its creative programs have introduced unusual repertory. No less important has been its ecumenical approach.
The festival's offerings this season include jazz-based songs from the Harlem Renaissance, classical repertory from Spain and Scandinavia, 20th-century American songs (by Barber, Berlin, Bernstein, Blitzstein and Bowles) and a roundup of past commissions, including the Rorem work. Along with the Wodehouse concert, this array of programs demonstrates the shattering of the old boundary that divided the popular song from the art song.
"We set out to reinvent the song recital," said Michael Barrett, who founded the New York Festival of Song with Mr. Blier in 1988. "Our motto has always been, `No song is safe from us.' And our internal mantra was, `No two alike.' What we meant was that each program would be unique and that the music would be the star."
From the beginning, Mr. Barrett, a pianist and conductor and an administrator whose entrepreneurial skills have been honed in several positions (among them the directorship of the Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y), has overseen the festival's direction. In addition to sharing performing duties at the keyboard, Mr. Barrett has been the prime advocate for commissioning new works and the instigator of a creative educational program, which teaches songwriting skills to high school students.
The vocal aspects of the presentations are left to Mr. Blier. It is not hyperbole to say that he is a national treasure when it comes to the art of song. He is a scholar of song literature from every era, and his irrepressible curiosity has led him to do considerable research at the Library of Congress. He has a great sensitivity to nuances of language and texts. (He holds a degree in literature from Yale.)
As a pianist, Mr. Blier is deft, intuitive and capable of playing a broad range of styles. He can transpose any score to another key instantly, an essential skill particularly in popular songs, where the home key is adjusted to fit the singer and where keys are often changed between verses to add musical interest.
Finally, Mr. Blier has a great ear, for music and for text. In one rehearsal for the Wodehouse program, his skill and insights were even more evident than they are in performance.
"Make that a long `I' sound in the last syllable of juvenile," he instructed the soprano Christianne Tisdale, who was rehearsing the song "You Never Knew About Me" in Mr. Blier's apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "That will make an echo of the sound in `I never miss chances of juvenile dances,' " he added, identifying a subtle internal rhyme most coaches and singers would miss.
In the hilarious patter song "Cleopatterer," he suggested that Ms. Tisdale begin in the key of C and progress to D flat and then D in subsequent verses to give the song more punch. He also suggested that she imagine herself as a secretary on her lunch break who had entered an Egyptian room in a museum and wanted to be like Cleopatra.
Atypically, the Wodehouse project was instigated not by the festival but by Mr. Cazalet, who had studied under Mr. Blier at the Juilliard School. While Mr. Cazalet knew of his great- grandfather's songwriting career, it was not until he met Tony Ring, a theater historian with an interest in Wodehouse, that he began looking through his family's archives for songs. Mr. Cazalet got the soprano Sylvia McNair, who is also participating in the Wodehouse concert, to agree to collaborate on a recording from Harbinger: "The Land Where the Good Songs Go," with sprightly and idiomatic performances, featuring Mr. Blier on the piano, and with insightful program notes by Mr. Ring.
"Plum had a very cold relationship with his father," Mr. Cazalet said from London, hinting at his great-grandfather's inner life. "So he was unable to express himself about love. But there's a lovable goofiness and wittiness to his characters, and there's always a guy who is totally unable to talk about love. He makes that into a comic situation."
Mr. Cazalet illustrated by singing a snatch of "If I Ever Lost You" in which the male character sings: "Think how sad a carrot would be/ If no boil'd beef was near./ Think how sad an egg would feel/ If ham should disappear."
The absurdity of an ordinary person reaching for words to express the extraordinary is a comic situation Wodehouse exploited often in his songs. "Bungalow in Quogue" is a Long Island version of Marlowe's pastoral poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love."
Wodehouse indulges in pleasantly silly tricks with word sounds, as in "Tulip Time in Sing Sing," the lament of a released prisoner: "And the birdies every Spring sing/ Aren't you coming back to Sing Sing/ Where you used to be so happy long ago?" And what cunning rhymes! "Till the Clouds Roll By" offers the couplet "What bad luck, it's/ Coming down in buckets."
But probably his best-known song is "Bill." Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for the 1917 Kern musical "Oh, Lady! Lady!," then rewrote them 10 years later with Oscar Hammerstein II for the musical "Show Boat." Here he sacrificed cleverness for heartfelt expression: "I love him,/ Because he's — I don't know —/ Because he's just my Bill."
More Wodehouse lyrics — some 400 of them — are to appear next year in an anthology of the complete song texts, edited by Barry Day. This will provide a needed summation of Wodehouse's achievements as a lyricist, helping us all, to misquote the lyricist himself, "find our way back to the land where the good songs go."