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BOOK REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY : Everything You Need to Know About Musicals and More : BOLTON AND WODEHOUSE AND KERN / The Men Who Made Musical Comedy by Lee Davis ; Heineman$29.95, illustrated, 455 pages

July 15, 1994|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although a biography of any one of these three prolific writers would have been a daunting challenge in itself, Lee Davis has taken on the monumental job of dealing with all of them in a single volume. Their professional lives are a virtual history of the development of musical theater, from the giddy diversions of the 1920s to the comparative solemnity of contemporary productions, a progression exhaustively researched and chronicled by the author.

He also dutifully includes plot summaries, names of cast members, snippets of dialogue, a verse or two of lyrics, and set descriptions for every show in which his subjects were involved from 1916 to 1965, mentioning even those that remained unproduced. Add triple helpings of personal material--the assorted marriages, children, extramarital affairs, moves from England to France to America, collaborations with other writers and composers, and the result is a book that leaves even the most dedicated student of musical theater not humming, but reeling.

Davis' prime intent is to refute the popular notion that the modern musical comedy began in 1943 with "Oklahoma!" He contends that his three subjects, either individually, in tandem or in troika, were writing plotted musicals decades earlier, offering examples to prove the point. Often turning on disguises, mistaken identities and a favorite Bolton-Wodehouse ploy--comic crooks--these shows departed from the vaudeville tradition by placing the songs within a narrative context.

Ramshackle as these plots now appear, they delighted Jazz Age audiences and were the hottest ticket in an era when several hundred Broadway attractions opened each season. While the stories seem impossibly silly by contemporary standards, the P.G. Wodehouse lyrics were intricately rhymed and the Jerome Kern music sophisticated and memorable.

Guy Bolton, who fashioned most of these merry librettos, thought of himself as a serious dramatist, although his lighthearted works vastly outnumber his more solemn efforts. (Although he did write "Anastasia," an adaptation from a French play by Marcelle Maurette, and a short-lived drama based upon the marriage of Winston and Clementine Churchill, Bolton's successes were overwhelmingly comedic.)

Many of these three-way collaborations were done at the relatively intimate Princess Theater, departing from the lavish operetta formula by using only two sets, small choruses, young (read unknown) actors, simple costumes, and the engaging Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern team. Davis cites a 1915 production, "Nobody Home" as the first truly modern musical, although a precis of the plot and a few quoted jokes suggest that the author may be stretching a point.

The actual watershed between sheer frivolity and contemporary musical theater seems to have been "Showboat" in 1927, with music by Kern, adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II from the Edna Ferber novel. Kern, in fact, no longer worked regularly with Bolton and Wodehouse after a financial contretemps in 1917, although the trio temporarily reassembled from time to time until 1924, when the rift apparently became permanent. Bolton and Wodehouse would remain inseparable collaborators and comrades until they died in their 90s, Wodehouse in 1975 and Bolton four years later.

All but swamped by a plethora of research, Davis has attempted to enliven his encyclopedic work with stylistic flourishes, the most curious of which is a penchant for galloping alliteration.

When Bolton's lover Marguerite presents him with a baby daughter, he realizes that it's time to "legalize a liaison and legitimate his daughter." An attempt to finance a new production shows a lack of "clout with Comstock," leading to an "afternoon of arguing," but ending happily in the "skyrocketing success" of "Say When."

When Kern becomes ill in Paris, a doctor not only diagnoses the "malaise as measles," but condemns him to "ten days of darkness and disuse" . . . away from the "springtime splendor" around him. At one point, the Boltons rent a house with a driveway that disappears "among lilacs and loveliness."

Entire paragraphs are turned into tongue-twisters by this device. Other efforts at vivid writing are equally disconcerting. We have Bolton "not resting on one laurel," and Wodehouse busily writing "not to let any moss grow on his northern extremities."

Editing seems to have been somewhat haphazard, with many names inconsistently spelled or entirely wrong, a self-perpetuating disaster in a work that will be used for reference. Few of the enormous cast of tangential characters are ever introduced or explained.

Even so, "Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern" helps to illuminate a somewhat obscure segment of American theatrical history, celebrating an extraordinarily productive association.

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