Time after time: Jule Styne, 1905-94: an appreciation

JULE STYNE, who has died at 88, had a new show on Broadway only last year. The show, The Red Shoes, was a disaster but to have got it on at all at his age is an achievement, unequalled by any other composer. In that sense it was a fitting finale. Styne, only four years younger than Richard Rodgers, got to Broadway 20 years later; but made up for lost time by writing music for 22 staged shows. Before that he had written songs for countless movies, but even in Hollywood he had been a late starter, coming to the job after working as a pianist, bandleader and vocal coach.

Like Rodgers - though as bubbling and enthusiastic as Rodgers was reserved - he proved to be an all-round, besotted theatrical, producing as well as composing. He had a sense for drama. With some roots in swing, he mostly wrote shows with Broadway tempi, Broadway sentiments and Broadway guts: the greatest of them Gypsy, with its searing strip-motif overture. His lyricists included, in rough order of frequency, Sammy Cahn (mainly in Hollywood and often for Sinatra), Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Bob Merrill, Leo Robin, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, and E Y Harburg (who, when I described Styne to him as 'optimistic', looked at me and said, 'you are a master of understatement').

He was, if I may split hairs, a strong composer rather than a fine one. His Forties hits, such as 'Five Minutes More' and 'It's Been a Long, Long Time', are more nostalgia-objects than standards. Discerning singers are likelier to feature the more distilled love-songs of Jimmy Van Heusen. Van Heusen, though, lacked the muscle that enabled Styne to compose Ethel Merman's scarifyingly exuberant numbers in Gypsy or to furnish 'It's a Perfect Relationship', Judy Holliday's expository song in Bells Are Ringing, with a beguiling tune that far transcended strict dramatic function. One of his proudest boasts was that he always knew how, and what, to write for stars; this included writing tunes that smile. His ballads, for the most part, lack this transcendence; numbers such as 'The Party's Over' or 'Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry' seem to have sights set on being a particular kind of tune - sophisticated lament or wistful torch-song - and to fit comfortably into the required mould. But there are exceptions. 'Time After Time', from the 1947 film It Happened in Brooklyn, is an ardent masterpiece, inevitable without being predictable. Much later 'The Music that Makes Me Dance', from Funny Girl, takes the torch-song, on a continuous melodic line, back to the blues. And in Peter Pan - his most durable show after Gypsy - 'Never Never Land' is a long- lined beauty.

As a man Styne had his share of demons, including a gambling habit that nearly destroyed him. He also had an ear that drove musicians mad; they could never get away with anything. As a worker and a conversationalist, he was galvanic: a small, bespectacled, copper-haired man, juggling projects and talking about them ceaselessly. He had boundless ego, but not, I think, conceit; he was generous and genuine, and in some ways childlike. Even I, who hardly knew him, will miss him.

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