Jerome Kern; Master of American Musical Theater

By Jo Ann Vick


Jerome David Kern, one of the most influential and celebrated composers of American musical theater, was born on January 27, 1885, in New York City. His prolific career spanned the early 20th century, and his contributions to the world of music laid the foundation for the development of the American musical. Kern's innovative approach to melody and harmony, coupled with his collaborations with talented lyricists and librettists, left an indelible mark on the genre.

Early Years and Musical Upbringing

Jerome Kern was born into a family that valued music and the arts. His father, Henry Kern, was a German-Jewish immigrant and a successful merchant, while his mother, Fannie Kakeles, came from a musical family. Young Jerome showed an early aptitude for music, and by the age of five, he began taking piano lessons.

Encouraged by his parents, Kern's formal musical education began at the New York College of Music. Later, he continued his studies with private tutors, honing his skills as both a pianist and a composer. Despite his classical training, Kern was drawn to the popular music of the time, including the burgeoning world of American musical theater.

Early Career in Musical Theater

Kern's career in musical theater began in the early 1900s when he started composing songs for vaudeville acts and musical reviews. His early successes included songs like "How'd You Like to Spoon With Me?" and "They Didn't Believe Me." These early compositions showcased Kern's gift for crafting memorable melodies and demonstrated his ability to capture the spirit of the times.

In 1904, Kern collaborated with librettist George Grossmith Jr. on his first Broadway musical, "The Red Petticoat." Although the show was not a major success, it marked the beginning of Kern's association with the Broadway stage. Over the next few years, Kern continued to contribute songs to various productions, steadily building his reputation in the world of musical theater.

Collaboration with Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse

One of the turning points in Kern's career came when he formed a successful partnership with librettist Guy Bolton and lyricist P.G. Wodehouse. Together, they created a series of "Princess Theatre Musicals," a collection of intimate, character-driven shows that departed from the extravagance of traditional musical theater at the time.

The first of these collaborations, "Very Good Eddie" (1915), marked a departure from the typical musicals of the era. The production focused on character-driven stories, and the songs were integrated into the narrative in a more seamless manner. The success of "Very Good Eddie" marked the beginning of a new era in musical theater, and the Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern partnership continued with hits like "Oh, Boy!" (1917) and "Leave It to Jane" (1917).

Kern's Breakthrough: "Show Boat"

While Kern had achieved success with his earlier works, it was "Show Boat" (1927) that catapulted him into the musical theater pantheon. Collaborating with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, Kern created a groundbreaking work that is often regarded as the first modern American musical. "Show Boat" tackled serious themes, including racial prejudice and societal issues, marking a departure from the lighter fare of earlier musicals.

The score of "Show Boat" featured timeless classics such as "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Kern's music, combined with Hammerstein's lyrics, not only advanced the narrative but also explored the emotional depth of the characters. The success of "Show Boat" revolutionized the musical theater landscape, setting a new standard for the genre.

Continued Success and Iconic Compositions

Following the triumph of "Show Boat," Kern continued to produce hit musicals and contribute memorable songs to the American songbook. His collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II continued with "Sweet Adeline" (1929) and "Music in the Air" (1932). The duo's ability to seamlessly integrate songs into the narrative became a hallmark of their partnership.

One of Kern's most enduring songs, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," came from the musical "Roberta" (1933), with lyrics by Otto Harbach. The song became a standard, covered by numerous artists over the years and solidifying Kern's reputation as a master tunesmith. Other notable works from this period include "I Dream Too Much" (1935) and "Swing Time" (1936), featuring the classic "The Way You Look Tonight."

Later Years and Hollywood Success

As the musical landscape evolved, Kern adapted to new mediums, including film. He moved to Hollywood and found success in the world of cinema, collaborating with lyricist Dorothy Fields on the score for "Swing Time" (1936), which included the hit "The Way You Look Tonight," earning the duo an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Kern's contributions to Hollywood continued with scores for films like "Shall We Dance" (1937) and "Carefree" (1938). His ability to create memorable songs that seamlessly integrated with the narrative made him a sought-after composer in the film industry.

Legacy and Honors

Jerome Kern's impact on American music and musical theater is immeasurable. His ability to blend classical influences with popular melodies, coupled with his emphasis on character-driven narratives, helped shape the modern musical. Kern's innovative approach influenced generations of composers who followed, and his songs became an integral part of the Great American Songbook.

In recognition of his contributions, Jerome Kern received numerous accolades during his lifetime. He was nominated for Academy Awards for several of his film scores and won two Oscars for Best Original Song. In 1945, Kern was awarded an honorary Academy Award for "his one contribution to the art of the motion picture musical."

Jerome Kern's legacy endures as a testament to his unparalleled contributions to American musical theater. His ability to create melodies that resonate with audiences, combined with his commitment to pushing the boundaries of the art form, left an indelible mark on the genre. Kern's influence can be heard in the works of subsequent generations of composers, and his timeless songs continue to be performed and cherished worldwide. As a master of melody and a pioneer in the evolution of musical theater, Jerome Kern's impact on the cultural landscape is both profound and enduring.

Jo Ann Vick is a private piano instructor with 20 years of training and performing experience
and has a home based studio in Frisco, Texas. Her mission is to develop in others, a love
for playing the piano. Her website is located at