Musical of the Month
The Music of Oh, Boy!
A guest post by Professor William Everett
Part of the innate appeal of the Princess Theatre musicals comes from the songs, which famously emerge out of the plots. Musical numbers in these shows illuminate some dimension of the story; characters often reflect on what is happening at the time or offer insights into their personalities and desires. As Stephen Banfield asserts in his extraordinary study of Kern and his music, songs in the Princess Theatre musicals constitute the middle parts of sequences that generally move from dialogue to song to dance. (Banfield, Jerome Kern, 86-88). In a musical, musical style can accentuate or reveal details in ways that cannot be accomplished through words alone. This aspect is certainly evident in Oh, Boy!, as a brief investigation of the three duets in act 1 and solo songs for each of the female leads will demonstrate.
Act 1 includes three duets: Lou Ellen and George's "You Never Knew About Me," Jacky and Jim's "A Pal Like You (We're Going to Be Pals)," and George and Jacky's "Till the Clouds Roll By." Each pair of lovers who will ultimately end up together, Lou Ellen and George on one hand and Jacky and Jim on the other, sing a duet, as do George and Jacky, who find themselves offering each other mutual support. The three duets are in recognizably different musical styles, and through musical characterization, Kern provides insights into the nature of each relationship.
The first duet in the show (and the second number) is "You Never Knew About Me." Lou Ellen and George have just returned to George's apartment after their elopement and don't want any excitement. Marked "Moderato semplice," the song exudes an air of graceful sentimentality and genteel nostalgia. George tells his wife that his earlier life would have been so much happier if she had been part of it, while she confesses that she would have lived less for pleasure alone if she knew that she'd find in him "an ideal for which to strive."
The refrain boasts several remarkable features. While it begins in a standard Tin Pan Alley manner — the second measure offers a slight syncopation and the first and third measures are virtually the same (except for a slight harmonic difference on the final beat) — it quickly becomes non-normative. Nothing is repeated during the remainder of the refrain, defying an anticipated AABA, ABAB, or ABAC structure. The refrain does have four distinct phrases, however, which hints at conventional sixteen-bar form. But Kern once again defies expectations by adding two measures to the final phrase, expanding the refrain to an unusual total of eighteen bars.
Through the anomaly that Kern presents in terms of the refrain's non-repetition of musical material and its atypical length, he subtly informs his audience that other unexpected antics may be afoot. And indeed they are, as the farcical plot begins to unfold.
In the show's second duet, "A Pal Like You," we get to know the other pair of eventual lovers, Jacky and Jim. They are glad to have met, and Jacky is especially grateful to Jim for his help after her predicament with the police.
As a dancing couple, their musical idiom here is a cut-time cakewalk. An infectious short-LONG-short motif (quarter note-half note-quarter note) unifies the verse and refrain and infuses the entire number with a sense of lightness. The 32-bar refrain in ABAC form conforms to Tin Pan Alley norms (unlike "You Never Knew About Me"), though the final cadence resolves in the penultimate measure. This slight anticipation matches the free-spirited working methods of Jacky and Jim; their quick-witted responses and quirky actions can catch people slightly off guard, just like the placement of the final note of their duet. The approach to this final cadence is also worth mentioning. It is not accomplished through a standard melodic ascent (la-ti-do) but rather by skip (la-la-do). Jacky and Jim again demonstrate, though subtle musical means, that they do not always adhere to expectations.
The third duet, "'Till the Clouds Roll By," emerged as Oh, Boy!'s most famous song. The final duet in act 1, it is a paean to platonic friendship and mutual support sung not by one of the romantic pairs but rather by George and Jacky. Its moderately brisk tempo, foxtrot character, Tin Pan Alley-style refrain, and smart lyrics allowed it to achieve success outside of its original context. The words of the verse are actually closely tied to the storyline: Jacky and George find themselves in a typical farcical dilemma and in order to save Jacky's reputation, George must leave, even though it is raining.
The clever literal references to rain, raingear, and waiting "for a clearer sky," became metaphorical in the sense that when the show opened on February 20, 1917, it would be only weeks until the US formally entered World War I (which it did on April 6). Lines such as "Skies are weeping/While the world is sleeping/Trouble heaping/On our head" took on additional significance during the show's run. The song's popularity and its identifiable ties to Jerome Kern led to its title being used for the 1946 MGM biopic of Kern in which Robert Walker played the popular composer.
Just as the three duets in act 1 accentuate character and plot dimensions through musical means, Kern deftly tells us more about the two principal female leads, Lou Ellen and Jacky, in their solo songs. Lou Ellen's "An Old-Fashioned Wife" recalls an old-fashioned paradigm while Jacky's "Rolled into One" is a rollicking romp befitting a chorus girl.
"An Old-Fashioned Wife" emulates the style of an operetta waltz. In the verse, Lou Ellen reflects despairingly on modern wives, who seem to be drawn to "wicked ways." She asserts, in the refrain, that she will not be like that: she won't stay out all night at parties but will stay home and remain true to one man. As Lou Ellen confessed in "You Never Knew About Me," she had previously been the type to enjoy parties and flirting, but now that she has married George, she is ready to settle down to her knitting, a pastime that reflects her new, more ordered existence. As a stylistic vehicle for Lou Ellen to express her worldview, Kern employs a staple of musical theater tropes, the waltz. Lou Ellen is entering a traditional marriage and her music, rooted in tradition, largely reflects this desire. Waltzes often appeared in musicals of the time to signify themes of love, memory, or nostalgia. Is Lou Ellen, who sings this song as she declines an offer to go to another party, perhaps feeling a bit nostalgic for the times when she would have gone along without a moment's hesitation? This could be a waltz of "nevermore," not for lost love or a faraway land, but for the life Lou Ellen once led.
Lou Ellen has found her true love in George, and Jacky eventually finds hers in Jim. Jacky knows what she wants — a combination of the best traits of all the men she has ever dated — and expresses this in the delightful "Rolled into One" [available below]. In contrast to Lou Ellen's waltz, Jacky's solo is filled with dotted rhythms, jaunty syncopations, and other rhythmic delights. Jacky enjoys modern life and love, and her music reflects this.
Intimacy and integration are terms often used to describe the Princess Theatre shows, including Oh, Boy! The three act 1 duets and the solo numbers for each of the two female leads demonstrate the validity of this claim. Through musical style, the audience gains insights into particular dimensions of the show's characters, a feature that figures significantly into the emerging notion of an "integrated musical."
|A Pal Like You|
|Rolled Into One|
|'Till the Clouds Roll By|