Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


SECAUCUS musical discoveries

Apart from jokes about New Jersey, the town of Secaucus in that state is famous for two things: pig farmer Henry Krajewski, who used to be a perennial candidate for president; and the discovery of a treasurehouse of musical manuscripts there.

Back when Warner Brothers was just a movie studio, long before WWII, it briefly got into the music business, owning several music publishers (see WEA). In 1982, Warner Brothers Music executive Henry Cohen gave Donald Rose a list of some musical items thought to be stored at a company warehouse in Secaucus. Rose was an orchestrator with a particular interest in George Gershwin's music; he contacted music theater historian Robert Kimball, and with the help of Warner executives and Ira Gershwin, they discovered an astonishing trove of 80 crates containing over 20,000 items by most of the important figures of the American musical stage, dating up through the mid-1930s.

Gershwin, for example, wrote over 500 songs between 1913 and 1937, most with lyrics by Ira, but only about half were published. Ninety Gershwin manuscripts turned up in the trove. Period orchestrations were also discovered: nobody really knew what the original productions of shows like Strike Up The Band really sounded like, because the arrangements had been buried (if not thrown away: after a show's initial run, they were often thought to be of no use).
Among the Gershwin songs were 'A Corner Of Heaven With You' (the same tune later used with Ira's new lyrics to make 'The Hurdy-Gurdy Man'). The original early song showed Gershwin experimenting with the traditional 32-bar structure, stating the initial eight-bar strain twice, with variations, delaying the release. The original orchestration and lead sheet of the big hit 'Somebody Loves Me' included a patter section unheard since George White's Scandals of 1924. Gershwin's London musical Primrose had been thought lost, but the original orchestrations were in Secaucus; the show was performed in a concert version in 1987, and 'Naughty Baby' (which had been published, but remained obscure) got a lot of attention. All these turned up on the Maureen McGovern CD Naughty Baby in 1989, and meanwhile in 1987 (the 50th anniversary of Gershwin's death) there was a lot of activity all over the USA and on PBS; McGovern sang at several events and in concert revivals of Of Thee I Sing (1931) and Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933), which were also recorded by CBS Masterworks (conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas).

Another specialist who explored the Secaucus trove was conductor and archivist John McGlinn. He had a special interest in the Princess musicals of Jerome Kern, giddy, innocent confections from 1900-20 that were first mounted at the Princess Theater. He had taken part in a revival of Kern's Show Boat (1927) in Houston, Texas in 1982; it had been revived (and shortened) several times, and McGlinn was trying to restore it when the Secaucus discovery happened, which he compared to opening King Tut's tomb. His next albums were a recording of Gershwin overtures and dance music using the original orchestrations, and another called Kiri Sings Gershwin, with soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, released by EMI. He went on to record Jerome Kern's Sitting Pretty (1924), and Show Boat. The recordings were definitively complete: Show Boat of course is considered to be the beginning of the modern American musical show; the three-disc album had 3.5 hours of music including songs that had been cut from the show, variants, revival music, film music and more. A single disc of the McGlinn recording was also released, representing the score as it would have been heard on opening night. McGlinn's other studio recordings were albums like Broadway Showstoppers, Kurt Weill on Broadway and a Jerome Kern Treasury, showcasing both obscure and well-known songs from shows, presenting them as originally intended. McGlinn also helped to restore and/or conducted revivals of the original versions of Vincent Youman's No No Nanette (1925), Cole Porter's Gay Divorce (1932), Gershwin's Anything Goes (1934), Rodgers & Hart's On Your Toes (1936), and later works. On some of his recordings, McGlinn did cameos: on Show Boat, he was a pianist at the Trocadero, when Magnolia is auditioning for a job.

McGlinn embarked in 2001 on a project to restore and record the complete works of Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert, with backing from the Packard Humanities Institute, which no doubt would have made great use of the Secaucus archive, but he left after a year. Cabaret singer Michael Feinstein has also worked in the Secaucus mine. No doubt scholars will be studying the discoveries for a long time to come.