Major Composers


It is a remarkable fact that Jewish composers and lyricists produced a vastly disproportionate share of the songs that make up the Great American Songbook.

The children of immigrants who came to America to escape anti-Semitism and settled in New York’s Eastside, hustled to make a living in the thriving music business. Those who became composers drew upon Jewish melodies and the lyricists upon Jewish wit and earthiness.

JEROME KERN (1885-1945) was one of the most important theatre composers of the early 20th century. He wrote more than 700 songs, used in over 100 stage works, collaborating with lyricists such as Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, and Yip Harburg. He wrote the music for the first “book” musical. “Show Boat”, in 1927, when songs were an integral part of the plot, creating the model for musicals to come.


HARRY WARREN (1892-1961) wasn’t from Jewish but Italian immigrants, but his story was the same. Through great musical talent, he rose to the top of his profession as a composer for movies. Collaborating with lyricists Al Dubin, Mack Gordan, and Johnny Mercer, he won three Academy Awards for Best Original Song out of eleven nominations and had more hit songs than even Irving Berlin, including the immortal “At Last.”

JIMMY VAN HEUSEN (1913-1990) wrote songs for films, television and theater, and won an Emmy and four Academy Awards for Best Original Song. In Hollywood, he teamed with Johnny Burke on songs for Bing Crosby and then with Sammy Cahn on songs for Sinatra.

HAROLD ARLEN (1905–1986) composed over 500 songs, a number of which have become known worldwide. He famously wrote the music for the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" (lyrics by Yip Harburg), including "Over the Rainbow", as well as many other standards, all with a jazz flavor.

SONNY BURKE (1914–1980) was an arranger, composer, Big Band leader and producer. His notable achievements were composing songs such as “BlackCoffee,” writing the music for “Lady and the Tramp” with Peggy Lee, and working as a producer for major record labels.

OVER THE RAINBOW is considered by some the greatest movie song of all time, The tune itself is pop perfection. At just over two minutes, its lilting, free-floating melody and uplifting orchestral backing perfectly evoke Dorothy’s hopes of leaving the only home she’s known. Judy Garland’s delicate, hopeful vocal performance is the definitive version.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) ranked it number one on their Songs of the Century list. The American Film Institute named it the best movie song on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs.

“Show Boat” - NPR

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Broadway musical was in its adolescence. There were two kinds of shows in those days. You had the musical comedies, giddy, glittering entertainments with jazz scores by songwriters like George and Ira Gershwin. And then there were the operettas, set in grand faraway places with lush scenery and serious music by composers like Sigmund Romberg. Then in 1927, a show by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II opened. It was called "Show Boat," and with it, the Broadway musical took its first step into adulthood.

"Show Boat" was unlike any musical before it. Based on Edna Ferber's novel of the same name, the show unflinchingly dealt with themes like race relations, middle-aged disappointment with young love, and the ravaging effects of alcoholism. It was also one of the first Broadway shows to feature an integrated cast, all this when the average musical was little more than frivolous entertainment. Musical theater historian Miles Kreuger, who wrote a book about "Show Boat," says that composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II broke new ground.

"Like the novel itself, the text of the musical is not just a story about a boy and a girl or a couple of boys and a couple of girls," Kreuger says. "It's the story of an entire vision of a way of life in early America from the late 19th century up to the time of the show, which was 1927. It's a panorama. It's the kind of thing that nobody ever envisioned as a canvas for musical comedy."

"Show Boat" opened at Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27th, 1927, and was a towering success. It ran for 572 performances, has been revived frequently, in film three times. Many of the songs have become standards. But most important, "Show Boat" pointed the way towards a more substantial kind of musical theater, the kind Oscar Hammerstein II would later write with Richard Rodgers and the kind of musical theater still being written today.

Hal Prince elaborates: "It influenced all of us who ever wanted to work in musicals in the best conceivable way because it was serious and because it was integrated, and it was courageous."

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“Lullaby of Broadway”
Harry Warren-Al Dubin
Oscar Winner 1935

"High Hopes"
Van Heusen - Cahn
Oscar WInner 1958

“Over the Rainbow”
Harold Arlem-Yip Harburg
Oscar Winner 1939

“Lady and the Tramp,
What a Dog”
Sonny Burke-Peggy Lee

Cast Ensemble "Show Boat"
“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat
Man o’ Mine”
Kern- Oscar Hammerstein II