KENNETH TYNAN called Jule Styne 'the most persistently underrated of popular composers'. It was 1959 and he was reviewing the original Broadway production of Gypsy. Although Gypsy was Styne's eighth full theatre score, and his list of show-tunes already included 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend', 'A Little Girl from Little Rock', 'Bye Bye, Baby', 'Just in Time', 'Long Before I Knew You' and 'The Party's Over', his name had not yet gained the prestige that was due this prolifically melodic
He was born Julius Stein in 1905 in the East End of London. (He later changed his second name to Styne, to avoid confusion and competition with the agent Julius Stein.) Jule (pronounced 'Julie') showed a precocious musical talent, and his Jewish-Ukrainian parents arranged piano lessons for him when he was only six. The family moved to the United States in 1912, and the lessons began again when they had settled in Chicago. A child prodigy at nine, Jule was a piano soloist with the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Detroit and St Louis. He won a scholarship to the Chicago College of Music, but jazz soon replaced the classics in his affections, and he played with various bands in the Chicago area. In 1926, while working as pianist/arranger for the Arnold Johnson Orchestra, he wrote his first song hit. Although 'Sunday' was recorded by such artists as Cliff Edwards, Gene Austin and the Gene Goldkette Orchestra, Styne did little composing during the next decade, feeling that 'only old people wrote songs'. He formed his own Chicago dance band. (Al Capone once insisted on conducting Styne's musicians in 'Rhapsody in Blue', a decision that went unopposed.) After some success as a vocal coach in New York, he was brought to Hollywood by 20th Century- Fox to work with such contract artists as Shirley Temple, Alice Faye, Tony Martin and the Ritz Brothers. In 1940, Fox dropped his option and Styne was forced to take a job at the lowly Republic studio. For two years he ground out songs for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers westerns and low-budget musicals with such titles as Barnyard Follies and the surreal Sing, Dance, Plenty Hot.
His career shifted unexpectedly into high gear in 1941 when he was assigned to yet another bucolic musical, Sis Hopkins. Given his choice of lyricist, he plumped for Frank Loesser , who was under contract to Paramount. When Loesser arrived at Republic, he was furious at being loaned against his will to a third-rate quickie factory. However, when Styne began to play him a ballad he had composed for the film, Loesser's entire demeanour changed; he closed the door and hissed, 'Stop] Don't ever play that tune here again - it's too good for Republic] Listen, when I get back to Paramount, I'll get them to borrow you, and we'll write it over there]'
After the completion of the Sis Hopkins score, Loesser indeed arranged for Paramount to borrow Styne, and they wrote their ballad, now called 'I Don't Want to Walk Without You', for that studio's Sweater Girl (1942). After successful recordings by the Harry James band (vocal by Helen Forrest), Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby, the song became one of the anthems of the Second World War.
When Loesser left for army service, Styne found the ideal collaborator in Sammy Cahn. Together, they turned out so many hit songs that Styne later described their success as 'embarrassing'. During the 1940s alone they wrote 'There Goes That Song Again', 'I've Heard That Song Before', 'Let It Snow] Let It Snow] Let It Snow]', 'Poor Little Rhode Island', 'I'll Walk Alone', 'I Fall in Love Too Easily', 'Five Minutes More', 'It's Been a Long, Long Time', 'Day by Day', 'Saturday Night (is the Loneliest Night in the Week)', 'Time After Time', 'It's the Same Old Dream', 'It's Magic', 'It's You or No One', and 'Put 'Em in a Box, Tie 'Em with a Ribbon, And Throw 'Em in the Deep Blue Sea'. By now Cahn and Styne had become Frank Sinatra's official songsmiths, and were described by Time as 'Next to Rodgers and Hammerstein, perhaps the most successful songwriting team'.
They also tried the theatre, joining forces on a feeble musical comedy called Glad To See You] (1944). The Variety critic who reviewed the show during its troubled Philadelphia tryout wrote: 'Despite beautiful gals, gorgeous production, nice score and dancing, it won't be ready for Broadway for quite a while.' (The show never was, closing ignominiously out of town.)
Cahn and Styne's first musical to reach New York was High Button Shoes (1947), which ran for 727 performances and established Phil Silvers as a Broadway star. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), written with the veteran lyricist Leo Robin, was even more successful, and except for an occasional Hollywood foray - he rejoined Cahn to write 'Three Coins in the Fountain', winner of the 1954 Academy Award for Best Song - Styne was now committed to musical theatre.
With Betty Comden and Adolph Green, he wrote the Bert Lahr-Dolores Gray revue Two on the Aisle (1951), the Judy Holliday vehicle Bells are Ringing (1956), Say, Darling (1958), Do Re Mi (1960), Subways are for Sleeping (1961), Fade Out - Fade In (1964), Hallelujah, Baby] (1967), Lorelei (a 1974 re-vamp of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and added songs to Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh's musical version of Peter Pan (1954).
Although Styne's most distinguished achievement was the score he and Stephen Sondheim wrote for Gypsy, his longest-running musical was Funny Girl (1964), which launched Barbra Streisand's stardom, introduced such standards as 'Don't Rain On My Parade', 'The Music That Makes Me Dance' and 'People', and notched up 1,348 performances.
Styne produced his own musical Hazel Flagg (1951), as well as shows by other composers. He had a flop with Hugh Martin's Make a Wish (1951), but his 1952 revival of Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey ran for 542 performances, a considerably longer run than the original 1940 production. He also produced Mr Wonderful (1956), which brought Sammy Davis Jnr to Broadway, and had a score by George Weiss, Larry Holofcener and the future composer of Fiorello], She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof, Jerry Bock.
In 1978 Styne and Don Black wrote Bar Mitzvah Boy, based on Jack Rosenthal's award-winning television play. It was not well received and managed only 77 performances at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. Sugar (1972), one of the four musicals Styne wrote with his Funny Girl collaborator Bob Merrill, was briefly revived at the Prince Edward Theatre by Tommy Steele as Some Like it Hot (1992). Merrill also worked on Styne's last produced show. Based on the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes, it had a mere three-day run in New York last year at an estimated loss of dollars 8m.
A constant demand for money (he estimated he had gambled away many millions) led Styne to accept a 1977 offer to perform an 'And Then I Wrote' act at the Rainbow Grill, in New York. For a
celebrity-packed six weeks, he sang the most famous of his 1,400 songs, ending with a parody of 'Time After Time'.
I only know what I know -
I bet win, place and show.
It's kept me young and feeling fine.
So time after time,
I tell myself that I'm
So lucky to be Jule Styne.
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content