NEW YORK — The American musical comedy and the American musical theater are two separate entities--but Jerome Kern was a pioneer in both forms.
So says Sylvia Fine Kaye, the wife of Danny Kaye, who also is a producer, writer, composer, lyricist and teacher--and who produced, wrote and hosts "Musical Comedy Tonight III," to air on PBS Friday (8 p.m. on Channel 24, 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15).
The 90-minute show features songs and scenes from the early works of Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and Irving Berlin, among others.
"This is the show I have always wanted to do," Fine said in an interview. "It's about the start of musical comedy and I call it 'the spark and the glue.' "
"Lyrics are what distinguish musical comedy from every form that went before; they are literate, funny, crisp."
She said the origins of musical comedy go back to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Cosi fan Tutte." No one paid any attention, she said, until along came the first real lyricist, Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan.
"He has yet to be topped. He was the Shakespeare of lyricists," Fine said.
The American musical comedy, she said, began with the collaboration of P. G. Wodehouse and Kern at New York's Princess Theater in 1916.
"The spark that started it was Jerome Kern," she said, "and it developed with the unprecedented and singular talent of the 1920s that was just sensational--with composers such as Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Ira Gershwin. There was an enormous outpouring of talent in the '20s.
"It's very interesting because Jerome Kern, who was the father of musical comedy in this country, also started another new form--he teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein to start what is called musical theater. He did that with 'Showboat' is 1927, although that form was not picked up again until Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Carrousel' in 1945."
Featured songs in "Musical Comedy Tonight III" include the title number from "Leave It to Jane" (Kern and Wodehouse, 1917), "Fascinating Rhythm" from "Lady, Be Good!" (George and Ira Gershwin, 1924), "Heat Wave" from "As Thousands Cheers" (Berlin, 1933), "Falling in Love With Love" and "This Can't Be Love" from "The Boys From Syracuse" (Rodgers and Hart, 1938).
Performers on "Musical Comedy Tonight III" include Eddie Albert, Kaye Ballard, Florence Henderson, Donna McKechnie, Roberta Peters, Elaine Stritch and Dick Van Dyke.