Grant Park Symphony and Chorus

at Orchestra Hall

Artistic archaeologists are slowly reclaiming our musical past. Pianist-scholar Joshua Rifkin helped to revive Scott Joplin’s fame with his historic 1970 recordings of nearly forgotten rags; a few years later William Bolcom and Joan Morris released two recordings of grand old vaudeville showstoppers. A recent revivalist on the scene is John McGlinn, who specializes in the restoration of musical comedy.

McGlinn isn’t just a scholar-conductor who knows where to find musical gold, he also knows how to restore it to first luster. McGlinn’s mine was a Secaucus, New Jersey, warehouse, a building that to music lovers is what Tut’s tomb was to Egyptologists. In 1982 crates were found there filled with lost and/or forgotten original scores by Victor Herbert, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Richard Rodgers, and Jerome Kern. McGlinn was among the first to see the trove; with tender care he gleaned from it the material that fueled Carnegie Hall’s 1985 Jerome Kern Centennial Festival, featuring the three romps Oh, Boy!, Oh, Lady! Lady!, and Zip! Goes a Million. Concert revivals followed of such Kern-els as Leave It to Jane, The Girl From Utah, She’s a Good Fellow, and The City Chap.

The Kern comeback culminated in last year’s virtually perfect re-creation for EMI Records of Show Boat–in all its uncut glory. This exhaustive, enthralling second coming contained over three and a half hours of every song used or discarded from every version–original or revival, musical or film–of the greatest American musical; McGlinn and Kern are a marriage made in musical heaven.

These revivals have come just when we need them: if Broadway can’t produce a present of its own (not counting British imports), why not seek comfort in the past? (It was true in Kern’s time too: as the contemporary critic Alan Dale put it, Kern wrote “music that towers in an Eiffel way above the average hurdy-gurdy accompaniment of our present day musical comedy.”)

Last year McGlinn gave Grant Park audiences a concert version of Anything Goes–as Porter originally scored it. And last weekend at Orchestra Hall McGlinn unveiled his latest blast from the past, Sunny. The Grant Park Concerts series provided a well- spent $11,000 grant to copy Kern’s orchestral score into instrumental and vocal parts. A follow-up to Kern’s 1920 hit musical Sally (which gave us “Look for the Silver Lining”), Sunny (1925) was Kern’s first collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II (with whom he was to write Show Boat two years later). With the blessing of producer Charles Dillingham, Otto Harbach (Hammerstein’s collaborator on the book and lyrics for Rudolf Friml’s Rose Marie) brought the two pillars of Broadway together. (There’s a continuity here that reaches directly from the traditions of European operetta up to today’s antiromantic musical comedy: Victor Herbert had earlier dubbed Kern his artistic heir, and Harbach was Hammerstein’s tutor as Hammerstein was to be Sondheim’s.)

With choreography by a young Fred Astaire, Sunny was designed as a big vehicle (12 actors, 50 musicians, a chorus of 45) for the singing dancer Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb. It proved a happy hit (and went on to become both a perishable 1930 film with Marilyn Miller and a 1940 vehicle for Anna Neagle).

Several fine numbers were cut before the Broadway debut; here they’re lovingly restored. Ironically, if anything should have been lost along the way it’s not the peppy-pretty songs, it’s the trite story line. (Thank God the Grant Park Concerts version spared us the dialogue.) The creaking Cinderella story imagines that its title character, a plucky English bareback rider in love with the dashing American war hero Tom Warren, accidentally stows away on the ship that takes him back to the states. To qualify as a citizen Sunny marries Tom’s best friend Jim, who dutifully divorces her when Tom discovers–after Sunny pretends to take a fall during a fox hunt in Dixie–that she is indeed his heart’s delight. Jim obediently falls for “Weenie,” the character singer waiting in the wings. (Interestingly, in the London version Sunny ended up in love with an Englishman.)

No question this pleasant period piece is musically and dramatically light-years from Show Boat, its songs merely decorative comments on the stupid plot. But what decoration the 18 numbers provide, especially in the rich original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett.

Except for the ragtime coda to the witty duet “Divorce,” and the pulsating rhythm of the famous “Who (Stole My Heart Away?),” little evidence of jazz surfaces in Sunny’s score. (It was some time before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, of the previous year, began to influence Broadway.) But it’s easy to see Kern’s European training in the rhapsodic “Sunshine” (almost a Sigmund Romberg hommage) and the delicious Viennese waltz, “Under the Sky.” And also to see his orneriness as a composer: Hammerstein’s sometimes forced rhymes can be explained by Kern’s notorious unwillingness to change his music once it was written. In any case Kern’s interest was always in the big moments of a show, not the connecting material.

But Sunny really delivers the goods in songs such as the soaring “Who?,” in which Kern’s inimitable ability to turn words into feelings is so beautifully evident. Sunny teems with delights that please at first hearing and win you over once again at each reprise: the opening chorus (“For one night only”) evolves into a festive march complete with a five-piece brass section onstage; the second act’s opening chorus, set in a health spa, is perhaps the first aerobics dance class on record; and there’s the sprightly “Pas d’Equestrienne,” in which hoofer Marilyn Miller displayed her talents. Two duets especially sparkle with Kern charm: the delightful “Two Little Bluebirds,” in which the two odd-lovers-out move from self-pity to a jealous fit, and the lovers’ “Dream a Dream,” which feelingly foreshadows Show Boat’s famous duet between Magnolia and Gaylord, “Make Believe.”

On the money all the way, McGlinn conducted the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with confident crispness and bounce, while his six hardworking soloists solidly acted the songs without ever camping them up–including some numbers that must have taken great restraint, especially the salacious little ballad “Let’s Say Goodnight (Till It’s Morning).”

Rebecca Luker’s sparkling soprano perfectly fit the title role (her smile in “Who?” left its own special mark on the number). Though somewhat stiff despite his dashing looks, Brent Barrett offered sufficient romantic support as Sunny’s indecisive American lover. George Dvorsky’s ardent baritone was best in the ironic marriage number “It Won’t Mean a Thing,” while Beverly Lambert and Kim Criswell, respectively a blueblood snob and a good-time girl, performed their novelty numbers with the vigor of true vaudevillians. (Though a tad weak in the upper register, Lambert gave her “Sunshine” solo all the heartfelt pathos it deserved.) With his repeated “Meanwhile . . .” tying the tale together, Simon Green provided a smoothly arch synopsis, throwing himself as well into the pompous part of a circus owner.

The dream concert ended with the perfect farewell encore, “All the Things You Are,” from Kern’s 1934 Very Warm for May (a flop despite its gorgeous score). Lovelier sounds than these are seldom heard and McGlinn and the Grant Park Concerts deserve our gratitude for reviving them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Russell Maynor.