Obituary: Jule Styne

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Julius Kerwin Stein (Jule Styne), songwriter, composer: born London 31 December 1905; married (two sons, one daughter); died New York City 20 September 1994.

IT WAS a few nights before Christmas '93, and the last of the Broadway giants, the composer of 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' and 'Everything's Coming Up Roses', the guy who'd supplied all those sidewalk Santas and shopping malls with 'Let It Snow] Let It Snow] Let It Snow]', this short dapper man a week or two shy of his 88th birthday was enthusing about his new musical, The Red Shoes, writes Mark Steyn. 'The theatre is the closest form of collaboration there is,' Jule Styne told me and, musing on Bosnia and the Middle East, added: 'The world should be more like the

theatre.'

Really? In the preceding weeks, Styne and his producer on Red Shoes had fired so many of his closest collaborators that Broadway's schadenfreude set had rechristened the show The Pink Slips (a pink slip is the American equivalent of a P45). The director had been sacked, her successor had come and gone, a new lyricist had been brought in and most of the principals had been replaced, including the leading man Roger Rees. ('Nice fellow,' said Styne, generously.) Saddam Hussein's regime may need lessons in brotherly love, but probably not from a Jule Styne musical.

On a Styne show, the press agent would always assure you that all was calm, and then, from behind the door, you'd hear Jule yelling. 'I like to yell,' he'd say. 'So what?' Yelling had worked on Funny Girl, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . . . Yelling had helped make him the most successful composer of the post-war era. He lived long enough to see Broadway, once American popular culture's central thruway, crumble away to a sleepy backroad, but he remained a last reminder of the days when theatre composers were also Hit Parade giants. When he yelled, he waved his arms around, and you noticed that he wore a gold bracelet. On the inside, the inscription read: 'To Jule, who knew me when - Frankie' - a present from Sinatra, delivered by Cartier's the morning after the singer's first ever solo concert.

He yelled at Sinatra, too. 'Frank said in the papers that he didn't like my song 'People'. So he didn't like it. So it was top of the charts. So what does he know?' But people who need people are the luckiest people in the world, and Styne never forgot which people composers need. 'I've been very fortunate in having my songs sung by the greatest male singer and the greatest female singer,' he said, referring to his former flat-mate (Sinatra) and a funny girl he helped make a star (Streisand).

As Styne saw it: 'Without the rendition, there is no song.' But look at it the other way: a kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but Jule Styne's a girl's best friend. Streisand doing 'Don't Rain On My Parade', Merman in 'Rose's Turn', Judy Holliday when 'The Party's Over', Marilyn Monroe as that little girl from Little Rock: great stars, but their signature songs were all provided by Styne.

He never set out to write songs. Jule was a child impressionist on London stages before the First World War. At the Hippodrome, he did his Harry Lauder routine on a night Sir Harry happened to be present. After sitting through young Jule's rendition of 'Roamin' in the Gloamin' ', the great Scot gave him some advice: 'When you do impressions, you're never anyone in your own right. Do something of your own. Learn the piano or something.' By the time the family moved to Chicago, the impressionist had become a pianist. As a teenager, he played in concert halls and whorehouses.

He wrote his first hit, 'Sunday', in 1926, and then virtually nothing for 15 years. Instead, he became a vocal coach, which gave him a keen insight into singers ('Frank sings the words,' he said. 'The other fellers sing the notes'). He wound up in Hollywood, at Republic Pictures, which specialised in westerns. 'I did everything,' Styne said. 'I coached Gene Autrey, I coached his horse, I washed his horse . . .' After the lyricist on his first composing assignment at Republic, Frank Loesser, had brought him to Paramount, Styne had the first of his great wartime hits with 'I Don't Want to Walk Without You, Baby'. 'He knew the song was too good to waste on Republic,' recalled Styne. 'He was that kind of schemer. A wonderful guy.'

With Sammy Cahn, Styne followed up with 'I'll Walk Alone' - or 'I'll Walk Cologne', as some waggish GI scrawled on a German tank. 'We tried to stay one step ahead of the generals,' Cahn once explained to me. 'One day I looked at the maps and I said to Jule: 'You know, I think the boys'll be coming home soon.' So we wrote, 'Kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again, It's Been A Long, Long Time'.'

They were assignment songwriters. One morning, Styne called Cahn: 'Frank wants a Christmas song.' Cahn's initial reaction was: 'Who needs a Christmas song after 'White Christmas'?', but, as he liked to say: When you get 'Frank' and 'wants' in that order, you don't have much choice in the matter. With consummate Tin Pan Alley economy, they slowed down a warm-up tune Styne used to play just to loosen his fingers, called it 'The Christmas Waltz' and that was that. They wrote 'Let It Snow] . . .' on the hottest day in July. 'I wanted to go to the beach and cool off,' Cahn remembered, 'but Jule said: 'Let's go write a winter song.' ' All songwriters write their Christmas songs in summer, but come the winter only Styne and Cahn were shrewd enough to write 'The Things We Did Last Summer'.

'The things Sammy and I wrote - 'It's Magic', 'It seems to me I've Heard That Song Before' - people say: 'Oh, I got married to that' or 'It reminds me of the war'. But they're just pop songs. I wrote 'Three Coins in the Fountain' in 10 minutes and they gave me an Oscar for it. But that's just songwriting, and that's why I moved into the theatre, where your work has value, where you write to character and plot point. Almost all the great standards that last are theatre songs.'

Actually, pop or theatre, Styne's best songs have similar qualities, eschewing the usual main theme /repeat /middle section /main theme form for melodies that are built around three- or four-note figures, like 'Just in Time', or grow organically from the slenderest of phrases, like the almost translucent 'Time After Time'. 'Anyone can write clever,' he said. 'The really clever thing is to write simple.' On Broadway, he cut a Runyonesque figure - literally; he blew so much on gambling that the IRS took out liens on his composing royalties; at his Wednesday-night poker games, thousands of dollars would change hands and then they'd argue about who ordered the deluxe pizza. His mercurial brain raced ahead faster than his mouth could cope, so that he tended to leave out every third word or so - 'Stynese', his long-time lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green called it. Transcribed literally, it was gibberish; he once made a complicated point to me about Hollywood arrangers, culminating triumphantly in 'So them becoming that didn't become that.' But, in the flesh as in the music, his drive swept you along. He gave audiences the best overtures since Gershwin: you could coast for 40 minutes on the sheer goodwill engendered by the blaring bump 'n' grind of Gypsy's opening or the rhythmic jitters of Funny Girl.

On a Broadway hung up on recitative and dream ballets, Styne was a reminder of the American musical's more raucous roots - and, as it happens, just about the only one of those ballets which still stands up is the Keystone Kops caper he wrote for Jerome Robbins in High Button Shoes (1947).

Gypsy (1959) remains his masterpiece. Dramatically indestructible, it's produced more cast recordings than any other show. To some of us, it's the greatest of all Broadway musicals; certainly, it's the most Broadway, fusing the two strains of the American musical: the dramatic ambition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical play, set to the sass and swank of musical comedy. Stephen Sondheim has never written better lyrics, and never had better music to put them to.

'Too many writers write self-pity,' said Styne. 'Audiences hate that in characters. In Gypsy, when Rose is deserted by her daughter, she's broke, the act's washed up, we could have had her sing about how miserable she is. Instead, we turned the moment in on itself and wrote 'Everything's Coming Up Roses'.' The finale, a sort of nervous breakdown in song, is Broadway at its best: popular music with serious weight, serious music with popular appeal.

He never quite matched the Gypsy score, though Funny Girl (1964) comes close. But he still composed and he still yelled, the last exponent of that distinctive Broadway combination of ruthless street savvy and childlike naivete, a man with a huge ego and a talent that more than matched. He was sentimental about London, returning to his home town for Bar Mitzvah Boy with Don Black and Jack Rosenthal. At 3.30 one afternoon, I remember him vigorously defending the decision to change the title: 'It's not a Jewish musical. That's why we've renamed it Song For A Saturday.' By 7.30, they'd changed it back to Bar Mitzvah Boy, and he was defending that just as vigorously: 'I never liked Song for a Saturday anyway.' Showbiz is a bullshit business, but Styne always sounded as if he believed everything he said, at least at the moment he said it.

He outlived the Broadway he loved. His last obsession, The Red Shoes, took 10 years of his life to reach the Gershwin Theatre and lasted just four days. With Jelly's Last Jam playing up the road, they nicknamed it, prophetically, Jule's Last Jam. But he bounced back, bubbling over Bette Midler's remake of Gypsy, a smash for CBS; 'Make Someone Happy', revived for Sleepless in Seattle; 'Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry', on the new Sinatra album . . . 'Melody just pours out of Jule,' said Arthur Laurents, his librettist on Gypsy. 'If you don't like a tune, he'll come in the next morning, throw down a new one and announce: 'Gentlemen, my next hit.' And he's usually right.'

He wrote a song about a hotshot agent, Mister Goldstone: there are good stones and bad stones and gallstones and Gladstones, but Goldstone's a gem. On Broadway, there are all kinds of steins - Bernsteins and Blitzsteins and flop steins and hit steins. But Jule Styne was tops.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments