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Vintage Sheet Music
"Will You Remember" --
music by Sigmund Romberg
words by Rida Johnson Young, from MayTime
Jeanette MacDonald and
Nelson Eddy on cover
Geoffrey Block, in his forward to William A. Everett's book Sigmund Romberg, retells a famous anecdote concerning Romberg's reworking of several Schubert melodies for his Broadway operetta Blossom Time: While at a party, Romberg was jokingly asked if he had also written Offenbach's "Barcarolle" from The Tales of Hoffmann, which at that moment happened to be playing on a gramophone. Romberg's off the cuff response was, "Not Yet." Block's point is that Romberg knew he could afford to admit to borrowing from Schubert because his own fertility for composing sonorous melodies spoke for itself.
In Hungary where Romberg was born, or at least somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he managed to become an accomplished violinist and pianist while training to become an engineer. He also did an 18 month stint in the military beginning in 1907, and then immigrated to America in 1909, when he was twenty-two, where he devoted himself entirely to music. He began by doing various kinds of journeyman work in New York, first as a cafe pianist and eventually as a staff composer for the Schubert family of impresarios and theater managers. Within a few years he achieved success writing scores for Broadway revues and light opera. By the early 1920s his importance in giving a European flavor to American operetta was widely recognized.
Romberg and Gershwin: Birds of Different Musical Feathers
Sigmund Romberg and George Gershwin are two composers who are not commonly spoken of in one breath -- Romberg being primarily associated with the elevated European tone characteristic of operetta; and the quintessentially American Gershwin with the music is of the Jazz Age. Nevertheless they have a history together that spans virtually the entire career of Gershwin. Their connection began with The Passing Show of 1916, a Broadway revue that was mounted annually between 1912 and 1924. Romberg wrote music for several of these productions. Very early in Gershwin's career he collaborated on some songs with Murray Roth, one of which, "My Runaway Girl" written in 1916, was bought by Romberg for use in The Passing Show of that year. Revues of this nature often featured songs by more than one songwriter or songwriting team. It is not clear exactly how Romberg used the Gershwin song in The Passing Show, but it initiated a working relationship between the two men, a relationship that resurfaced sporadically from this point on and throughout the twenties. 1919 was the year of Gershwin's megahit "Swanee," written with Irving Caesar and his best selling song ever, although it did not catch on until it was
interpolatedinto the Sigmund Romberg show Sinbad, where it was sung by Al Jolson. In 1923, both Gershwin and Romberg wrote music for the revue The Dancing Girl, and more emblematically they did the same for Rosalie, a revue produced by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1928.
Despite the large number of songs in Romberg's canon, only five appear in the Cafe Songbook
Catalog of The Great American Songbook. The reason is Romberg's style, which is more a descendent of the Viennese tradition of light opera typified by the work of Franz Lehár than it is a progenitor of The Songbook. Fifty-one Gershwin songs appear in our catalog. Their work for Rosalie highlights the contrast. Several commentators have noted this odd coupling of Romberg and Gershwin. William A. Everett writes of the dissonance between the Romberg and Gershwin contributions to Rosalie attributing it to the time, 1928. Because of their radically different styles
Critics complained about the disunity of [Rosalie's] score, something that would not have been such a significant factor in 1920, when Poor Little Ritz Girl, with a score by Romberg and Rodgers and Hart,* appeared. As with Poor Little Ritz Girl, Romberg's contributions to Rosalie were largely in the operetta vein, while those of the other contributors [Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins] exuded the spirit of musical comedy (Everett, Sigmund Romberg, p. 193).
*Arnold Shaw notes that the young and naive Rogers and Hart felt they had written a complete score for "Poor Little Ritz Girl" and were shocked, when they attended the opening to find that eight Romberg songs had been
interpolatedinto the show. One can surmise that the producers felt the need to temper the modernity of the newcomers with more than a touch of operetta from Romberg. William Hyland confirms this notion by quoting one critic who wrote of the show, "The music is about equally divided between Rodgers' hard, brisk tunes and Romberg's rich and syrupy melodies" (Hyland p. 68).
Philip Furia points out that the Gershwins were more or less forced into contributing songs to Rosalie by producer Florenz Ziegfeld who was holding the brothers to a previous commitment even though he already had a score for Rosalie from Romberg and P. G. Wodehouse. The Gershwins complied but several of the songs they contributed had not been written for Rosalie: They came out of the Gershwin "trunk.": "How Long Has This Been Going On" was originally intended for Funny Face (1927) but was cut. "Show Me the Town" was dropped from Oh, Kay! (1926)."Yankee Doodle Rhythm" was extracted from the unsuccessful Strike Up the Band (1927). Certainly these songs with their American vernacular titles were not created for the highly romanticized Rosalie story of a Roumanian princess who has fallen in love with a Lindbergh-like American. Furia illustrates how stylistically at odds the Gershwin numbers were with Romberg's "Hussars March" and "The West Point Song." The Gershwin songs such as 'Oh Gee!-- Oh Joy!' and 'Say So!' had a "slangy exuberance" replete with such Jazz Age expressions as "gotcha" and "sappy." These numbers "seemed out of place amid the swashbuckling score" of Romberg and Wodehouse (Furia, p. 68).
Howard Pollack in his biography of Gershwin notes that critic and wag Alexander Woollcott upon hearing of the proposed Romberg-Gershwin effort "expected next to see a novel cowritten by Ernest Hemingway and bestselling minister-author Harold Bell Wright." Nevertheless Pollack is more sanguine about these two contrasting styles being merged together in one show. He sees a method in Ziegfeld's apparent madness in that Gershwin "had already written an operetta, Song of the Flame (1925), . . . while Romberg . . . had much experience with jazzier forms of musical theater," even though his reputation was otherwise. Moreover, Rosalie, which opened in January, 1928, preceded by only two weeks the opening of another Ziegfeld production that combined operetta with the more modern American musical, a show that in fact set the standard for the next fifteen years and beyond for American musical theater: Show Boat -- with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Rosalie, of course, although far from a flop (335 performances), had nothing like the success of Show Boat, either immediate or long term, but it was in the same hybrid vein and demonstrated that Ziegfeld was indeed onto something big in joining these disparate forms (Pollack, p. 417).
William Zinsser was a bit more harsh in assessing Romberg's place in the American musical theater of the twenties. Although he admires "the warm bubble bath" of Romberg's melodies, he places him with a group of composers who weren't American in their origins and whose work was derived from a Viennese tradition of operetta.
"When those composers emigrated to the United States they continued to write European-style "light operas," and nobody seemed to mind. Romberg's The Student Prince, a musical about a German prince who falls in love with a waitress in in Old Heidelberg, opened on Broadway in 1924 and ran for 608 performances. Today it's hard to believe that audiences in the Jazz Age were willing to put up with waitresses in Old Heidelberg for so long" (Zinsser, p. 13).
This doesn't mean, of course, that Romberg couldn't or didn't write songs that fit the style of the time, or at least could be adapted to it by arrangers and performers who perceived hipper elements embedded within them. Witness June Christy's interpretation of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" (Listen below.), which Romberg wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II, for The New Moon, his next show after working with Gershwin on Rosalie in 1928. "Lover, Come Back to Me" with music by Romberg and words by Hammerstein, was also introduced in The New Moon. It is a song that Arnold Shaw in his book The Jazz Age describes as characterized by "the personalization of feeling" typical of modern, blues as found in American popular music of the early twenties, words and music that explored "the many sides of loss and longing for love."
It is worth noting that of the five Romberg songs in the Cafe SongbookCatalog of The Great American Songbook, all are from 1928 or after with the exception of "The Desert Song" (1926) that some have claimed is too operetta-like to belong at all. One of the five is from Romberg's last foray on Broadway [Up in Central Park, 1945], which Wilfred Sheed, who otherwise thinks of Romberg as not much more than a musical "fuddy-duddy," calls "the best musical never revived and its big hit 'Close as Pages in a Book' the best song never played." In any case, the Gershwin association is not a bad bet as at least a partial explanation for some changes that took place in Romberg's style around the time of Rosalie. Still, as Alec Wilder points out, Romberg along with Victor Herbert and Rudolf Friml shifted very slowly away from the "more polite melodies" of European music toward the new American sounds. Jerome Kern, on the other hand, who like them had "his ear cocked east of Manhattan," recognized the changes he heard occurring in New York and adapted much more readily than they did to "the vitality of current American music" (Wilder, p. 51, hard-cover Ed.).
Finally, Romberg, like Gershwin, though to less effect, traveled west to Hollywood in the mid-thirties to write music for the movies. Indeed, he moved into a house on North Roxbury Drive a couple of blocks from Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills that was just two doors away from the Gershwins, whose house had become a social gathering place for many of the transplanted New York songwriters. It was the house in which Gershwin was living when his life ended so prematurely in 1937. So between 1916 and George Gershwin's death, Sigmund Romberg and Gershwin found, different as they were, their paths crossing, both as songwriting colleagues and as neighbors.
Deborah Grace Winer in her book on Dorothy Fields informs us that Fields had approached Romberg about doing the music for the show Up in Central Park (1945), for which she and her brother Herb Fields had written the book. She had become friends with the good-natured Romberg when they were in Hollywood together in the thirties. The composer was excited about the project both because he loved the concept of the show and because he had not had a hit on Broadway for quite a while. Romberg wound up writing sixteen melodies to which Fields put lyrics, but it was only one of them that was to become a standard, "Close as Pages in a Book." Stephen Sondheim, who is generally very admiring of Fields work, doesn't like what she did with Romberg. He writes, "She didn't belong with a composer like Romberg, who was too schmaltzy for her" (Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, p. 222).
Winer also does a terrific job in characterizing Romberg from the point of view of the songwriting crowd in which Dorothy was the only woman, famously referring to herself as "just one of the boys." She disabuses anybody who might have thought a composer of operettas would necessarily be stuffy:
Romberg was known as a "card" among the musical and show business crowds. (In a Hollywood biopic based on his life, Deep in My Heart, he was portrayed by Jose Ferrer.) He was affectionately recognized for two traits: his bungling of the English language a la Sam Goldwyn, which Hammerstein used to call "Rommyisms," and his cheerful "borrowing" from other composers, which led to Larry Hart's oft-quoted remark to Richard Rodgers, as they listened to Romberg playing Tchaikovsky in the next hotel suite: "Listen, Rommy's doing another score" (Winer, p. 134).
Sondheim's acknowledged mentor was Oscar Hammerstein II and one of Hammerstein's mentors was Romberg. This took place when Romberg invited the then young lyricist to collaborate with him. Sondheim thinks this was both good and bad for Hammerstein: "good, clearly, in that Hammerstein learned his craft from a professional; bad because the flowery self-consciousness of operetta lyrics was something Hammerstein subsequently never could entirely shake. That quality is what makes so much of his work feel quaint and sugary today" (Sondheim Finishing the Hat, p. 228).
"Why Must We Always Be Dreaming?"
from Rosalie, 1928 -- (music, Sigmund Romberg, lyrics, P. G. Wodehouse) performed by Catharyn Layton, soprano with José Meléndez, piano. Recorded on January 30, 2011 for Concert Operetta Theater.
Compare this to another song, "How Long Has this Been Going On?" (music, George Gershwin; words, Ira Gershwin; performed by Ella Fitzgerald, vocal and Oscar Peterson, piano, 19). Both of these songs were introduced in the same show, Rosalie (1928). The Romberg harkens back to the era of the operetta and the Gershwin forward to musical comedy and The Songbook.
Romberg Conducts Romberg
Sigmund Romberg and His Orchestra
Notes: In 1960, June Christy and arranger/conductor Pete Rugulo re-recorded the original mono album Something Cool, c. 1954, with arrangements in stereo. This CD contains both versions. Read customer album reviews at Amazon. "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" has become a jazz standard with recordings by Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and many others. Also, read the comments on the Christy music-video at YouTube. They're worth a moment. (The track on the music-video at left is the same as on this album.)
Sigmund Rombergresearch resources in print (listed chronologically):
ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, New York: American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Cattell/Bowker, Fourth edition, 1980 (dates, collaborators, shows/movies, songs, etc., entry pp. 427-428)
David Ewen. American Songwriters, An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. New York: The H. W. Wilson Co., 1987 (includes 146 bios of composers and lyricists). -- a wide selection of used copies is available at abebooks.com (entry pp.330-335 ).
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Credits for Videomakers of videos used on this page:
Catharyn Layton, "Why Must We Always Be Dreaming?": ConcertOT
June Christy, "Soft as in a Morning Sunrise": amce7946
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Master List of Great American Songbook Songwriters
Names of songwriters who have written at least one song included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook are listed below.
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