"Dear old songs, forgotten too soon;
They had their day, and then we threw them away.
And without a sigh we would pass them by
For some other, newer tune,
So off to a happier home they flew
Where they're always loved, and always new."
("The Land Where the Good Songs Go," from Oh, Boy!, lyric by P.G. Wodehouse)
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881, into an incalculably simpler, more innocent world. In a career spanning some 70 years, he became renowned and then beloved for his short stories and novels--most especially those involving Bertie Wooster, the hapless Londoner-about-town, and his indispensable gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves. (That fictional duo will bring Wodehouse back to Broadway this season, if the off-again-on-again production of By Jeeves actually happens.) The Jeeves stories made Wodehouse world famous and very wealthy, and the demand for them was so great that they forced him to curtail his other literary pursuits. Thus, even admirers of Wodehouse are often surprised to learn that he was also a considerable playwright--and one of the American musical theater's first master lyricists, or "lyrists," to use the term he preferred.
Wodehouse contributed lyrics to some 19 musicals between 1917 and 1926 alone, most of them hits. These include the legendary Princess Theatre series, with books by Guy Bolton and music by Jerome Kern. Often cited inaccurately as the first "integrated" musicals (sorry, their books and scores are at best second cousins), the shows are nonetheless innovative, delightful, and eminently revivable. They nudged musical comedy away from a 10-year servitude to overstuffed European operetta; scaled down the size of cast, sets, and orchestra; and presented recognizable, middle-class Americans in witty, believable stories. Best of all, they gave the world some 200 Kern-Wodehouse songs.
Most musical buffs are at least dimly aware of the Kern-Wodehouse canon, but the shows are almost never revived and the songs have been curiously overlooked by cabaret artists. Until now. The new Sylvia McNair-Hal Cazalet CD The Land Where the Good Songs Go (Harbinger HCD 1901) displays a downright missionary zeal to rectify the situation, with 16 Wodehouse tracks and pages and pages of unnecessary gush from Cazalet (Wodehouse's great-grandson), lyricist Tim Rice, and musical consultant Tony Ring. On and on they adulate, quoting Wodehouse testimonials from Ira Gershwin, Howard Dietz, Alan Jay Lerner, and the like. They needn't have bothered: Wodehouse's lyrics speak for themselves.
Like the Jeeves stories, Wodehouse's words are gently deadpan, playful but reserved, satirical but restrained--the verbal equivalent, say, of a Buster Keaton two-reeler. In the manner of W.S. Gilbert before him and E.Y. Harburg and Lorenz Hart after, Wodehouse finds creative ways of voicing everyday sentiments. He seems constitutionally incapable, for instance, of penning a love lyric that limits itself to a vapid "I love you." Consider 1921's "If I Ever Lost You," with music by Ivor Novello, from something called The Golden Moth: A fluttery, flowing, hesitation waltz, its singer likens being separated from his lover to a carrot without boiled beef, sausage without "mash'd"--"And what grief a steak would feel if it found / That there wasn't an onion around!" The food motif continues with a 1923 Kern lament that Internet daters can identify with: "You can't make love by wireless, it's like eggs without the ham!" And Wodehouse's comic take on l'amour extends to "Bill," later gussied up by Oscar Hammerstein II for Show Boat but here sung in its original form: "Whenever he dances / His partner takes chances."
Whimsy is a Wodehouse strength--and if these aren't exactly whimsical times, that's all the more reason to embrace it where you can find it. Wacky humor suffuses 1923's "Non-Stop Dancing," describing the maladies of an all-dancing-all-the-time clan: "Grandma's worn out fourteen pairs of stays / Father pluckily continues / Though he's sprained eleven sinews." The new woman, 1917 model, is epitomized in "Rolled Into One," about a flirty miss with a different boyfriend for every occasion: "They tell us / They're jealous, / But that's what men are for!" And the everyday is rhapsodically romanticized in 1924's "The Enchanted Train," a paean to (so help me) the Long Island Rail Road: Though the ride is bumpy, noisy, and dirty, it's magic, for "it brings the commuters home" to their sweethearts. Who could argue with that?
Now for some quibbling. Unfamiliar as these songs are to the general public, they're known to Kern fans and enthusiasts of early musicals, so a little more archaeology wouldn't have hurt. Why waste two tracks on "You're the Top" and "Anything Goes," Cole Porter songs with minor Wodehouse lyrical revisions for West End audiences? Why spotlight "Go, Little Boat," from Miss 1917--a melody exquisite even by Kern standards, but a stiff of a lyric? So many worthier Wodehouse efforts have been overlooked. Even the titles hint at the riches: "Nesting Time in Flatbush," "Tulip Time in Sing Sing," "Cleopatterer." A Volume 2 could fix that.
McNair and Cazalet, both operatically trained, work overtime to convince you they're not slumming aesthetes, just regular folks with big voices. Their duets on "You're the Top" and "Oh, Gee! Oh, Joy!" are so hyper that they practically fly off the CD carousel. The pair do well in quieter renditions of songs like "You Never Knew About Me" and "My Castle in the Air" (even if Cazalet insists on pronouncing it "cah-stle"). They're helped by Steven Blier's expert piano and some nifty banjo and ukelele work from Greg Utzig and Mark Stewart. Still, she's often turned up to 11 when 7 will do, and his tenor goes a little Dudley Do-Right in its upper reaches.
But why be churlish when the material is this specialized, and special? Wodehouse's lyrics, in addition to being luckily wedded most often to Kern's music, have a grace and civility that the musical theater has seldom matched in the past 75 years. They're nimble, they're ingenious, they really rhyme, and they got me smiling during the week of September 11--no small feat. If this CD's creators can achieve their stated goal of working these songs back into the public consciousness, the new millennium will surely seem a little less awful.